The New York Daily News published a recent article about the chic factor of being a Geek. The article notes that with the upcoming releases of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin and The Baxter, and the recent success of Napoleon Dynamite, Hollywood has gleefully embraced dorkdom.” It is also quite interesting to note that the lead character of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Andy, “ collects action figures, plays video games and, on weekends, blows his baritone horn”. The character should immediately ring true to the many 20 and 30 somethings who spend money collecting mint Transformers Season 1 toys, buy box sets of Star Wars DVDs, and are eagerly anticipating the Xbox 360 due to launch later this year.
What is even more interesting is that across the pacific, the same cultural phenomenon is happening in Japan on a larger scale. One of the year’s biggest Japanese domestic cult hits is a movie called Densha Otoko or Trainman. It is based on a novel that is in turn based on a series of forum postings made by an otaku (a synonym for geek or nerd in Japanese) asking for advice about his love life. As the legend goes, during his trip home from Akihabara, the electronics district in Tokyo and a hangout for videogame and anime otakus, the forum poster, a nerd who has never fought in his life, conjured up incredible courage and stopped a drunken abusive man from physically harassing a pretty office lady in the train. Grateful for the help, the young woman asks for the otaku’s address and offers to send a gift in appreciation. Recounting his exploits later that night on the popular Japanese message board 2channel, the otaku get support from the forum posters and fellow otakus. As the posts and interest in the story grew, the forum posters at 2channel gave the otaku the nickname of Trainman in honor of his heroics.
When the gift finally arrives, the Trainman opens the box to discover that it is an expensive set of Hermes cups. Surprised by the generosity of the young lady who earned the nickname Hermes in the 2channel forums, the Trainman discovers another windfall. Hermes included her cell phone number in the shipping slip, thus giving him a means of contacting her. The forum posters egg the Trainman on to call Hermes and thank her for the expensive gift and use the opportunity to ask her out on a date. The Trainman calls the young woman; the plan works and the Trainman set out on his first date. The rest of the story is the Trainman’s journey of earning the love of Hermes and ultimately, the story ends with a happy ending. The loser and social outcast gets the pretty girl.
While it is widely suspected that the story was a fake, and the forum posts were orchestrated by a ghostwriter eager to profit from book sales, the story of the Trainman has taken off in Japan and became just a cultural hit--with a best selling novel, a manga rendition, film version and a TV drama version -- because of its content. Part of the charm of the Densha Otoko story is watching the Trainman awkwardly approach Hermes, and through many trials and tribulations (mostly due to his geekiness and his hobbies) he manages to win the girl. Throughout the story, the hobbies people secretly enjoy in their living rooms are presented as normal if a bit awkward and strange by the variety of forum posters at 2channel. In the TV series forums posters are shown as a series of caricatures. There is the Hanshin Tigers fan, a caricature of the ultra obsessive fan of a sports team, the costume-player (cosplayer), the Japanese female idol fan, the train set collector, the gear-head technophile, the comic book fan and the list goes on. As Gitesh Pandya, editor of www.boxofficeguru.com noted, “Geeks have charm in their awkwardness… because he can be pitied and partially because they are good-natured people.”
Pandya also adds that “films about geeks are about realism,” and Japanese economists agree. They estimate that in Japan alone, there are around two million otakus who help prop up the sluggish economy and consumer spending by pouring considerable amount of their earnings into collectibles, videogames, anime, model toys, DVDs, sports memorabilia and any variety of hobbies that people can obsesses over. While the characters in the movies are often caricatures of the typical geek and collector, they fairly represent these groups rather than mock them. Movies about geeks are in that sense realistic, because there are probably more geeks than most people could imagine and many more ‘normal’ persons who have a geek streak in them. These films seem to be suggesting that instead of being social outcasts in the fringes of society, the guy down the street who goes to work in a suit by day could be the avid model builder and collector by night and the geeks are happy to see their tastes given the light of day without being ridiculed.