Lost in Transition: Train Men and Dolls in Millennial Japan
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Lost in Transition:
Train Men and Dolls in Millennial Japan

In 2005 the Densha otoko phenomenon swept Japan. Purporting to be the real-life story of a young otaku (obsessive technogeek) who finds romance after he defends an attractive young lady on a train, Densha otoko or “Train Man” was first a book, then a movie, and finally a hit television series. In novel form, the narrative is particularly fascinating for its text, which is created entirely of e-mail messages between the hero, nicknamed Train Man, and a group of likeminded friends on the Internet who create a supportive and warm community out of the thinness of cyberspace. Both film and television series augment and enrich these characterizations, especially of the hapless hero who slowly transcends otaku-hood to win the girl of his dreams.

The television series with its longer narrative arc was able to develop the story more fully and enlarge on or even create episodes that delved more deeply into the heart of the characters. One of the most heartfelt of these episodes involves dolls (ningyō)—or perhaps one should say “figures,” since these dolls belong to the male protagonist rather than the female. In this episode, which takes place about halfway through the series, Train Man fears that he may have lost the girl and decides that he must stop being such an otaku. How to accomplish this? We see him go to his small cluttered room and look around at his enormous collection of action figures. He picks one up, stares at it, and puts it down again, clearly in much turmoil of mind. Finally, he gets out a box and begins it to fill it with the action figures. Although most are generic anime-esque characters, he particularly hesitates on encountering one of them—a doll from the immensely popular science fiction anime series Gundam (1979–present, and very much an object of otaku fandom). This doll he salutes, clearly with a lump in his throat. Then, in a scene that Japanese viewers would recognize as a traditional form of abandonment, he places the box in the river and walks away.

Train Man’s actions could be read as a form of growing up. By renouncing his fantasy world, he indicates that he is now willing to start a real-life relationship with another human being. But the television series itself is a wish-fulfilling fantasy. Ultimately, he gets to have his dolls and his lady too. The box is returned to him, and his girlfriend indicates that the dolls are not a problem. In fact, she too collects dolls.

Dolls and action figures are big business in Japan. They are also works of art, icons of ideology and emotion, and objects of fetishization. In my research on dolls in Tokyo last year, I spent a great deal of time in Akihabara, the area of Tokyo that as a center for the latest techno-products used to be known as the “electric city” but might equally well be known as the “doll city” today. My trips to Akihabara were like going from sunshine into shadow. I would start in a well-lit mammoth store such as Laox, stuffed with seemingly every gadget, toy, and action figure under the sun; then progress to smaller places specializing in dolls or sometimes simply doll parts (one particularly distinctive store had huge cabinets full of glass dolls’ eyes, like something from Blade Runner [1982]); to truly specialized places—warrens of glass cases owned by individuals that exhibited their owners’ particular tastes, ranging from the innocuous, like Barbie dolls and trading cards, to the disturbing—dolls in bondage or even simply dismembered doll torsos rising from a rose-blossom-shaped pool of blood. These stores would often sell doll-centered magazines, usually containing pictures of mutilated nude dolls in disorientingly beautiful scenes and exquisitely lit and photographed. My last stop would usually be an upper floor of a “Costume Shop” where life-sized dolls in various costumes, ranging from cute schoolgirl uniforms to provocative French maid outfits, would be available for prices starting at 50,000 yen. These are of course the stores [End Page...


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