imomus (imomus) wrote,

Densha Otoko and "our penis"

I went to Flushing Mall yesterday and happened to pick up a cheap DVD of the movie Densha Otoko. This is the feature film version of the hit TV show "Train Man", which we discussed here last year in the context of whether it mattered that it was "based on a true story".

The "true story" part is absolutely the least interesting thing about Densha Otoko. I have to say I think it's a terrific mainstream movie -- not an original work of art, but one of those commercial films that hits big, obvious, universal themes, and does so deftly, with wit, charm, panache, basic goodness of heart... and a tiny sprinkling of innovation (in this case, the technical novelty that the train man is using an internet bulletin board at every step of the way as an information and advice resource -- Professor Higgins and Woody Allen's Humphrey Bogart transformed into, well, a sort of electronic chorus of guardian angels -- as he attempts to overcome his gaucherie and get the girl).

So much experimental art is "protestant", protesting against... well, against DNA, against normality, against the way things are. Radical, experimental art likes to ask "Why must things be this way?" But it can be powerful when art goes "catholic", goes with the flow, accepts some of the universal laws that govern us and says "Things must be this way!" Call it dharma or call it DNA; when art gets lined up with reality rather than trying to pick at or resist it, well, you risk finding yourself snuffling into a Kleenex, as I did towards the end of this tender-minded, morally upright, lushly sentimental film.

Like DNA itself, the film demands that its anti-hero, the (rather too good-looking) otaku, spruce himself up and make himself fit for reproduction. To do this, he must please the (rather impersonal, and rather too old) personification of dharma, love object (and mazakon icon) Miki Nakatani. Like all universals, Miss Nakatani wisely stays abstract and somewhat absent, giving our hero room to embarrass and improve himself, to bring himself gradually into conformity with the timeless laws she embodies.

Of course, every culture negotiates its relationship to universals by means of its own specificities and particularities; each culture allows local signifiers to stand in privileged proximity to the universal givens of dharma. As you know by now if you know me at all, I respond particularly to the way Japanese people have negotiated their relationship to these universals (nature, reproduction, society). This means that, whereas I tend to favour destructive, marginal, experimental art coming from the West, art that asks "Why does it have to be this way?", it tends to be mainstream values and mainstream art that I favour in Japan. (I think this explains why I've only ever had commercial success as a songwriter in Japan; in the West I want to "sing perversity", whereas in Japan I'm content to "sing normality".)

We know very well what the West does with this theme: we see it in Woody Allen's Play It Again, Sam. The ghost of Humphrey Bogart is there to give Woody advice ("Just kiss her! Go on!") but basically at a certain moment he's on his own. But the important moment in Train Man comes when our otaku is told by his ghostly internet collective: "You have us all by your side." Like ancestors, they are always with him (under the table, on a handheld wireless device, standing across the subway platform), demanding his conformity to their code. We keep expecting the narrative to dispense with them, to reach a moralistic moment when the Train Man will learn that he must go it alone, but that moment never comes; the bulletin board chorus is still there at the end, distributed across all the neon lights of Akihabara, sending their congratulations.

It is, of course, the triumph of collectivism; even in our lonely, personal struggle to reproduce our DNA, the group is always with us. Our successes and failures are theirs too, and that's a help and a comfort. Even seeking what may seem like the most selfish of satisfactions, the individual is indivisible from the social mass. I thought of a note I scribbled in my notebook last week: just the two words "our penis". A startling combination, because of course we think of the penis as somehow something terribly selfish, a pleasure-seeker, a self-reproducer. We think of it as "mine", the very essence of male individuality. But what if the penis were a collective property? What if the male penis were actually owned by the women who are able to excite and erect it? What if the penis of a living man (and I mean, specifically, his DNA) were actually owned by his ancestors, and his descendents? What if the penis were guided, not by an individual, but by a collective? The penis which seems so much of the "now" and of the "me" might, in fact, be piloted by the future, and by someone else; not by "now" but by "then", and not by "me" so much as by "us" or even "them".

Densha Otoko struck me as an "our penis" sort of movie; a film in which a woman (a sort of mother) stands between the isolated, unsocialised male hero and a universal, collective dharma, coaxing him through many small acts of faltering self-improvement, obedience and consideration towards a final, overwhelmingly beautiful submission. The film never shows the sexual intercourse these events must lead to, but we're left in no doubt: it will be a crowd scene.

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