July 11th, 2005


Trainman: lie or copy?

It's business as usual over on Neomarxisme: American St Georges are crusading to free Japan of its dragons, even when these "dragons" consist of the entire population of the country and all its institutions. Yesterday's dragon victims were the credulous Japanese public and the PR-driven publishing and media companies that lie to them. Marxy turned his attention to Densha Otoko, the "Trainman" story which began as an advice thread on BBS 2-ch, became a best-selling book, is now a film and a Fuji TV serial, and will soon see manga and, inevitably, porn spoof spin-offs. Trainman is a 22 year-old otaku or hikikomori type who's never dated a girl. He saves one from the attentions of a drunk on a train, and starts a 2-ch thread asking for advice on what to do next, very much as Allan in Woody Allen's Play It Again Sam solicits advice from an imaginary Humphrey Bogart. Well, thanks to the thousands of Bogarts giving him advice on the bulletinboard, the nerdy Trainman transforms himself into a cool dude and wins the girl in the end.

It's always interesting to read Marxy's pieces on Japanese pop culture (although readers of Jean Snow's excellent site learned about the Trainman saga eight months ago) but unfortunately there comes a moment in each one when he climbs atop a soapbox and delivers a sermon, an editorial, a complaint or a jeremiad concerning Japan's "original sin" or "termial decline". This usually involves a conspiracy of some kind, a lie by the authorities, or an idiocy on the part of the public. Sure enough, this time Marxy is irritated that the Trainman story is being presented as "a true story". He suspects that the whole thing was fabricated. In order to help him (and his many Junior St Georges, like the American who suggests, in the comments, that Marxy should alert the New York Times Tokyo bureau to the fraud, which would otherwise be covered up by the complicit Japanese media), I've gone through the Trainman plot stage by stage, assigning probabilities to each twist in the form of percentages. (0% = I think this didn't happen, 100% = I think it happened.)

1. Chance encounter in the train. May have happened, or may be a figment of Trainman's imagination. I'll give it 50%.

2. Saves girl from a drunk. A lot of chikkans and drunks abound on Tokyo trains, 90% likely.

3. Receives a set of Hermes teacups from her as a thank-you gift. Japanese do give a lot of gifts, but I find this somewhat excessive. 35% likely.

4. Obsesses online on whether or not to telephone her and ask for a date. More and more Japanese obsess online, 99% likely.

5. Finally plucks up the courage to call her and they agree to meet for dinner -- his first ever date with a woman. A 22 year-old hikikomori seems plausible to me. I myself didn't really have a proper date until I was 21, and I left home, which is more than these hikis do. 72% likely.

6. With the advice of his online supporters, he gets a stylish new haircut, buys new clothes, and decides to get contact lenses. I've seen a lot of Hair and Make salons, clothes shops and contact lens shops around Tokyo, I'll give this 100% on the credibility scale.

7. They have another dinner date, at which a friend of hers checks him out. Friends do tend to check you out, and are useful as chaperones if the fellow is too impatient, or conversation partners should he be tongue-tied. 87%.

8. They start exchanging cell-phone messages daily. 10,475,630 cell-phone messages fly across Japan daily, this is 100% true, I feel.

9. In April they have tea together at her home using the gift teacups. I smell a fish, didn't she give the teacups to him? So what are they doing at her home? 25%.

10. In May he goes shopping with her for a computer. May is a busy time at Sofmap, I'll buy that at 68%.

11. Later that day in a park he confesses his feelings to her and she reveals that she returns them. Pure otaku wish-fulfillment. This isn't a Yon-Sama melodrama, you know! Get back to your porn sites! 25%.

12. They kiss for the first time. Oh honestly, who would believe that? Wouldn't the birthrate be higher if this sort of thing were so easy? 7%.

Okay, perhaps I made my point. Art is "the lie that tells the truth", and the moment we write anything down for entertainment purposes, it becomes art. That doesn't stop its archetypes—boys meets girl, Bogart guides nerd—from remaining deeply true.

It's impossible, and pretty pointless, to disentangle truth from fabrication in a cultural product, just as it's impossible, often, to attribute ownership to a big archetypal idea, an idea that comes out of common lived experience. But, deep in the epistemological morass of the "truth v. fiction" angle, Marxy has missed a shot at one of his favourite themes, Japanese pakuri or plagiarism. Someone called Steve Stratton signed Jean Snow's comments page in April with a claim to have written "Densha Man" with the same title and same plot , based on his own experiences in Japan, ten years ago. Stratton claims to have published extracts on the web six years ago. "Be assured," he says bitterly, "when the movie goes into production, my lawyers will be hunting for the Japanese clown who wrote the utter piece of crap Densha Otoko."

I look forward eagerly to the day Mr Stratton's gaijin Trainman replaces the Japanese copy on Japanese screens, and Marxy writes a tubthumping piece about how the American Trainman is hoodwinking Japan.