A review of Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro

No, I haven’t gotten so lazy now that I’m just reposting old posts — this is different from my other Nagatoro review, which was of the first four officially released English volumes of the manga (as of this writing now up to seven and soon to be eight, so I may have to revisit that at some point.) For now, though, we’re having a look at the recently completed anime adaptation, more or less covering the first six manga volumes.

Since I’ve already written about most of the source material this season of Nagatoro was based on, I might not have as much to say about it as I would otherwise. A lot of what I wrote about before pretty much applies to the anime, since it’s extremely faithful to the manga, only making a few changes to the pacing and the order of a few key events. That doesn’t mean there’s nothing to say about the adaptation, though — in fact, watching the anime brought up a few connections I hadn’t quite made before in my mind, but here they are now, and even if they’re the product of a poorly socially adjusted mind like mine I’ll still go over them, because that’s part of why I write here (and then, maybe a poorly socially adjusted mind is the best kind to address these matters.)

If you don’t feel like going back to that older post, a short synopsis of the series: protagonist, known only as Senpai, is a second-year high school student, a nerdy and painfully reserved guy who only really likes art. He has a run-in with popular sporty girl Nagatoro, a first-year who loves teasing and tormenting him. But hey, of course it’s a romantic comedy and they’re really into each other but they can’t bring themselves to admit it (yet) and Nagatoro’s teasing works to help Senpai find some self-confidence and to socialize somewhat.

Speaking generally, this is a premise that’s been used before — the misfit pair who fall in love is a very old love story setup. But it’s effective when done right, and Nagatoro is doing it right (and for details on how it’s doing it right, you can check out the manga review, because all of what I wrote about it there also applies to the anime — the story wasn’t fundamentally changed in the adaptation.)

This was my first time watching an anime adaptation of a manga I was already reading, as strange as it might sound. I’m really not much of a manga reader. So all this is probably very old well-worn ground to many manga readers/anime watchers. But I was impressed by how well writer/artist Nanashi’s work translated into animation. Nagatoro especially is known for her extreme expressions that often turn cartoonish (for lack of a better term?) These work in the anime just as well as in the manga as far as I can tell, in some cases even adding to the Senpai/Nagatoro dynamic, since those expressions are always directed at or related to Senpai and his own awkward reactions.

The voice acting is great as well — the VAs they got for Nagatoro and Senpai fit their characters exactly, to the point that reading the manga again, I can “hear” the dialogue in those voices now. Sort of, anyway, since the voice acting is naturally all in Japanese. For those who prefer dubs over subtitles, since the series has just finished airing, the dub option isn’t available yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if an English dub is released soon on Crunchyroll. Not a personal concern since I’m firmly on the subs side of that dubs/subs divide with a few big exceptions, but it’s nice to see strong effort being put into English dubbing of anime, and there’s undoubtedly a lot of talent that goes into that as well.

There is an interesting aspect of Nagatoro that I haven’t addressed yet, and that’s the fantastic element to it. As I wrote a while back, one of the reasons I felt I took to Nagatoro so much was because of how relatable I felt the Senpai character was. Like him, I was a loner in high school who stuck to and got very deep into my own interests, shutting everything and everyone else out. When other students were a bit sad at my high school graduation, I found it to be the best day of my life — a sort of “fuck this place that I’ve had to put up with all this time” mentality (I know, for a JRPG/anime fan to have this kind of background is shocking. College was better, at least.)

The point here is that I never had my own Nagatoro to force me out of my shell. It wouldn’t have been reasonable for me to expect one, either. Nagatoro herself is a sort of godsend in disguise for Senpai, but that’s one of the things about godsends — they don’t show up all that often. I can’t say that it’s impossible that such a thing could happen in real life, or even that it’s all that unrealistic, but it seems rare enough that it might not be a stretch to file it under “wish fulfillment” (hell, just go into any thread or comment section about this series and see how many times you read something like “I wish a Nagatoro would bully me/had bullied me when I was in school.”)1

However, I still don’t think this particular kind of wish fulfillment, if that’s what Nagatoro is, is a problem. Firstly, because Nagatoro herself gets something out of her relationship with Senpai and has her own growth. I got into this a bit in my manga review, but that personal growth progresses in the fifth and sixth volumes that make up the later part of the anime run. Though we never get into her mind like we do Senpai’s, it’s implied that dealing with her senpai is making her more empathetic towards him, unlocking some new feelings within her.

A lot of that ties in with the budding romance going on, and yes, there is a ton of sexual tension between them that both the manga and anime largely play up for comedy, especially given that Nagatoro tries to tease him in that sense but can’t really do it that well since she’s just as inexperienced as he is. But there’s also a strong element of friendship there. It’s worth noting that Senpai even breaks through to Nagatoro’s tight group of friends, which consists of a few especially rowdy girls he’d never have thought of associating with before. And he eventually succeeds, because while they’re initially pretty cruel to him, they end up backing him up when they see how well he and Nagatoro connect.

Nagatoro both insulting and motivating Senpai to make him finish a 5k run.

And secondly, this isn’t any fairytale rainbows and unicorns bullshit.2 Senpai has to make serious efforts that are difficult for him to even meet Nagatoro halfway. As a result, it feels rewarding to see him gradually break out of that shell with her help. As much as I’ve come to hate the expression, he really is constantly stepping outside of his comfort zone — if that expression was made for any situation at all, it was made for this kind. And if “wish fulfillment” like this is created even in part to encourage such healthy behavior, then I have no problem with it.

All that said, none of the sex jokes have been toned down from the manga, so that aspect of the series can still be freely enjoyed or complained about depending upon your preference. I still think it’s strange that Uzaki-chan was the series that received all the fire from the usual sources, while Nagatoro from what I could tell mostly escaped it, considering that the latter is a fair bit more provocative. Maybe those usual sources simply wrote Nagatoro off immediately without any further scrutiny. Anyway, I can’t pretend to get why the hell people get pissed off about fictional works on social media to the extent that they start holy wars over them. If you’re a sociology or psychology major, there’s a good subject for you to think about.

Nagatoro’s thesis statement

But if you don’t care about any of that nonsense, my final take on the Nagatoro anime is that it lives up to the source material. Ten years ago, if you’d told me I’d be actually enjoying romantic comedies and/or school-setting anime series, I’d have laughed at you — but look at me now. I guess I’ve changed too. I’m even hoping for a second season, but whether we get it or not, I’ll continue following the manga.

 

1 To be fair, I don’t know how many of these comments are just from masochists, or more likely from people who think they’re masochists. If so, approaching Nagatoro from that perspective feels like it’s missing the point, especially since Senpai clearly isn’t a masochist — what’s going on between him and Nagatoro is more interesting than that.

2 Not that fairytales were even like this either. Go read an original from the 1,001 Nights or the Brothers Grimm and see how pleasant it is. A happy ending more often than not costs some blood to get there, which at least isn’t something you can say about Nagatoro. No blood, but there are plenty of sweat and tears to be found here.

The Episode 1 anime dice roll (rolls 8 – 10)

Another post so soon?! Impossible, I know. But this helps me out, since it gives me some motivation to actually start these anime series if I know I’m planning to write about them. So really, this post is as much about me pushing myself as it is about giving you the reader my first impressions.

Setting my selfish reasoning aside, let’s get on with it, starting with:

Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Gou

That title can be translated 15 different ways, so I’m sticking to the Japanese one here by default, but it’s basically Higurashi New from what I can tell. The original visual novel series it’s based on takes place in the village of Hinamizawa, where the transfer student Keiichi Maebara has just moved. At first glance, this kid seems to have it pretty good — outgoing and surrounded by his new friends, all living a quiet life in the countryside. However, the village contains some dark secrets that Keiichi has just stumbled upon, and one of those new friends of his is acting pretty damn weird, and hey, is that a machete (edit: billhook, sorry, it’s a billhook) in her hand, and is she right behind him?

This is pretty much the first episode of Higurashi Gou. I watched the original 2006 anime adaptation shortly after it finished airing and I remember liking it a lot, but I’ve also forgotten enough about the story in the last 12/13 years that this feels like a new experience again. And Higurashi Gou apparently takes the story in a different direction from the original works, so it’s not just a straightforward remake, which I’m happy about as well.

This first episode was really well done, with some good misdirection (almost all of it is cute slice of life-style messing around with Keiichi and the girls, just as in the 2006 anime adaptation) and nice-looking character models by Akio Watanabe, the character designer for the Monogatari anime, still another draw for me. I figured I’d like this anyway — writer Ryukishi07 tells a good story, and I’ve heard Higurashi Gou more than lives up to the original Higurashi series, so I’ll certainly keep watching.

Blue Reflection Ray

I’ve written about both the game Blue Reflection and its soundtrack, so probably no surprise that I’m writing about this as well. The currently airing Blue Reflection Ray is a new story that takes place in the same world as the game, but at a different school with new magical girls. Ruki Hanari, a transfer student (yeah, again) has extreme social anxiety that makes it hard for her to connect with her classmates. Fortunately for her, she makes at least one new friend at Tsukinomiya High School: the outgoing Hiori Hirahara. But of course, Hiori is a Reflector (i.e. a magical girl) and Ruki comes across a ring by chance that connects with Hiori’s, and we know where that’s going.

That said, this first episode is a bit confusing, because it throws a lot at the viewer without explaining very much of it. I had some idea of what was going on because of the concepts it shares with the game, but even then I was kind of lost. I’m thinking episode 2 will contain a lot of these explanations, made to Ruki before she decides to become a Reflector herself. The show also has a weirdly 90s look, at least to me. Maybe that’s just a nice way of saying it looks kind of rough, but then some of the scenes look nice, so I don’t know. It might just be me, but I don’t mind too much.

The story and characters are a lot more important than the look, anyway, and I’ll be sticking with Blue Reflection Ray to see where it goes for now — 24 episodes are planned, so it has plenty of room to develop in interesting ways. There’s also a strong yuri vibe between Ruki and Hiori, so if you’re a yuri fan, this might be worth checking out.

Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro

Of course I wasn’t going to miss out on the Nagatoro anime considering how much I’ve enjoyed the manga up until now. I was a bit worried about whether it would measure up, since this is the first time I’ve watched an anime adaptation of a manga I’m currently reading as it airs (I’m not much of a manga reader, anyway.)

But after watching the first episode of the anime, all those worries were swept away, because they really nailed it. I wrote a general plot/character summary in my post about the manga linked above, but basically Nagatoro is a sporty, popular girl who bullies the hell out of her nerdy artist senior at school (merely called Senpai; he never gets a real name) but of course she actually likes him, and again we have a good idea of where this is going. The anime is extremely faithful to the manga so far and really translates Nagatoro and Senpai’s interactions well. Great opening theme and animation, too, though the flashing colors might give you a headache if you watch it a few times over.

Not much more to say about Nagatoro, except that it’s very promising and I’ll be watching it every week. Even if I already know what’s going to happen, since it doesn’t seem like it will stray too far from the original story.

That’s all for this round. I promise I’m going to make an effort to actually continue a few of the other series I’ve written about in these posts — in fact, I’ve watched all of Blend S, and a full review will be coming soon. Probably early next month, though, because first there’s more Atelier to get to. That series has taken over my life recently and it’s not letting me go just yet. I’ve started a draft about Escha & Logy and it just keeps growing, so if you like my rambling-style posts, you can look forward to that one.

A review of Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro (Vol. 1-4)

I’ve never written a plain old review of a manga series on the site until now, so this will be a first. Maybe not a last, either. And I figured that since I’ve already written about it as a jumping-off point for a more broadly themed post, I owe Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro1 an actual review. The series is currently up to 70 chapters as of this writing, but this review is only of the first four volumes that have been officially translated and published in English. Because I’m a fucking weirdo who still likes to own print media, and I actually own these four volumes in physical form, volumes that I think are worth a closer look.

Yeah I’m reusing old images, what’s it to you

I covered the basic premise of Nagatoro in that first post, but basically it’s about a nerdy artistic loner student who has a run-in with one Nagatoro2, a sporty, popular girl one year his junior. At first, Nagatoro mercilessly mocks this guy (known only as “Senpai”; aside from this generic title he’s never assigned any other name) for his loner ways and his hobby of drawing self-insert power fantasy comics. And it’s damn rough going the first several chapters. Even the sometimes irritating Uzaki has nothing on Nagatoro, who comes off as a sadistic bully in her first interactions with Senpai.

Senpai’s reactions to Nagatoro’s teasing only strength her resolve to mock him, because at first he just can’t take it, openly breaking out into tears the first two times and then cursing himself for it. And the third time they meet, Nagatoro makes him a very obviously fake offer of a date that he completely falls for, after which she mocks him again.

At this point, one might just encourage our poor Senpai to tell Nagatoro to fuck off. However, around the middle of the first volume, it starts to become clear that both Senpai and Nagatoro are enjoying this game they’re playing with each other in a strange way. Senpai soon notices to his surprise that Nagatoro doesn’t mess with any of the other guys at their school the way she does with him, which suggests that she’s giving him special attention, something even Nagatoro doesn’t seem to consciously realize. And that’s why despite initial appearances, Nagatoro is really a romantic comedy. Yeah, our two main characters like each other, but they’re both too awkward and unsure to express it or even to realize it quite yet.

Of course, this “two very different characters fall in love” sort of story is nothing new. Uzaki-chan has a similar premise, and so did the much older Toradora, and outside the realm of anime and manga it’s also a common setup. And I’ve said before that I’m not really that big on romantic comedies like this. So why the hell do I like Nagatoro?

In that post back in August, I talked about how the relatability of Senpai helped me to form a connection with and empathize with him, and also to better enjoy the work as a whole. I still think that’s true, but I also think the manga’s laser focus on its two main characters and their development is more important. Nagatoro tells a pretty simple story in that sense — it does have other characters who play their parts in Senpai and Nagatoro’s story, namely Nagatoro’s small group of female friends who join in on messing with him.

However, these and the few other characters who show up seem to be there just to contribute to the development of this central relationship between Nagatoro and her senior. At one point in Vol. 4 for example, Senpai spots the girls at a park bench getting approached by a couple of jocky male classmates, one of whom clearly has his sights set directly on Nagatoro. This steams the hell out of Senpai, and to his great credit, rather than passively watch Nagatoro get asked out on a date and NTR’d away from him by this guy, he marches up to the bench almost without thinking and says “let’s go home” to her, all the while nervously wondering what the hell he’s doing. But his plan works, because Nagatoro is only too happy to leave with him, and all her friends take the cue and go along with our nerdy protagonist as well, leaving the two jocks sitting on the park bench embarrassed and probably wondering what the hell just happened.

By this point, the pair have more or less become friends, and we already have plenty of hints piled up that they have mutual feelings for each other, so there doesn’t seem to be any danger of a love triangle popping up (though I could certainly be wrong about that.) But of course, Senpai doesn’t know that. And Nagatoro is equally jealous of her exclusive right to mock Senpai as much as she wants, getting into little fights with her own friends when they start to get too familiar with him.

But it’s not just a budding awkward romance — these two characters through their interactions start to change each other for the better. The effect on Senpai is dramatic; by the end of the last officially translated and published volume he’s already noticeably more confident and outgoing thanks to Nagatoro dragging him out of his comfort zone time and again. Though he’s still an introvert, he’s not using his time in the school’s art room just to escape from reality anymore.

One of the most telling (and entertaining to me) signs of this change appears in Senpai’s series of self-insert fantasy comics he draws during downtime at school. At first, we see that he draws himself as a sword-wielding hero who travels with a beautiful swordswoman, with whom he seems to have some sort of thing going. Even after Nagatoro discovers this comic and thoroughly mocks him for this in the manga’s very first chapter, he keeps drawing it. But it changes, with Nagatoro herself becoming a character in the comic and mocking and prodding him in exactly the same way she does in real life, wedging herself even into Senpai’s escapist fantasy world.

When your secret crush sees your fantasy catgirl fanart of her… but in this case it actually turns out fine, because Nagatoro is excited to have something else to make fun of Senpai for.

There’s also a pretty clear effect on Nagatoro. Throughout the manga, we’re mostly in Senpai’s head hearing his thoughts, so Nagatoro’s own thoughts and feelings sometimes have to be guessed at. But it does seem like initially she just wanted to make fun of Senpai in a mean-spirited way, only discovering later on that she actually likes him. But does she stop mocking him? Absolutely not — she now instead uses her mockery to whip him into shape, to push him into situations where he’ll develop self-confidence since he can’t just run away as he did before. So although she might not realize it herself, Nagatoro’s strange friendship with Senpai seems to have made her a better person as well, with their relationship making them into something like equals. This is especially evident when Senpai finally gets a hit in on Nagatoro every so often and we see her get flustered and somewhat humbled.

It’s for just this reason that the bullying aspect of Nagatoro doesn’t bother me so much. It does start out pretty damn rough, and as I said in my first post dealing with the manga I can’t blame some readers for dropping this one early on because of it. However, the bullying pretty quickly turns into something very different, and it’s pretty easy to see the path these two characters are taking towards both a solid friendship and a romance (way down the road, though, because naturally it’s going to take a long time — that’s just how these series go.) So I’d urge readers to try to stick with Nagatoro if they can. It pays off, at least up to the point I’ve read.

So yeah, I like this manga a lot so far. Senpai and even the sadistic Nagatoro ended up becoming pretty endearing, and I look forward to seeing where they go from here. Both the art and story are done by one person, named only Nanashi (nanashi as in anonymous?) and the art style is nice as well — Nagatoro is especially expressive, which adds a lot to her back-and-forths with Senpai.

As far as the physical volumes themselves go, they’re fine. Though I can’t speak to how good the official translation is since I still barely know Japanese. I assume it’s good, but I’ll leave that for others to judge until I can actually read this language at a competent level. I do have one complaint related to that, though: I wish there were at least a few translation notes, because I think they would have been helpful. For example, a few chapters in, Nagatoro finally bothers to tell Senpai her name (and also refuses to learn his because she says she doesn’t need to know — rough.) Before this, Senpai refers to her as “you” because he doesn’t know her name yet, and Nagatoro replies with “The way you say ‘you’ is creepy.”

This is a weird comment to make, since referring to just about anyone with “you” is completely normal and expected in English. It’s only when you look at the original Japanese and find that Senpai is using the pronoun kimi, which means “you” but seems to be a bit of an either rude or intimate way to refer to someone depending on the context, that Nagatoro’s comment makes sense. I don’t know if it’s possible to directly translate this sort of thing in the conversation itself, since it really doesn’t make sense in English, but I think that’s what translation notes are for.3 This goes especially for a manga like Nagatoro that deals with awkward social situations, where context is important.

There’s more effective tension in this one panel than in the whole of the last season of Game of Thrones, and I am serious about that

Finally, there is some somewhat suggestive material in the manga so far, but it serves to advance the relationship between our two main characters. A lot of it also comes about thanks to Senpai’s overactive imagination, though Nagatoro does encourage him in that with her bullying and teasing. I just don’t get the feeling that it’s gratuitous. There’s actually a very wholesome sort of budding romance under all that when you get into the story. Though there might still be enough such material for another dumb Uzaki-esque moral outrage to flare up when the Nagatoro anime starts airing, but I hope we can avoid that nonsense.

I’m going to keep following these characters — as I said, they’re currently a lot further along in their story than the couple dozen officially translated chapters out now, though you have to look up the original manga if you can read it for that, or else other alternatives that exist around that I probably don’t even have to tell you about. The anime adaptation has also just been announced for the spring season next year, so barring any virus-related delays we’ll be getting that in just a few months. I look forward to seeing how it measures up. ð’€­

 

1 Since I’m already nitpicking in this review, I may as well bring up the fact that some fans don’t seem to like this translation of the manga’s original title, which is Ijiranaide Nagatoro-san. I’ve heard some say “Don’t Bully Me” would be better, but then from what I can tell, the verb ijiru, 弄る, that’s used here does translate as “to toy with” or “to play with” with the implication of messing around with something, so the English title seems fine to me. But again, I’m no expert. Maybe the people complaining are all bullshitting and it’s just another meme or something, I have no idea.

2 She’s referred to by her family name Nagatoro throughout the manga (and by “Hayacchi” by her other friends, which is a clue to her given name.) Referring to people by their family instead of their given name is apparently still another big cultural difference between Japan and the US. I wouldn’t mind being called by my last name, though. I like that idea for some reason.

3 Or maybe I think this because I’m a bad writer who feels the need to shove way too much extraneous information into footnotes.

Do your protagonist or leads have to be relatable?

Relatability is thrown around a lot in discussions about what makes good and bad fiction. If you’re creating any kind of fiction, it helps you get and keep an audience if they have some prominent character at least to connect with in the story — someone who’s sympathetic or is going through a relatable experience.

I thought about this recently when I read through the first few volumes of the manga Ijiranaide Nagatoro-san, officially published as Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro. This manga caught my attention because 1) it’s been getting a lot of talk ahead of an anime adaptation planned for sometime in the near future, and 2) it’s apparently extremely divisive, with some readers loving it and others dropping it almost immediately. To me, something so divisive has to be interesting, so it’s probably worth checking out even if I end up not liking it.

And I can see why someone might drop this manga after reading a couple of chapters. Nagatoro-san is another one of those high school romantic comedies that are so common, but its sadistic element sets it apart from the others. Title character Nagatoro is a popular first-year student who fixates on a nerdy loner art-loving second-year, known only as “senpai” throughout, because of how strongly he reacts when she makes fun of him. People have compared it to series with similar setups like Teasing Master Takagi-san, but Nagatoro cranks the mockery level way up. Of course, as in that series, there are strong hints that she’s only messing with him because she likes him; we see later on that poor Senpai is the only guy she treats this way, usually only in private, and when her friends try to get in on the action and mock him a bit too much she gets pissed off and stops them.

After getting past the initially harsh, hard-going couple of chapters, I ended up enjoying the rest of what I read, I think partly because of how well I could relate to the Senpai character. All this guy ever really wanted was to be left alone to paint still lifes of fruit and draw his wish-fulfillment fantasy comics with his self-insert character. Shortly after Nagatoro wedges herself into that peaceful loner life he’s living, she asks him why he doesn’t fight back when she messes around with him, and his answer is telling: he says that when he’s bullied, he just closes up his heart and ignores it until it goes away.

Of course, again, the reason Senpai doesn’t just ignore Nagatoro in the same way is that he likes her too, and this is obviously one of those slow-burn romances where the two main characters will end up together, but will take a hell of a long time to do it because of their clashing character quirks (see also the now-infamous Uzaki-chan Wants to Hang Out!) But the way he handles all the other bullying he deals with, that really hit me in the gut. I shouldn’t project any of my feelings onto the author, but it reads just like it was written by someone who’s gone through the same sort of thing, or at least by someone who was a close-up witness to a lot of that treatment at school.

I’m in this manga and I don’t like it

The fact that the protagonist of Nagatoro-san is so relatable to me helped me connect with him and get into the story, which does get quite a bit lighter and nicer when it starts to become clear that Nagatoro is trying to help out and get closer to Senpai, albeit in her own weird, aggressive way. However, it also raised that question of relatability. Does relatability always have to be there to connect with your protagonist and leads?

I’d say it depends on what sort of story you’re trying to tell. A romantic comedy of this kind definitely needs some relatability, since it’s presumably trying to build an emotional connection between the main characters that it wants the readers to get invested in. To use an example from a very different sphere of fans/viewers, the US version of The Office did the same thing with Jim and Pam, two relatively normal, nice characters who many fans wanted to get together. These two were probably more relatable to most than a lot of the other weirdos working in that mid-sized Pennsylvania paper company branch, so it was easier to get invested in the story through their perspectives.*

However, there are works I’ve liked, and even loved, in which the protagonist was totally unrelatable, or in which he was even a complete asshole. For an example of the former, check out Mahjong Legend Akagi. The title character isn’t a bad guy at all, but not because he’s exactly “good” either. In some sense, he rises above basic ideas of “good” and “bad” in the course of his story. As a genius gambler, he knows how to utterly crush his opponents without remorse, and he does so, but what he’s really looking for is a challenge in which both he and his opponent put everything on the line, up to and including their lives. Other characters in the series, almost all crooked cops, shady fellow gamblers, and yakuza members, come to fear him and refer to him as a “demon”, not because he’s evil but because of his sheer talent and just how different and how much more terrifying his ways are when compared with those of the money-driven underworld.

This is a teaser for a future deep reads post, by the way. There’s a lot to say about Akagi, both the character and the series.

Even having an asshole or a plain old criminal for a protagonist can help make for great fiction, however. Up until it started to get stale around the fourth season or so, the US Netflix production of the political crime drama House of Cards did a great job with this, casting excellent actor and now-accused real-life criminal Kevin Spacey as the ruthless, coldblooded House Majority Whip Frank Underwood. Underwood is so ambitious that he’ll do anything for power, and he does a whole lot of evil things to achieve that power up to and including committing multiple murders. There are a few sympathetic characters who take part in the story, and most of them end up crushed and sometimes even killed by one or another of Underwood’s schemes.

While I watched the show, though, I was all in for Underwood. I wanted to see how he would make it to the Presidency, and then how he’d fall from that high office and end up ruining himself. Underwood’s occasional asides, addressed directly to the viewer, helped create this connection. But that’s not quite enough; you also need a compelling story to make this kind of evil protagonist work, and House of Cards managed that for a while at least. Underwood wasn’t relatable, at least not to me, but I was riding along and wanted to see how his ruthlessness and cruelty would play out.

The fact that the character Underwood ended up ruined because of illicit acts his actor was accused of having carried out is quite a weird thing in itself (and the subject for an entirely different post, and really a different sort of blog than mine) but it’s easy to imagine an alternate reality where that story could have played out much more effectively. I have heard that the original UK version of House of Cards told its story in a more effective and compact way, and it had a proper ending too. I might check that out one day myself.

All the Spacey stuff was obviously a problem, but I think the writers had stretched the show out way too long and kind of fucked it up by that point anyway. (Image source)

So when does a protagonist or a central character fall flat or annoy me to the point that I have to drop a series? If the work is trying to portray a shitty, or even a simply unremarkable, character as someone amazing but we the audience don’t see it, that’s when I get genuinely pissed off at it. To me, this is one of the hallmarks of lazy writing: “I want a cool protagonist but I don’t know how to effectively depict one, so all the other characters will say how amazing they are and the reader/viewer/etc. will see it too!”

But it doesn’t work that way. On the contrary, the harder a character like that is pushed without properly establishing why we should like them by showing and not telling, the more I’ll hate them. It’s part of that “Poochie Effect” I wrote about a while ago. Though she has her fans, Marie from Persona 4 Golden was an example of such a character for me. She didn’t really hurt the game, since she was more or less a side character, but the way the game tried to push her was a bit annoying — the temperamental teenager act came off as simply grating, even if there was a lot more behind the character than was evident at first. At the very least, I didn’t feel too compelled to learn about what was behind Marie until I was forced to by the game, and a big part of that had to do with her irritating character traits that I was apparently supposed to find endearing. Or maybe I wasn’t and Atlus are a bunch of sadists too.

So as you can see, I’m no expert. I’m a shitty hack writer myself, so I have to try not to make the kinds of mistakes I’m talking about here when I’m working on fiction. So please tell me if you feel like it: what kinds of characters can you relate to, and what do you think makes for an effective or ineffective protagonist? Do you need to be able to relate to the protagonist or at least to someone in the story to enjoy a work? Do you think this was just an excuse for me to post a review of Don’t Toy With Me, Miss Nagatoro while pretending I wasn’t doing that? I’m interested to know your opinions. ð’€­

* Kevin is still my favorite character, though. At least before they changed him from secretly smart to just plain stupid. It wasn’t quite as bad as what The Simpsons did to Homer, but still noticeable.