Seldom is gay manga as wholesome as Go For It, Nakamura! But this eleven-chapter manga is as soft and sweet as it gets. Written by female manga-ka Syundei, the manga focuses on Nakamura Okuto, an octopus-loving nervous wreck who adores his classmate Hirose Aiki from afar. Whenever he musters up the nerve to approach or talk to Hirose, hilarity ensues: sometimes in the form of mistaken identity, other times in the form of octopus madness. And, of course, there’s a romantic trip to an aquarium.
Go For It, Nakamura! seems to be heavily inspired by the works of Rumiko Takahashi. The comical hijinks and silly conflicts resemble the older romances of the ‘90s anime scene, becoming a window into what could have been if LGBTQIA entertainment became more mainstream way earlier. Even fluffy comedy is remarkable when there’s so little normalized queer romance.
That isn’t to discredit fluffy romantic stories, of course, which can be an important staple for teens. For many, they’re sort of a safe testing ground. Adolescence is awkward enough that we sometimes crave a cheat-sheet to help us navigate social life, and fiction offers a mirror through which we can see our own social life (or lack thereof).
Syundei’s style bears a strong resemblance to Rumiko Takahashi’s art. Takahashi’s characters have a short, stocky appearance. Their features are drawn with softer lines, often with cherubic faces, and a little triangle might represent their noses.
While many artists draw their characters deforming into chibi versions when frantic or anxious, Takahashi often finds middle ground between her standard character models and the chibi style. Additionally, Takahashi’s characters tend to have broad eyes with a lot of negative space, which allows her to illustrate a wide range of expressions and put extra emphasis on what a character is looking at.
While none of the characters in Go For It, Nakamura! feature the muscular figures from series like Ranma 1/2, they are are distinctly squatter than their BL peers, who are usually taller and more willowy. Nakamura’s pupils tend to be the only details on his otherwise large eyes, which go from slanted slits to gigantic and wide, depending on his mood.
This serves to underline his emotional state in every scene, prioritizing characterization over eroticism. The bodies are not drawn to be “yaoi-bait sexy,” but as realistic teens. This helps Nakamura-kun distance itself from the more common (and often exploitative) BL material on the market.
Same-sex relationships tend not to be written for the “right” audience in the manga industry. That isn’t to say that any audience is bad or undeserving of good entertainment, but rather that the audience who might benefit from positive representation is often not prioritized during the creation process, nor are their wants considered.
Many manga featuring same-sex relationships are written for a heterosexual audience who find the idea of two women or two men shacking up to be “hot,” either because they find the two people sexy or because the manga presents same-sex relations as some kind of “forbidden love.”
The vast majority of BL has been primarily written by women for women. Homosexuality is fetishized and treated as an abnormality. The expected relationship dynamics of the seme and uke—stemming from an expectation that one partner has to be the top and the other the bottom at all times (with accompanying assumptions about their personalities)—has even become something of a punchline among anime and manga fans.
While the target audience (read: straight women) may find this entertaining and even alluring, and while many queer men do enjoy BL as well, other queer men might not take too kindly to being told their love is “forbidden” by nature or that there’s something “unnatural” about their attraction to other men. The seme-uke dynamic, with its frequent emphasis on “romantic” assault, certainly doesn’t present a healthy image of a same-sex relationship.
There was a vacuum during the 1980s and ’90s for LGBTQIA stories that specifically focused on humor, awkwardness, and very real emotions of romantic attraction. Not porn, but just teenage awkwardness. While plenty of BL had comedic rom-com undertones (like FAKE), it was still idealized for the reader or perpetuated problematic tropes.
It should also be noted that Takahashi herself has never really written LGBTQIA characters with tact. While her manga are beloved for many good reasons, much of the humor relies on heteronormative ideas.
Several scenes in Ranma 1/2, for example, are only funny if you find the idea of a man hitting on another man he thinks is a woman, or a man trying to “correct” a lesbian, funny. Ranma sees his gender transition from male to female as a curse. While some have embraced Takahashi’s manga, an inclusive escapist fantasy it is not. Takahashi and her imitators left a huge void for LGBTQIA readers hoping to find lighthearted fluff in their manga.
Whether intentionally or not, Syundei addresses that void.
The opening chapter of Go For It! Nakamura sets the tone for the rest of the story by presenting what will be a recurring scenario: Nakamura sees Hirose and finds him adorable; Nakamura gets flustered but still makes an effort to communicate in order to foster a friendship with Hirose, but ends up embarrassing himself; Nakamura runs away thinking that he made an idiot of himself while Hirose is left with only a vague sense of what happened.
Rinse and repeat next chapter, building and building. Add in unexpected variables, like an artist who likes Nakamura or a paranormal club looking for members, and you’ve got a recipe for a fun time.
This recurring plot structure allows the reader to slowly gain a more detailed picture of Nakamura and Hirose as people. Nakamura at first appears intimidating, but as we learn more about him, we realize he’s a tender soul who loves octopi and is all-around nonviolent. Also, he may be bisexual (though this goes nowhere in the story).
Hirose, on the other hand, starts off looking like the popular boy stereotype, only to let it slip that he finds himself exhausted when around other “popular” people he just can’t relate to. Also, he hates theater.
The manga presents the relationship as more friendship-focused than more sex-focused, a relative rarity in popular BL manga. It avoids the pitfalls of a lot of BL that presents the relationship as a means to the sex. In this story, interpersonal communication and friendship is what Nakamura seeks—getting to know his crush is more important to him than jumping into a physical relationship.
Each chapter also features common tropes of the romantic-comedy fluff Rumiko Takahashi helped spearhead back in her early days. You have over-the-top antics, mistaken identity, alternate romantic options who are forgotten after their chapter, crossdressing, and sexual fantasies that never get enacted in text (in Nakamura’s case, a weird fantasy where Hirose gets fondled by tentacles). There’s even a theater episode where Nakamura and Hirose both separately get roped into playing love interests.
These are the sorts of things that are beyond played-out in your typical hetero romance story. But you rarely, if ever, see these tropes being played straight with queer romance.
So, hilarity, hijinks, and romance—all the ingredients necessary for a good romantic comedy anime. But what is the significance? “So what,” ultimately?
Well, Go For It, Nakamura! has a very general romantic comedy feel, which makes it accessible to a wide audience. Popular media has an extremely influential reach. While you can probably point to many profound and artistic manga out there that depict the gay experience, they don’t reach the large audience that pop media does.
People reading this manga may not be against same-sex relationships or LGBTQIA people in general, but they may still see gayness as “the other.” This manga forces readers to admit that a gay hero is no different than they are. They face the same awkwardness and difficulties as straight people. It’s just a different kind of normal, and that’s okay. And, for many queer boys, it offers the representation they need to see to know “Hey, what I feel? That’s valid. That’s good.”
For Western fans especially, Nakamura-kun is part of a new wave of BL manga that are more about identity than sex. It is a story about social intimacy, not sexual intensity. While there is always a place for smutty BL manga, it’s exciting to think that the future may hold a greater variety of titles for audiences to read and embrace.
Go For it, Nakamura! begs one key question: how would the manga industry be if works like this had flooded the market instead of predominantly erotic titles? Would LGBTQIA content have a stronger foothold in the industry to push more realistic or sympathetic representation? One can only imagine what might’ve happened if a manga like Go For It, Nakamura! had brought about a new age of fun LGBTQIA stories decades ago.