We're only three episodes deep into Don't Toy with Me, Miss Nagatoro, and already I'm reckoning with the detection of more subtleties than I may have expected from this show. I was predicting the lion's share of the series' construction to be at the behest of setting up more and more outrageous bullying scenarios, with little mind paid to such frivolities as “themes” or “character development”. One of our two leads doesn't even have a name for chrissakes! And to be sure, if you're here just to watch Senpai get owned over and over, the show has you covered. But starting this week, it's also stepping back a bit and putting forth some effort to define what Senpai and Nagatoro's unusual relationship actually is, and how it might even develop further. That places me, this early on, in a thoroughly unexpected situation where there's actually some content for me to analyze with this show, and so I'll dutifully pursue that angle, even if it does feel, appropriately enough, like they might be messing with me.
I remarked last week on the show's consideration of Nagatoro as an actual person. I assume that's a core part of the appeal, to start, that this could be a real girl who could really bully you, and her humanity comes through even more in this episode. Her oppression of Senpai is something she exercises when in control, so when her and her little buddy are beset by something she wasn't actively considering, like a sudden rainstorm, we see her thrown out of action. Nagatoro does eventually find ways to use the situation to prod at Senpai, but she has to consider it first. Part of the humor is in our understanding that she probably doesn't need to try so hard: Senpai has gotten to the point where he thinks he's playing overwrought mind-games with Nagatoro in terms of second-guessing where she's going with any given train of tormenting thought, but given the opportunity his imagination will run away and he'll effectively end up bullying himself. Even the appearance of fanservice, which would be a simple ‘reward’ of a sequence in a romantic comedy about normal, boring people, is instead deployed here as a punchline confirming the futility of Senpai's efforts to get one over on Nagatoro.
The disparity between Senpai's perception of Nagatoro and her actual personhood is visible from different angles throughout this episode. We see Nagatoro actually considering whether to invite Senpai over to her house, the pros and cons of opening up in that kind of way, but our hapless hero can only initially regard the situation as being led into the belly of the beast. This leads to that ‘doing it to himself’ aspect, as Nagatoro's family isn't even home, yet he immediately launches into a flagellating fantasy of getting roasted by her parents (delightfully performed as instances of Nagatoro herself). Nagatoro's actually just trying to arrange things to take care of him as they wait for the rain to stop; after all, if this guy catches a cold and dies, she won't be able to mess with him. And even in a situation where Senpai's nerdy abilities actually allow him to outmatch her (that is, playing the worst-looking Guilty Gear knockoff I have ever seen), she instead just turns it to her advantage as an excuse to toy with him outside the game anyway. What I was most struck by here was the tone of the presentation: Less an elaborate bullying scheme by Nagatoro and more like just watching two extremely easily-agitated friends spend an afternoon playing video games and screwing around with each other. Compared to the titillating protestations of the previous episodes, you can actually sense some mutual charm between the two here.
That's a growing closeness to be reckoned with in the next section of the episode which drops Senpai into interacting with Nagatoro's other friends. They're seemingly cut from the same sharp-tongued cloth as our focal fury, and razzing someone is a language of affection shared among all of them. Nagatoro isn't necessarily defending Senpai when she counters her pal's put-downs of him; rather, she's possessive of her pathetic plaything. Even if Senpai protests towards the end, proving he'll happily embarrass himself even if Nagatoro's not actively pursuing that result in the moment, the need to be wanted is a primal component of human relationships, and the desire to be seen as the particular ‘pet’ of a girl like Nagatoro rather than something she just passingly messes with is integral to the fantasy here. And if she's apparently not yet ready to engage in a punishing polycule for her pathetic Paisen, we at least see her approach here defined in how she takes issue with her friends insults. Nagatoro doesn't just want to be cruel to someone for cruelty's own sake, she runs on Roger Rabbit rules and will only do it when it would be funny. And now I've looped back again to ruminating on this show's articulation on the convergent rules of horror and comedy. The Miss Nagatoro show should be taught in Film Studies, I tell you.
As if to bully me for all my efforts, the show just settles into doing my own job for me then by the end of this episode. Nagatoro wants to up the comedy quotient of her and Senpai's scenarios by filtering them through the particular rules of Manzai. There's some potentially interesting insight here, though it still mostly serves to demonstrate how much Senpai sucks. You really have to wonder about the extent of Nagatoro's motivation to get him to push back or defend himself from her antics, specifically indicating she wants him to smack her under the auspices of their tsukkomi and boke schtick. This really could be a relationship of give and take, but Senpai can barely imagine mustering that reaction. Even as we regard the whole exercise as Nagatoro feeling him out to find new future avenues to torment Senpai, there's a sense that she's almost proud of him for any advancements he makes, and as with the video-games scene, this comes off way more like the interactions of a couple of catty friends than a full-blown bullying fetish scenario. That's perhaps the main criticism I could level at this episode: It's pleasant enough – quite interesting in places, even – but feels like it's missing some of the teeth of those previous outings. That makes for more clarity in how this show can continue to persist in the long-term, but I have to wonder if it won't be in danger of losing its audience if it forgets what they all really came here for.
Don't Toy with Me, Miss Nagatoro is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
Chris is a freelance writer who appreciates anime, action figures, and additional ancillary artistry. He can be found staying up way too late posting screencaps on his Twitter.