TRAIN_MAN (Densha Otoko - Nethatsu, Kakueki-Teisha no Love Story), by Hidenori Hana. First published in 2005, and first published in North America in 2006.
One day a meek otaku manages to confront an abusive drunk on the commute home. In doing so, he impresses one of the women the drunk was hassling, and she sends him an expensive thank-you gift in the form of some Hermes teacups. The otaku relates these events to fellow posters on the internet message board 2chan, and they in turn encourage him to ask the woman out. Soon these posters become not just a fount of advice on relationships and dating for the otaku, but his own squad of online cheerleaders, who follow his story eagerly as it happens.
This manga is unusual, in that it is not based on a video game, light novel, anime, or even an original story. This manga comes (mostly) straight from real life, a real thread that in turn became a novel, a live-action movie, and as seen here, a manga series (actually, more than one, but that's a different review). In some ways, the fact that it's based on real events makes the events of the story all the more heartwarming.
Since real people were involve, we never learn their real names - indeed, they're never given names at all, but instead are referred by the handles that the 2chan members gave them, train_man and Hermess. Most of our time is spent with train_man, so we do get some insight into his neuroses and extreme shyness. Sadly, the same cannot be said for Hermess. Hell, we get more insight into the other 2chan posters than we do her, and they're only ever seen in glimpses and speak mostly through their comments. Still, that simplicity and lack of character depth does not dimish the story's charms. It's incredibly easy for the reader to find themselves rooting for train_man to gather up his courage to speak to Hermess, and to try and improve his appearance so that he might impress her. Anyone who has ever struggled with trying to approach a romantic prospect (regardless of gender) will likely find ways to sympathize with train_man's struggle.
It's also unusual to see Internet users portrayed so sympathetically. Internet culture is rarely mentioned in manga, and 2chan is as notorious as its North American cousin 4chan for being a gathering of socially maladjusted, pedantic douchbags. That's why it's so sweet and refreshing that we get to see these posters as they really are - ordinary people who become caught up in the enfolding drama. While they will likely never meet train_man face-to-face, they are genuinely rooting for him and most of them give solid advice on how to approach Hermess and how to handle dating.
Really, there's just an overall air of unironic sweetness and sincerity that pervades the whole volume, and it's that same tone that makes such a simple love story such a delight to read.
It's kind of funny that a real-life love story should feature such cartoony, exaggerated character designs. Everyone tends to have long heads and simple, heavily exaggerated expressions. In comparison, the backgrounds are much more realistic. The page composition goes a long way towards injecting life into the story, a necessity considering that so much of it happens in phone conversations and internet comments. Panels are lightly layered, with the online comments serving as the Greek chorus for the events as they occur. Hana seems particularly fond of staggering an image over a triptych of downwardly diagonal panels. It's an unusual sort of image, and serves as an interesting little personal touch. Everything is laid out nicely and neatly, so it's never hard to follow and becomes attractive in its own simple way.
The only extra is a page of translation notes explaining the background of the story and some of the internet slang and emoticons used.
While it's a little simple at times, this romance had more charm, personality, and sweetness than most of the melodramatic shoujo romances I've come across. Anyone seeking a change in pace from schoolroom romance should give this series a look.
This series was published by Viz. All 3 volumes were released, and all are currently in print.
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