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AICN Anime-Getting Geeky With Densha Otoko, Welcome to the NHK and The Anime Encyclopedia

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Column by Scott Green

Live Action Spotlight: train_main : Densha Otoko Released by Viz Pictures

Part of the skepticism that confronts Densha Otoko is that if it never "happened", someone would have invented the scenario. Springing from Japan's titanic online message board 2channel, the "based on true events" modern fairy started when an anonymous poster recounted the story of what happened to him returning from a shopping trip to the geek mecca Akihabara. Sitting on the train, a belligerent, drunken businessman began harassing passengers. When the drunk began causing problems for a young woman, the story's introverted geek was able to muster the courage to suggest that the trouble maker settle down. Soon, the transit police arrived and questioned the involved passengers. After their statements were taken, the young woman asked the geek for his address. Soon, a Hermes tea set arrived as a thank you gift. Referring to himself as "Densha Otoko" or "Train Man" and the young woman as "Hermes", the geek began soliciting advice from the 2Channel community concerning how to pursue the relationship. Roughly, the movie is 10% the meet-cute, 20% cut-aways to the 2channel denizens following the story and 70% Train Man trying to work up the courage to admit that he's interested in Hermes. The message that one shouldn't shut oneself away from the reality in the virtual world of hobbies such as manga, anime, video games or technology isn't a bad one, and Densha Otoko constructs a sweet story around it. In Japan, where there has begun to be a preoccupation with declining birthrates, obsessive otaku and shut in hikikomori, this sort of simple "get out into the world!" story demonstrably had a discernable appeal. However, the movie doesn't really pursue anything other than the appeal of the concept. It is simply telling the audience what they want to hear. If you're a geek: you can be loved. If you're not: hey, these guys just need to get out more. Consequently, the movie engages the story with conceptual purity. Both of the principals are paper thin characters. Even the stereotypical 2channel readers chorus are given more gray areas in the quick depictions of their problems than the central drama of Otoko Densha. There is nothing to suggest that Train Man and Hermes are specific people. They aren't A geek and A girl, they are THE geek and THE girl. Train Man is a Frog Prince, minus the story of the curse being instituted. He's given neither passions nor problems other than the defining agoraphobia. You don't need to know Takayuki Yamada's background to see that he is playing against type in the role of Train Man. As he shuffles into the shops to buy action figures, it looks like a geek-face performance. Though he remains squirrely throughout the movie, as soon as he gets a haircut and loses the bright green jacket and khaki's that go up to the navel, the proposition that this guy would be socially isolated challenges suspension of disbelief. Nor is the narrative interested in exploring who is his or why he is undergoing his transformation. It doesnít even allow him to make the final breakthrough on his own. The drama of the story is all part of a group phenomenon. Backed by the help of his internet supporters, Train Man is never alone. Other than the initial impulse to help Hermes on the train, everything is with the explicit help and support of anonymous internet correspondence. Hermes is even more of a cipher. She's simply the nice girl from the nice background. When a scene shows her on the job, speaking English to international businessmen, it feels like the movie broke a wall and for a moment, surprisingly, revealed something substantial and particular about a character. She never engages him on an interactive, natural level. The movie's most human, most comedic moment comes when Train Man goes out to eat at a high class restaurant with Hermes and her friend. When Train Man can't figure out how to eat a lobster or deal with the problem gracefully, the friend challenges him "do people call you spacey?" "...sometimes", "not all the time?" Other than this, the closest thing to contradiction is when Hermes asks Train Man if he really ought to be calling her from work. The movie attempts to compensate for its flatness by injecting vibrancy in the form of a bright color palette, but at an hour forty two minutes, the blandness of the characters eventually clips away at all of the good will established by the niceness of the meeting. By the time it is has built to the false drama of the "will they stay together!?!" climax, it has had to completely abandon reality to enliven Train Man's crisis of confidence and his ultimate admission of feeling for Hermes. A function of the extra space around these characters is that it allows the movie to be interpreted. Especially as the sets and fantasies begin melding, the observer can and perhaps should question what's a sweet conceit of fate and what never really happened. Whether the movie warrants diving into this intellectual rabbitís hole is debatable, but the entrances certainly is present. Perhaps with this in mind, Viz put together an outstanding release for the featured, capped by a commentary track from Patrick Macias, Tomohiro Machiyama (authors of Cruising the Anime City : An Otaku Guide to Neo Tokyo) and JAY Track. These well spoken and enthusiastic experts provide the texture that the over-sanitized movie lacks. They offer theories on the movie, mixed with a broader picture of the Densha Otoko legend, complete with discussion of the pornographic post-script. A level of reality is laid over the phenomenon. The events of Densha Otoko might be an invention, but the message board thread was a real posting. For example, they point out that, as one might expect, rather than the movie's uniform support, in reality the thread was greeted by a far more mixed, more challenging response by other board visitor. The Akihabara landscape, does receive some attention with explanations of some of the non-obvious details on the shops that Train Man walks through, for example, explaining the retail shop where third parties can rent display space for selling their finished models. However, the locale is treated as a proxy subject. The conversation approaches it when it there is a potential inroad, but it isn't a direction that is generally steered towards. The significance of 2channel, receives more attention. The commentary directs attention to how the movie demonstrates the effects of a bulletin board whose role is both familiar to American netizens and something that does not have a have direct parallel. For example, rather than just the target of guerilla campaigns, 2channel apparently represents an active challenge for ad agencies to manage. What makes this commentary must-material for students of Japanese-pop is that is it make quick dissection of what is unique about Japanese culture as well as the mechanisms of interchange between the media, the diehard (socially impaired adherents) and the larger public. Looking at the phenomenon within the dynamic mechanisms that spawned it, the commentary track protects itself from being quickly dated. The focus is on how the culture threads got to a specific point rather than on mapping the exact moment. For example, while it mentions that if the movie had had been made a few months later it would have had to address the popularity of maid cafes, the commentary itself does not bind itself to looking at any specific fans. Because it addresses the forces that propel the ebb and flow of popular acceptance of geeks, it will take a sea change to deplete its shelf like. Listening to the talk unfold is entertaining in and of itself. It seems like there was a loose plan that was quickly thrown out. It also seems like Viz was hoping for something tamer. As the run time stretched on, Tomohiro Machiyama in particular seemed to drift into the more adult aspects of the legend. Though his language wasn't out of line with what was used in the translation, amusingly, a few words were beeped out. The commentary track to credits the number of adaptations not just to the popularity and public receptiveness of the story, but to the fact that the Densha Otoko story itself does not have an enforceable copyright. The DVD's cover advertises "Based on the Japanese Internet Phenomenon," however, it is that connection to the phenomenon rather than the movie itself that is fascinating. The fact that four versions of the story have been release in North America compounds the notoriety of each. The movie itself is more a curious product of shared excitement than it is a convincing or inspirational story. It is so featurelessly smooth, that if it wasn't "based on a true story", it would seem a lazy and unconvincing.

Manga Spotlight: Welcome to the NHK Volume 2 by Kendi Oiwa and Tatsuhiko Takimoto Released by TOKYOPOP

TOKYOPOP recently made news with talk of their revised age ratings systems and the categorized content advisories. Besides the Battle Royale manga, Welcome to the NHK might the closest thing to a work that treats these advisories as a check list. In this case, the nudity and the in-story porn and the drug use and the emotional and physical injury serve as barbs in a comedy of acute discomfort. By finding the breaking point in fandom culture, Welcome to the NHK does for geekdom what a show like Curb Your Enthusiasm does with wealth and comfort. There's a theory, proposed by critics like Mark Kermode, that the appeal of watching horror is in part an act of masochism. The viewer identifies with a person in danger. Comedy can follow suit, but often does not. The expectation for a comedy of geek characters to be consumed by a geek audience is not that it would feel like punching yourself beneath the ribs. In the anime/manga vein, look at Genshiken or even ComicsParty and you find a complementary tone. Instead Welcome to the NHK, the manga is a study in pathology rather than celebration. In this case, you find that the manga wastes no time striking with a Requiem for a Dream/Film Geek solid cross. To quote the PsychommuSlamFest axiom, "Because Anime Destroys Lives!" The hero of Welcome to the NHK is a hikikomori, the professional athlete level of socially avoidant geeks: those who have dropped out of society. By implication, the life style is tied into disappearing into the virtual worlds of pop culture. Satou is a drop out, subsidized by his parents, and thanks to the inspiration of his similarly apartment bound neighbor, deeply engrossed in the demented labor of authoring a pornographic dating game. The manga is able to move because it introduces what should be the ideal agent of improving a life like Satouís. In theory, he'd react well to the interest of an attractive, innocent young woman. This arrives in the form of Misaki, an angelic teen who has made curing Satou her project. In theory, he'd be on the road to becoming a better, more open, honest and feeling person, and most importantly, an interacting, productive member of society. Instead, Welcome to the NHK revels in self destruction and self delusion. Satou fantasizes about doing awful things to Misaki, he gets together with a former school mate and consumes dangerous mixes of control substances and gets roped into doing worse. Whether it is situation based and familiar, such as Satou taking Misaki as a "date" for a lunch with his mother or Satou's stunningly ill conceived participation in an "offline meeting", the manga gives Satou plenty of rope for him to hang himself. Nimbly, the narrative demonstrates that the sensitivity that has made Satou a wreck also gives birth to his better moments and balances that with demonstrating that he's spent so much time giving in that he's pretty much fried. Like a drug user whose brain has been cooked, Satou seems rather broken. Despite his lucid moments, he seems to plummeting into rather than climbing out of these issues. The manga opened its first volume with Satou seeing the walls of his apartment start closing in on him. After that point, the stir crazy mixed with agoraphobia mixed with disassociation seems to have left his mental immune systems open to every sort of bad influence. Between drugs, and online games and self injury, the second volume introduces him to some truly malignant activities. The black humor of Welcome to the NHK is comparable to Jackass in that it is spectacularly bad ideas being enacted. Dramatically and emotionally, the manga demonstrates why the characters can't take a step back in realize that they are careening out of control. It's the same reason most people have trouble in their lives: a mix of inertia and momentum. As in a complementary geek work that trades in justifications for the lifestyle such a Genshiken, Welcome to the NHK teases the line between what is identifiable and what feels like an exaggeration. The ups and downs of the roller-coaster of social stunts are magnified as the manga calls into to question its reader's participation, and what faults the reader might share with the manga's players. Welcome to the NHK started out as a novel by Tatsuhiko Takimoto (with illustrations by Serial Experiment Lain's Yoshitoshi ABe). In addition to the manga, the work was also adapted into an anime by GONZO. The manga's distinct feature is its illustration by Kendi Oiwa who also provided the visuals for the gruesome murder mystery manga Goth. The dementia of unhealthy, unshaven young men sitting in their apartments, the plastic look of the objects of their affection and glimmer of hope in the form of cute girls are all captured in the continuous path of Kendi Oiwa's illustrations. The design has both the details of reality and the idealization of manga. Reflecting the mental state of the characters, this allows the work to shift between reality and fantasies or memories without leaping any visual boundaries.

Resource Spotlight: The Anime Encyclopedia, Revised & Expanded Edition: A Guide to Japanese Animation Since 1917 By by Jonathan Clements and Helen McCarthy Released by Stone Bridge Press

The Anime Encyclopedia aims to be the most comprehensive English language listing of anime. From the standpoint of cataloging the form, the effort has never been more difficult. While the industry is painfully trying to adapt to new sets of production concerns as well as national and global economic circumstances, more anime is being produced than ever before. At the same time, competition has leapt into the compendium arena. In the five years since the publication of the first edition, encyclopedias of anime have sprung up from various online sources, up to and including Wikipedia. Each has its own strengths and flaws. Because of the near impossibly for any one source for completely obtain the objective, The Anime Encyclopedia can't be judged against the platonic ideal of an English language anime encyclopedia. It effort needs to be evaluated on what they have to offer. Each entry in the encyclopedia offers an English name/name by which the anime is known to English audiences, original release date, credits, run time and length. The thrust of the book is that for each anime, it aims to describe plot and context, and give a concise evaluation of the work. While the volume is dominated by this type of entry, it also offers lists for special topics such as "early anime", key terms, and noteworthy producers such as Leiji Matsumoto and Yoko Kanno . The presentation of raw facts is hindered by the space considerations of the printed volume. With the paragraph format listing of staff names, familiar ones stick out while new ones blend together. Franchises are joined. Consequently, there is one entry covering everything from the original Mobile Suit Gundam to Gundam Seed: Stargazer. This appears to be open to causing gaps in the information. For example, a mecha fan might note that the Getter Robo entry does not list 2004's New Getter Robo (or Shin Getter Robo, not to be confused with the 1998 Change!! Shin Getter Robo). While MazinKaiser is mentioned under the Mazinger entry, there is no episode/feature listing for the actual releases of the anime. The description of each anime attempts to give a sense of the work, in terms of tone, plot, context and connections. These offer useful insight into how the works were released in Japan, with a strong attention to how the evolution and trends in the Japanese industry shaped the works. The entries are similarly well informed concerning how the content points of the anime fit into the tradition. These descriptions are an ideal way to quickly learn about interesting anime that may not be familiar, which makes flipping through the book an amusing exercise in infotainment, especially when unearthing treasures like the existence of a My Father's Dragon anime. However, the book has an editorial voice, which sometimes trips up the descriptions. For example, in Grappler Baki, it posits that the protagonist trains as a martial artist " all so he can beat Yujiro Kurama, who, just a wild guess, is the man who killed his father." There is a minor character in the anime named Kurama, but Baki Hanma's primary antagonist is Yujiro Hanma, his own father. The anime's chiefly an oedipal struggle. Then, there are entries weighed by snarkiness, such as Hell Girl, a horror anthology with the central conceit of posting pleas for vengeance on an internet site that only appears after midnight: "Since the internet crosses all time zones, we wonder if the site is only limited to a Japanese midnight, or if it manifests 24 times a day all around the world." Or it can simply be dismissive, such as in the case of Bincho-Tan "(the name refers to the piece of charcoal she carries on her head), is a cute girl who lives a simple live in the mountains. Apparently we are supposed to care!" It is obvious that some intense measures needed to be carried out in order to remain sane while writing about EVERY anime. While this irreverence livens up the book, at times, the appropriateness is questionable. Visual and style descriptions are preliminary. For example, of the look of Mind Game the book says: "characters designed to look like the famous actors who play them," which is a "mostly harmless" take on that anime's look. Instead, the descriptions are heavily focused on building threads between anime, and relating one work to others. To re-use Mind Game as an example, the plot is said to have shades of 1993's Emblem Take Two, and with the movie's biblical parallel, calls attention to Superbook. There seem to be multiple intentions in this approach. There would appear to be an effort to encourage the reader to cross reference, thereby discovering new anime. Why else invoke the relatively unknown Puppet Master Sakon when discussing the relatively known Midori Days, or, frequently mentioning the influential, but, largely unknown to western audiences, Glass Mask? The other facet of this approach is that the book reads like it was written by the anime-knowledgeable for readers who are anime knowledgeable or hope to be anime knowledgeable. As such, it uses anime as points of reference in discussing other anime. Some of this works well, but it has its flaws. Anime interest has an emphasis on what is current, which causes references to become dated. When the first edition was released, Escaflowne was part of the canon of the day. Comparing a character to Escaflowne's Dilandau was useful. Today, it's a bit tenuous. Invoking "Knightsabres", especially within naming the anime that it term comes from, as a point of reference is borderline esoteric. Ranma 1/2 is pushed as a standard marker beyond the point of usefulness. Air Master employs "the quirky opponent of the week format of Tiger Mask and Ranma 1/2" while in Princess Tutu "the characters inhabit a reality not dissimilar to that of Ranma 1/2, in which an ordinary town can be populated with anime-human hybrids subject to strange enchantments." This approach can be useful in making unfamiliar anime more familiar, but it can also be baffling for familiar anime. Even if the aim of the book is to build a network of connections between anime titles, weaving some of the strands feels forced. For example, in the popular Full Metal Alchemist Uniting the quest narrative of Dororo with the militarized European society of Howl's Moving Castle, FMA rode the wave of Harry Potter's success to become a fan favorite anime in the early 21st century. In a way, it takes the robot buddy sci-fi of Heat Guy J and simply places it in a magical world. Edward is like a magical girl whose transformation has gotten seriously out of hand; without the help of a guiding angel or animal, he's overarched himself and now has to try and retrieve normal life. Necromancy and forbidden powers are drawn into the context of galloping scientific progress in the 19th century in the style of Frankenstein; the age of steam was a time of dark and wonderful magic for those driving it, and this adaptation of Hiromu Arakawa's manga catches that atmosphere, before turning in its later chapters to chills that foreshadow Monster. Osamu Tezuka's Dororo is a useful anime to be familiar with. Its dark tale of supernatural dismemberment both prefigured works like Blade of the Immortal and served as a powerful horror serial. Calling attention to the existence of a Frankenstein anime makes for the introduction of interesting trivia. However, the ties to Heat Guy J and Monster are tentative. You need to work to make links like these. The Harry Potter statement in Full Metal Alchemist's entry is an example of how the volume makes judgments and speculations. To varying degrees, each entry is a mini-review. Often, illuminating connection between anime is mixed with calling works to task for lazily resting on the shoulder of predecessors. This lends the writing a voice of a jaded veteran fan, perhaps with a fondness for certain older titles, like early girls with guns anime Gunsmith Cats. While the criteria for evaluation seems fairly, universally applied, anime fans are passionate about their favorites and in all likelihood, while tracking down a personal top list, most fans will find an assessment with which they strongly disagree. The positive side to this idea driven approach is that the encyclopedia gets energized in works that explore concepts in unique manners. Anime like Jin Roh, Kino's Journey and Haibane Renmei receive lengthy articles exploring the ideas behind the work. These though provoking and scholarly, but they often venture hypotheses in brief spans of space, presenting ideas that are unproven or unprovable. The approach yields both quick and thorough deconstruction, like in the case of Peacemaker Kurogane, which covers the samurai anime's long list of historical and genre influences, or it can be debatable as in the case of Sugar Sugar Rune. Is it right to criticize a young audience work for being overly formula bound? are the viewers expected to have seem the predecessors like Little Witch Sally? Is it fair to suggest that the work was fast tracked to production due to familial connections when Moyocco Anno is a highly successful manga creator and not just the wife of Evangelion's headman. There is a value to having a compendium of snap judgments at your finger tips. There is value to having the kind of familiarity and insights into the patterns of anime. The book is liable to shape or at least inform you larger opinion of the anime tradition. It does not have the links and formatting afforded by online resources, but the breath of opinions make the book a valuable resource.

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Readers Talkback
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  • Feb. 26, 2007, 9:16 a.m. CST

    I have the previous edition of the Encyclopedia

    by Doctor_Sin

    And will be picking this one up. It's a good guide and the editorializing is pretty fun at times. Helen also did a book on Adult Anime that is worth checking out.

  • Feb. 26, 2007, 12:53 p.m. CST

    The NHK anime was great!

    by Johnno

    The manga sounds interesting seeing as how there aren't that many references to drugs in the anime... Also trainman is pretty funny but nothing really ground-breakingly funny aside from it's unique concept of online dating advice. But it's fun watching it with an asian/geek audience at an anime con.

  • Feb. 26, 2007, 5:42 p.m. CST

    The Densha Otoko movie was alright

    by sonic3305

    But the TV series had way, way more heart. You also got to know everybody a lot better.

  • Feb. 26, 2007, 10:15 p.m. CST

    Densha Otoko TV series is so much better!

    by JarJar25

    Fucking forget about the movie you moron!! It's all that this site ever talks about. The whole review was pointless, when the real story of Densha lies in the TV show. The TV series can be bought off EBAY or try BIT TORENT. Densha Otoko lasted roughly 11 episodes and had a great story line, where Densha goes through a lot of changes that are quite believable. This story can't be told in a movie, where it came off not being very realistic, but just something to make a few extra bucks, like Azumi 2. If you guys want the real Densha, then check out the TV series. If you like that, then check out Akihabara@Deep. That show is only for the hardcore audience though.

  • Feb. 28, 2007, 7:09 a.m. CST

    New Death Note theme?

    by David Lazarus Long

    Anyone know who the band doing the new Death Note opening theme is? Jesus, for a minute I thought it was System of a Down. In Japanese. @_@ Shame, I really liked Nightmare's 'The World'. But the new intro is def trippier.