Story & Art by Nanashi
Translated by Kristi Fernandez
Production by Risa Cho & Eve Grandt
Logo design by Mariela Camacha
Don’t Toy With Me, Nagatoro is a striking example of how great art can make or break a comic. Each chapter of Nagatoro revolves around how far the titular character will go to embarrass her Senpai with her relentless teasing, a premise that threatens repetitivity. However, Nanashi’s knack for drawing nuanced, visceral emotions makes each interaction between their characters feel freshly interesting, and Nagatoro succeeds on the strength of these exuberant expressions. Nanashi has a knack for exaggerating their characters’ emotions, their linework feeling effortless and lively, as if Nagatoro herself were poised to leap off the page and get right up in your face.
The series thrives on two moods in particular; Nagatoro’s gleeful smirks and Senpai’s mortified winces. To reduce their feelings to those modes would be a disservice, however, as Nanashi communicates a variety of different extremes within those states of being. The way they’re able to push Nagatoro’s expressions, in particular, really playing with the shapes of her mouth and eyes, become really telling of what her “real” feelings are as the story progresses. Another telling artistic choice is that the characters are also practically always, always, depicted blushing. I find blushing expressions in manga make characters very readily endearing; perhaps the communication of their vulnerability makes them more easy to empathize with. In the context of Nagatoro, I feel the titular character’s blushes as she’s teasing Senpai also relates similar insecurities, making those moments comes across more amusing than they might be otherwise. In general, both characters’ blushes imply mutual feelings of awkwardness and nervousness during their interactions, which at times betrays the truth behind Nagatoro’s teasing facade.
The first few chapters of the series can come across a bit mean, especially when Nagatoro pushes boundaries with Senpai into uncomfortable territory. She inappropriately touches him several times, verbally berates him, and frequently pressures him to do things he doesn’t want to do. She comes across as a total bully, taking pleasure in the pain she’s causing Senpai. Then, late into the first volume, her interactions with Senpai are recontextualized. Senpai witnesses that she doesn’t treat other mediocre men the same way she treats him. Despite them also creating bad art or being cringy, she regards them with apathy and disinterest, remarking that they’re “boring.” What’s implied, essentially, is that Nagatoro teases Senpai because she likes him. For as much as she dunks on him, she genuinely wants to hang out with him and is interested in him as a person. While she criticizes his neuroses and his art, she actually seems to find those qualities about him endearing. There are several expressions she makes throughout the manga that demonstrate that she watches for opportunities to tease Senpai and is mindful of how he reacts, pushing her luck to see how far she can go and backing off when it seems she’s gone too far. To drive the point home even further, there are sketches between the chapters that explicitly depict her worrying if she “overdid it” and checking in on him to see if he’s mad at her. She cares what he thinks of her, and despite everything she does, she still wants him to like her.
Based on these moments, Nagatoro’s transgressive interactions with Senpai seem like her misguided attempts to show her affections and get closer to him. It feels like Senpai has become aware of this by the end of the first volume, and at the very least, he does find her teasing distinct from the bullying he’s received from others in the past. That said, Nagatoro’s first volume is still a bit of a tough read at the start, where the series’ intentions aren’t quite as clear and Nagatoro’s bullying repeatedly enters the realms of physical assault and sexual harassment. While her intentions become clearer, they don’t make her actions any less mean and forgivable, and she’s hard to truly like because of this. Senpai too, unfortunately, is a bit too milquetoast in personality to be much more than sympathetic, though the history he has with being bullied in the past could potentially help flesh him out more. Regardless of the characters’ likability, however, they are undeniably interesting, and the relationship formed by Nagatoro and Senpai is unique and intriguing enough to warrant exploring further. Hopefully, future volumes will explore Senpai and Nagatoro understanding and respecting their boundaries, and start communicating their feelings in a clearer, more healthy way.