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My Sassy Otaku - Japan's own Internet Novel Phenomenon

Written by Kevin Ma Tell a Friend

In recent years, Korean romantic comedies have found a new place for inspiration - the internet. It all started when director Kwak Jae-Yong adapted a popular internet serial novel for his film My Sassy Girl. Its financial and critical success brought several more romantic comedies based on internet novels to the screen such as My Tutor Friend and 100 Days with Mr. Arrogant, both of which became local hits.

How did the internet become a fountain of inspiration? The answer is simple: Over 50% of the population is connected to the internet in South Korea, making the internet a necessity for daily life. The easy access to the internet in South Korea allowed amateur writers to post their works, thus increasing their chance of getting discovered. Meanwhile, Japan, a country with a relatively lower internet accessibility rate than South Korea, also found its own version of My Sassy Girl in May 2004 with the story of Densha Otoko - an internet love story that proved truth is often stranger than fiction.

Densha Otoko first appeared on the popular Japanese message board (or known as Ni-Channel) in March 2004 as a series of postings in the section for single men by a 22-year old man who called himself Densha Otoko (or Train Man in English). Train Man began telling a story of his efforts to help out a slightly older beautiful woman when she is harassed by a drunkard on the train. As a token of her appreciation, the woman sent Train Man a set of Hermes tea cups, which led to the people on the message board referring to her as Hermes. Train Man, not knowing how to even call Hermes to thank her, asked the people on Ni-channel for advice every chance he got, and the rest was history.

Since Densha Otoko's protagonist is classified as something called an otaku, one should first understand what an otaku is to understand why Train Man's story was so extraordinary. In Japanese society, an otaku is generally referred to as someone who is a fanatic of primarily animation and comic books. However, an otaku doesn't have to obsess over only animation and comic books; there are many types of otakus, depending on the objects of their obsession. Most, if not all, otakus have several general characteristics - at adult age, still living at home, obsessed with some form of entertainment, and doesn't have much of a social life. In other words, the Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons would probably be the American version of an otaku.

In Japan, otakus are generally seen in a negative light because of their unflattering appearance and sometimes-unhealthy obsessions. The Train Man is a self-proclaimed Akiba-Kei, a subcategory of otakus. Akiba-Kei's are men who spend their time in Akihabara, a section of Tokyo famous for being home to all things technology, obsessing over games, animation, and young idols.

As time went on, Train Man began to grow closer to Hermes after getting rid of his otaku image under the advice of the people at Ni-Channel. He detailed every event that happened on the board, from his first phone call to her to their first date. As more people began to pay attention to the blossoming love story, and with his anonymous friends on the message board helping every step of the way, Train Man eventually fell in love with Hermes, giving the innocent love story a perfect happily-ever-after ending. Contrary to popular belief, that was not the end for Train Man's story; a Japanese magazine later reported that Train Man continued posting afterwards on Ni-Channel about his sexual escapades with Hermes. However, possibly due to the Japanese's recent obsession with the Pure Love genre, it's understandable that people wanted to simply remember the sweeter side to the story by neglecting those posts.

When the 2-month saga ended, one of the anonymous posters compiled all the Densha posts from Ni-Channel, and thus the novel Densha Otoko was born. Written under the penname "Nakano Hitori," the "novel" was released early 2005 with some of the text from the internet posts slightly changed. While all the postings are available online for free as public domain (an English site is currently translating all the posts), the novel nevertheless became a huge hit in Japan, selling over 1 million copies.

After the success of the novel, Fuji Television quickly snapped up the rights and immediately started work on a film version, giving the crew less than 2 months to shoot the entire film and release it into theatres. Directed by Masanori Murakami, making his feature film debut after directing two dramas at Fuji, the film adaptation of Densha Otoko starred Takayuki Yamada as the title character and Miki Nakatani, who reportedly resembled the real Hermes, as the object of Train Man's affections.

While the film was given a moderate amount of advertising, Fuji showed very little footage from the actual film in them, giving the audience little expectations as to how Train Man would look on the big screen. Fuji's risk paid off, as Densha Otoko opened at number 2 in its first weekend in the crowded summer market. Moreover, word-of-mouth began to spread among otakus, who made it out of their homes and into cinemas around Japan. This kept the film on the top 10 for a month, and it would earn over 3 billion yen (about 30 million US dollars) at the box office, outgrossing commercial juggernauts such as Batman Begins and Sengoku Jieitai 1549.

In addition to the film adaptation, Fuji Television also quickly put an 11-episode drama into production and began broadcasting in July on Thursday nights, the most competitive night of the week for dramas. Starring Atsushi Ito as the Train Man and Misaki Ito as Hermes, the drama expanded the relatively thin source material by not only placing greater emphasis on the Ni-Channel posters, but also took artistic liberty by giving Hermes a background story as well. The drama also paid homage to the film by having Takayuki Yamada make a cameo appearance in the first episode as the man who subdued the drunkard in the pivotal train scene. While ratings for the drama started somewhat slow, it eventually caught on and was able to retain most of its audience each week, making it the top-rated drama for the summer 2005 season.

With a novel, a series of comics, a hugely successful film, and a highly-rated television drama, 2005 has certainly been the year for Densha Otoko. However, since all posters on Ni-Channel are anonymous, there have been speculations that the entire story may've been fabricated (this accusation has been denied by producers of the drama, who claimed that they met the real Train Man and that he is still together with Hermes). While the authenticity of the Densha Otoko story is certainly questionable, its tremendous success has nevertheless proven one thing: A good love story will always get people's attention.

Published February 15, 2006

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