Express, rush hour and local

February 10, 2007

A while back, I took a look at the competing manga versions of the Densha Otoko story. Having read the final volumes of the Viz and CMX variations, I thought I would follow up.

My initial impression stands. Of the three (Del Rey released a one-volume shôjo version), Hidenori Hara’s take, published by Viz, is the clear winner. It’s the most subdued of the three, and it’s also the most sincere. Hara seems to stand back and let the charm of the characters and the sweetness of their growing rapport do most of the work. The title otaku’s confidence builds gradually but credibly, and Hara takes the time to give depth of character to the object of Train Man’s affection, the lovely “Hermess.” She’s not just pretty and kind; she seems like an actual person, one with enough layers to carry infatuation beyond the “love at first sight” point.

Wataru Watanabe, creator of the CMX version, opts for what I’ll call the “explosive nosebleed” approach to the story. Train Man is constantly on the verge of panic; he’s a garden-variety shônen spastic who just can’t believe this is happening to him. I couldn’t really believe it either, honestly, unless his Hermess is the most intuitive and tolerant of women. (I find romances that rely on excessive intuition or tolerance of one of the parties involved a little hard to swallow.)

There are two other essential problems with Watanabe’s approach, as I see it. The first is the visual aesthetic, which is aggressively cute. Train Man and Hermess both look about fourteen, which ends up undermining any emotional weight the story has. And since the story verges on saccharine to begin with, extra dollops of adorability result in an oversell. It ends up looking like a fantasy instead of a contemporary fable.

The second is Watanabe’s decision to beef up the role of the message-board denizens who help Train Man cope with his insecurities and woo Hermess. This results in a lot of superfluous subplots that distract from what should be a simple story of unlikely people coming together. The impulse to give Train Man’s cheering section layers and happy endings of their own is generous, but it clutters things up.

It’s not a story that can withstand a lot of flourishes or extra baggage. Hara keeps it streamlined, so Viz wins.

The lingering question is whether three concurrent, licensed versions of a pleasant modern romance were absolutely necessary. From an artistic standpoint, I don’t think so. It’s a sweet urban myth about people being nice to strangers, which seems portable enough in times when people are casting about to find the next permutation of “community.”

From a marketing standpoint, I think the simultaneous releases made sense, because it pre-packages a phenomenon for an audience that isn’t already sold on the story’s benign merits. It capitalizes on the story itself and its origins, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the curiosity factor didn’t drive readers who might otherwise have been relatively disinterested to sample multiple versions. It worked for me.

(Comments are based on complimentary copies provided by CMX and Viz.)