After re-watching Berserk, and needing something to come down after that, I managed to put aside my horror of streaming, turned to Crunchyroll and tried out a few shows, but my brain wasn’t having it. What little remained of my consciousness needed something light. Then I spotted Don't Toy with Me, Miss Nagatoro in the 2022 awards nominations carousel and knowing our esteemed editor (aw, shucks - Ed) has more than a passing fancy for the manga, well, why not?
Quiet, artistic, manga drawing Senpei’s horror runneth over. The library invaded by others! Loud, extrovert girl others! Nooooooooooo! Calm Senpai, calm. You can do this. Go in. Sit down. Draw your manga. Keep to yourself. Internalise it. Breathe slowly. Breathe slowly. Uh-oh, the girls have taken notice. Especially that blush-cheeked one, Nagatoro, who discovering his manga teases him mercilessly. And that is just the beginning of the Miss Nagatoro’s toying with her bemused, introverted Senpei.
On paper Don't Toy with Me, Miss Nagatoro is not my thing at all, and the first couple of episodes didn’t bode well. It felt more, Don't Be a Viciously Sadistic Bully Like A Wannabe Tory Minister With Me, Miss Nagatoro; then over the next ten episodes the series shifted its tone so that the initial Sadism Against Senpei (hmm, that sounds like it should be a title to a 1960’s Teruo Ishii movie) you recognise is necessary but it is uncomfortable viewing. It just feels like bullying, plain and simple, and there’s nothing remotely funny about bullying. But our nameless Senpei is so introverted, so awkward, and as Nagatoro hasn’t the skills to draw him out softly, her sudden appearances and torturing of Senpei are the only way to kick start the story. Senpei needs a short, sharp Nagatoro shock.
Very quickly though we read between the admittedly obvious lines that Nagatoro is interested in her nameless Senpei. Why is perhaps a more difficult question to answer: perhaps because she admires the manga he’s drawn and that she so mercilessly mocks in the first episode. This is something the anime doesn’t really address but it doesn’t matter much because as the teasing commences, so the nuances start to become more apparent. Seeking refuge in his favourite family restaurant, Senpei is horrified to find Nagatoro and her friends sitting close by, then he’s fixated as he gets to see Nagatoro function in a different environment: with boys! Boys, unlike Senpei, obviously interested in Nagatoro, and she’s direct and unusually perspicacious in seeing through and taking down their faux-artistic bullshittery that is completely at odds with her outrageous, extroverted teasing of him (eyes-closed nipple finding game anyone?).
This is one of the real strengths of the series, that our protagonists really do develop as they dance-tease-discomfort-squirm around each other, while remaining true to the teasing premise. Senpei starts to come out of his shell and Nagatoro becomes less overtly bullying in her teasing, and even – shock horror – slyly supportive at times. Don't Toy with Me, Miss Nagatoro becomes a romance of characters evolving. This is pretty impressive for what is mainly an episodic series, and episodic in the sense that often it revolves around individual moments of teasing or short gag-sequences rather than going in for anything more sequential. So, the series narrative rests on the character development; though of course there’s the gags. The mixture of humour and feelings bubbling under the surface balance out really well after the initial borderline sadistic opening episodes, so that that a warmer humour emerges, as well as the more outrageous gaggery. Even as Nagatoro calls her Senpei a hentai or denounces him as creepy or sleezy (three dwarves that were notoriously cut from Snow White) we recognise that she means the opposite and all this leads into the conclusion of the series, which becomes as close to an actual narrative story as possible. It’s the ever-present school festival. If the school festival is rote it doesn’t matter because it’s all about the humour and the character development that takes place there.
Alas, poor Senpai is powerless against such dread characters
There's some fan service... nipple location guessing games, I mean... and also the exceedingly-buxom art club president’s *ahem* self-portraits, but it’s never excessive and often grounded in teenagers exploring, however awkwardly, their sexuality.
For me a huge element for why the series works is because essentially Senpei and Nagatoro are different sides of the same cannot-voice-their-emotions coin. Nagatoro can (initially) only enact her emotions via the most merciless teasing; whereas Senpei eventually is able to voice some of his through his painting. Both of their characters slowly adjust to the other. Senpei becomes able to vocalise his feelings slightly, and just suggesting maybe he and Nagatoro go and do something is for him a massive shift. Overall, I warmed to both characters greatly and a lot of this is down to how much of the series really maintains focus on our two protagonists. Nagatoro's friends often function to help explore the relationship between Senpei and Nagatoro, as well as to amp up the gag factor. Intriguingly to me, though Nagatoro’s three friends are all girls, and they end up hanging around Senpei a lot, the series never turns it into that kind of harem story where all the girls are interested in the male protagonist. If anything, they seem there to drive character, add humour, kick-start stories and also, not unironically, tease Nagatoro over her closeness to Senpei.
Another reviewer would I suspect draw out more of the gags and the humour of the series; I’m more of a character guy myself (though I do think Kill Me Baby is a great gag series but then that does end with character development, of the throw your mate into a pit to die sorts – everything is contextual) but to me that shows how Don't Toy with Me, Miss Nagatoro really works beyond what I for one thought the series would be. Yes, it’s funny, it looks great, but it’s also charming; it has a joyfully colourful opening, the character design, especially Nagatoro’s ever-present flush matches her teasing nature, is excellent; but really it’s how the series is able to reach out beyond the audience you might expect that surprised me the most. Then again, like most cynics, I for one am also a sucker for a good romance, especially if it feels earned. I found myself rooting for them.
Considering I am not really the target audience for Don't Toy with Me, Miss Nagatoro, the fact that I'm interested in the incoming second series to see where and how Nagatoro teases our Senpei next, probably says everything I need to say.