There have been plenty of cases of Nagatoro committing an unforced error that nets her a little more closeness with Senpai than she had initially bargained for, but let us not forget that Naoto also commits his fair share of blunders. For instance, he lent her a boxing movie, so now she shadowboxes all over the club room and eventually wants to spar with him.
He has no intention of even pretending to hit back, but when he dodges and loses his balance, he falls into her arms, and his self-own turns into hers. Nagatoro also plays with fire by letting her life with her circle of friends overlap with her Senpai time, such as when a bunch of loud gamers lead the four girls to flee the dining hall and make the club room their hangout space.
When Naoto expresses his surprise such otherwise aggressive girls gave up so easily, they say they’re taking care of it by sending Sakura in to flirt with the gamers and turn them against each other. But by going along with this strategy, Nagatoro is setting herself up for potential heartache in a later segment.
With Senpai and her friends in such consistent close contact, Nagatoro ends up in the unusual position of having to defend his honor…or rather, his depravity. Gamo, who is most definitely messing with Nagatoro because she knows she actually likes Senpai, declares him an “herbovore” with no libido.
Nagatoro strongly disagrees, calling Senpai a “closet perv” and insisting on proving it by finding a dirty book hidden somewhere in the club room. The thing is, she’s right: Naoto does have a pretty dirty (but also artistic) book hidden away; just not in the room where Nagatoro bet she’d find it.
When Naoto sees how frustrated Nagatoro gets, he slinks into the prep room and very transparently tries to hide it while she’s watching him. This leads her to pounce on him with with a mixture of joy and relief, clearly ecstatic she had him pegged correctly. Rather than watch further PDA, Gamo and Yoshi leave the club room.
In the next segment, Nagatoro not so subtly shows off her new earring, which Naoto naturally notices immediately and compliments. These two are now so close that the slightest change in appearance is a big deal. As a couple in everything but name and with their dynamic largely right up against the precipice of “real dating”, it’s the little details that excite them.
But this is, at the end of the day, dilly-dallying on the part of both Nagatoro and Naoto, and they’re punished by Sakura, the most complex, inscrutable, and possibly brightest of Nagatoro’s three girlfriends. As a result of flirting with the gamers, one of them is now stalking her, and she wants to get him to stop…by pretending to date Senpai-kun.
Gamo and Yosshi are all for this, and Naoto is too nice to decline, even knowing how Nagatoro will feel about it. Of course, Nagatoro fucking hates this, and never lets us forget it in her facial expressions throughout the segment. To her credit, she doesn’t seem to place outsize blame on the situation on Senpai. After all, if he wasn’t as stupidly nice as he was, she wouldn’t like him!
That doesn’t make it any easier to watch her smartly cardiagned Senpai being clung to by Sakura in a ridiculously cute outfit on their fake date. That’s especially when Gamo starts tapping against the fourth wall, calling this one of those situations from one of the rom-com anime Paisen watches, and how those dates start out fake but the feelings gradually become real.
Of course, Naoto is just too uncomfortable around Sakura, even when he doesn’t know Nagatoro is watching, for that to happen, while it’s pretty clear from the get-go that Sakura is only using Naoto to flush out the stalker. And yet there’s also clearly part of her using this scenario to try to light a fire under Nagatoro.
Gamo is content to mess with Nagatoro, but Sakura is more like me: growing a little impatient with their schtick and waiting for them to get real with each other. But there’s no guarantee that will ever happen. I’m sure both Naoto and Nagatoro harbor a measure of frustration over their “failure to launch”, as it were.
But that doesn’t change the fact that they still enjoy each other’s company and their daily interactions, some of them thrilling in their accidental (or not-so-accidental) steaminess, but ultimately safe in their mutual ambiguity and deniability. That might just be enough for them, and may continue to remain so indefinitely. I hope it isn’t, but I accept that as a distinct possibility as we head into the home stretch.
Episode 9 “Senpai” Count: 23 (+11 “Paisens”)