Those who have been following Japanese popular culture in recent years will doubtless already be familiar with Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro. Those of you who aren’t… well, it’s quite the distinctive experience. And there’s an anime adaptation coming in April, with a brand new trailer now available.
First published on the Web in 2017, subsequently compiled into manga volumes and finally officially published in English last year, Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro is a slice-of-life story about a nameless “Senpai” and his junior, the eponymous Nagatoro. Our Senpai is a bit of a recluse, having been bullied most of his life, and when he encounters Nagatoro for the first time it looks like he’s adding another person to the list of those he hates.
But there’s something different about this particular relationship. There’s a peculiar connection between him and Nagatoro. She bullies him to the point of tears several times over the course of the first manga volume, but appears to show genuine remorse for her actions — as well as honest affection for him. After making him cry for the first time, she gives him her handkerchief, for example — and subsequently admits that she hoped he would keep it. And both we, the audience, and Senpai witness the fact that he is the only person that she truly “opens up” around — even if that “opening up” means some merciless teasing.
The addictive thing about Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro for many readers is the almost palpable sense of sexual tension between the core pair — and the manga’s unabashed focus on the pair of them. There are some parallels with Uzaki-chan Wants To Hang Out in this regard, but with a rather different relationship dynamic. This is very much a “two-hander” story where no-one outside of the core couple is important; in the original comics, characters other than Senpai and Nagatoro are drawn in fainter lines and represented as “faceless” — or, more specifically, “eyeless”, similar to how self-insert protagonists are often represented in visual novels. This is a common convention in Japanese popular media to de-emphasise the identity of less important characters, but it also ties in thematically with something Senpai says, too.
“Senpai, don’t you get angry?” asks Nagatoro after having inadvertently pushed him so hard he fell to the ground. “I mean, I’ve been giving you a pretty hard time.”
“I’ve been bullied since forever,” he replies. “So I know how to handle it. I look away, close my heart and wait ’til it passes. Which is why I basically don’t remember the faces of the people I hate.”
From this, it becomes pretty clear that despite bringing him to tears on multiple occasions, Senpai does not hate Nagatoro. He remembers her face, and we know this because we can see her face. Not only that, we also see Senpai thinking about her when he’s by himself.
He clearly appreciates her company on some strange level; she is someone who actually gives him attention — even if it might appear to be negative attention — when it’s pretty clear from the outset of the story that he has spent the majority of his time alone. As a red-blooded teenage male, he is also attracted to her — and Nagatoro is well aware of this. Barging in on several of his independent art practice sessions, she insists on modelling for him, and takes on increasingly provocative poses in an attempt to get a rise out of him. Ultimately she does manage to inspire him to do a good job, however; despite his obvious lack of self-confidence, his drawing of her having fallen asleep after waiting for him to get started one day is one of his most detailed, technically proficient pieces of work.
Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro can be looked on as an interesting piece of commentary on several levels. For one, it’s a sidelong glance at the bizarrely accepted behaviour that being mean to someone you’re romantically or sexually interested in will “keep them keen”. This is obviously taken to an extreme by the art of “negging” espoused by self-professed pick-up artists, but it’s also something that is commonly joked about, particularly with regard to relationships between younger people.
It’s also likely a commentary on the growing trend for audiences to find “mean girls” in anime and manga attractive. There’s a significant number of people out there who find sadistic characters to be especially appealing for one reason or another — even if, like Senpai, they might find such a relationship to be more anguish than pleasure were they to pursue it in reality.
There are plenty of creators out there more than willing to indulge this particular fantasy, and we see “mean girls” in all manner of popular fiction ranging from anime and manga to computer, console and mobile games. And they’re not always the “villains”, either; as we can see in Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro, Nagatoro herself is not an inherently “evil” character. In fact, given how quiet and awkward she seems in a scene where one of her friends attempts to set her up with a boy, we can perhaps even interpret her behaviour towards Senpai as an attempt to genuinely express herself in a way that she doesn’t normally feel able to do around other people. From that perspective, perhaps the pair of them have more in common than might initially appear.
The first five volumes of Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro are available now in paperback and digital format. The first season of the anime adaptation is set to air in April of 2021. Check out the official website here.
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