published by Del Rey Manga
published by DC/CMX Manga
published by Viz
The Train Man story is a modern romantic fairy tale. (“Densha otoko” means, unsurprisingly, “train man”.) It has captured the imagination of readers to the extent of inspiring multiple manga versions, as well as a novel, a movie, and a TV show.
The story is simple: A geek on a train aids a girl being hassled by a drunk. He likes her, so he asks for help impressing her on a message board. Thanks to the advice, the two get together. It’s a classic structure, updated through the use of the internet for help instead of, say, a newspaper column.
Since it’s a single volume, I’ll start with Del Rey Manga’s edition. It’s by Machiko Ocha (original story by Hitori Nakano), adapted by Makoto Yukon, and subtitled “A Shojo Manga” to help distinguish its approach.
It opens with an introduction to both the fanboy and the message board. He’s drawn cutely, with big eyes and too-long hair, and his love of anime fills the void caused by his lack of experience with women. In this version, given the single-volume length, things happen relatively quickly, with fast introductions and setups.
He also meets his love interest before the key event when he falls asleep on her shoulder by accident and apologizes. That’s when he notices her beauty, plus he’s impressed by her love of reading. This gives her a little bit of personality to make her a character instead of a plot device, and it makes his motivation for trying to protect her a little more plausible, given his shyness.
After the event, she asks for his name and address in order to formally thank him. He’s so nonplussed by the whole thing that he posts the incident to the message board as soon as he gets home. She sends him a set of expensive Hermes teacups, and the boarders (drawn as random heads) encourage him to take the next step and call her.
Things progress from there, with a lunch date necessitating a makeover for him. He supposedly gets a good haircut, but I didn’t notice much difference, although the new outfit was an improvement. It’s kind of a hoot seeing a guy go through a typical primping sequence. His naivete and their awkwardness together on their first date are balanced by their ability to talk to each other. Although he keeps commenting on her beauty, she’s drawn as relatively normal for this genre.
As expected with a story that takes place so prominently online, there’s lots of captioned text for the messages. It’s something of a challenge visually to keep so much text interesting, but the artist manages it well, mainly through expressive head shots. (Also included are ASCII art images that were apparently part of the conversation; that’s a flashback!) I also enjoyed hearing Train Man’s internal monologue about his insecurities.
As events unfold, both he and the reader are learning basics about dating etiquette and how men and women communicate. That leads to him and the girl becoming friends first, necessitated also by the fact that she has a long-time boyfriend, although he mostly ignores her. The online commenters keep cheering Train Man on, and as he overcomes each new challenge, he’s gaining faith in himself, finding his own style and demonstrating more confidence at work. I found myself wondering how this would all end and thinking even if they don’t work out, the changes in him made it all worthwhile. There’s even kind of a graduation ceremony for him online to commemorate the change.
As is typical of Del Rey’s manga, there’s a short section of translation notes at the end that were particularly helpful with this story, plus an essay on the Train Man phenomenon in a broader cultural context. I can already tell that the other two series are going to have a hard time impressing me more than this single volume with its classic romantic approach.
The CMX version is three books by Wataru Watanabe, adaptation by Sheldon Drzka, of which only one has come out so far. Typical of current CMX books, it’s thinner than the others, due to the lighter weight paper. According to the classifications on the back cover, this version is positioned as a teen comedy, and the caricatured illustrations and scratchy style fit that approach.
We first meet Train Man doing a pratfall in Akihabara (translation: Geeksville) while trying to help a girl. He’s exaggeratedly shy, to the point of panic attacks, and subject to getting knocked around by people who don’t notice him. The girl in this version is doll-like. When we first see her, she’s unspeaking, and she looks about eight years old (but with breasts).
Given this take, it didn’t surprise me when his standing up to the drunk was drawn with speed lines and outbursts galore. Even with the artist’s attempts to insert drama, this version seems a lot more shallow. The online comments are boring, simple text boxes layered over each other, although more of the commenters are fleshed out as supporting characters. Between the over-the-top exaggeration and the lack of meaningful emotion, I wanted to give up halfway through. This volume ends with them meeting to begin their first date.
The Viz version has two of three volumes released so far. The manga is by Hidenori Hara with adaptation by Mark Giambruno. It also takes a comedic approach, but it’s not as over-the-top, and the characters are more distinctively designed. (They’re less generic-looking than in either of the others.)
This edition opens with the train incident, throwing the reader directly into the event that starts everything. It’s more dramatic, but we lose the knowledge of how difficult this was for Train Man or how he feels or struggles internally. We’re no longer riding along with him; instead, we’re mere observers, put into the place of one of the message boarders. We also lose the explanation for the particular kinds of people (singles who’ve given up hope) who populate the message board, which removes another of the items that suggest just how much of a stretch this is for him.
The character designs and shading remind me of old Mad magazines for some reason. That’s not the only major difference: In this version, Train Man stands up to the drunk before his crush is even involved. In other stories, the drunk hits her (by accident or not), which finally drives him to action. Here, the drunk hits her after Train Man ducks under his swing, after he’s already stood up to him. If I wasn’t already familiar with this story, I’d find that less powerful and significant for the couple.
This version has more comedy (without descending into the younger-aimed slapstick of the CMX series), and the commenters seem like more of a team backing up Train Man, due to the way their posts are treated as almost real-time. I found the makeover most believable here, given the unique art style and the real effort to distinguish before and after. I did find the layout a little confusing at times, with small elements (like who pays what) seeming to contradict, but I suspect that this version is closest to the movie (which will be released on DVD here by Viz also). It ends on a cliffhanger, with the message boarders wondering why they haven’t yet heard about Train Man’s second date.
I don’t think anyone needs to read all of these — cute and charming as the story is, it does quickly become redundant — and of the three, I’d recommend the Del Rey. Not only does it play up the romance, it also is the best value, balancing all the elements well in one book. If I’d been able to read the entire Viz series first, though, that might have been my pick. (Complimentary copies for this review were provided by some of the publishers.)