Japanese films used to be full of swaggering samurai and blustering yakuza confident in their own manhood, however badly they treated the women in their lives. These types can still be found - see Takeshi Kitano's 2012 violent gang epic Outrage Beyond for example. But more and more films from this part of the world - and not only comedies either - feature youthful heroes who exist on the social and economic margins, minus girlfriends or prospects.
An avatar of this trend was the title character of Train Man, Shosuke Murakami's 2005 hit film based on the supposed true story of an otaku (rough translation: nerd) who rescued several women from a drunken harasser on a commuter train. In the romantic comedy, the awkward 23-year-old hero (Takayuki Yamada) falls for a woman he saves, but can only date her with the help of his online pals.
Train Man became a pop cultural phenomenon, generating a highly rated TV show and a bestselling manga and novel, while drawing attention to the multitudes of guys at home in online worlds, but at sea in reality, including the actualities of love and sex.
Though hardly the only reason for Japan's below-replacement birth rate, these woebegone males exemplify the larger plight of the country's millennial generation, who are struggling to achieve the conventional adulthood of a full-time job, marriage and family in a long stagnant and only slowly reviving economy.
Yoji Yamada, who created the prototype of the lovable loser at romance in the wandering peddler Tora-san, the hero of 48 films from 1969 to 1995, featured one such marginal millennial in Tokyo Family, his 2013 reworking of Yasujiro Ozu's 1953 classic, Tokyo Story. Still, though labouring as a freelance stagehand and driving an ancient car as he hits his fourth decade, Shuji (Satoshi Tsumabuki) at least has a girlfriend (Yu Aoi), an angelic 3/11 disaster volunteer.
More unsparing, and much funnier in a black comic way, is Nobuhiro Yamashita's The Drudgery Train (2012). Based on Kenta Nishimura's award-winning autobiographical novel, the drama focuses on a junior high school dropout with zero social skills (Mirai Moriyama) who works as a manual labourer. Though uncouth, clueless and broke, he has a fondness for mystery novels that leads to a friendship with a cute bookstore clerk (Atsuko Maeda). Of course, the hero can barely get past hello, but with discreet help from a less socially challenged friend, he successfully dates his literary soulmate.
The 28-year-old Moriyama also played the lead in Love Strikes!, Hitoshi Ohne's 2011 hit romantic comedy based on a popular TV series and manga, about a nerdy fellow who suddenly finds himself attractive to women as he approaches the age of 30. This time, instead of relying on outside advice, the hero bumbles his own way into the heart of one woman after another - and finally into a bed with his long-legged, easygoing dream girl (Masami Nagasawa), though he is still a virgin when he leaves it.
Other recent films hold out dream-the-impossible-dream hope for the lonely guys in the audience. In Shuichi Okita's A Story of Yonosuke (2013), the titular country boy hero (Kengo Kora) navigates the rocky social straits at a Tokyo university in the 1980s with a blithe obliviousness and bedrock integrity that charms the more worldly types he meets, particularly a spoiled-rotten rich girl (Yuriko Yoshitaka). The film is more about the mark Yonosuke leaves on those around him, even years after their college days are over, than any fantasy ascent to the social stratosphere. Still, it does show its awkward protagonist attracting the affection of a young woman.
In Yuya Ishii's romantic drama The Great Passage (which opens theatrically in Hong Kong on Thursday), a shy word maven (Ryuhei Matsuda) is failing as a salesman for a publishing house when he is recruited for an epic dictionary project - and falls for his landlady's attractive granddaughter (Aoi Miyazaki). As the holder of a full-time job, he may not really qualify for the "marginal millennial" tag. But there certainly is a youthful as well as socially awkward air about him for much of the work.
For all their dissimilarities of style and approach, these films deliver the same basic message: even if you never make it to macho, you can still find love with real flesh-and-blood women. For the sake of Japan's demographic future, they'd better be right.