Mangaka Syundei’s Go For It, Nakamura! is a comedic slice-of-life manga in which highschooler Nakamura Okuto struggles to admit his affection for his classmate, Hirose Aiki. Throughout the volume published by Seven Seas Entertainment, Nakamura does everything he can to get close to Hirose and become his friend while struggling with how nervous he gets about how cute his crush is and what Hirose must think about him. Overall it’s an adorable series about being a gay young man in high school with a crush that can’t be helped even if it’s unlikely to be reciprocated (Hirose’s orientation isn’t made explicit in the volume).
The most unusual thing about the volume is Nakamura’s pet octopus, Icchan. After finishing the volume, I couldn’t get Icchan’s seemingly random inclusion out of my mind. I thought about how there isn’t an explanation for the octopus’s inclusion, just as there isn’t an awkward “explanation” or justification for Nakamura’s homosexuality. He just is, and the octopus just is. Throughout the volume, it becomes more and more apparent that Icchan and octopi in general are representative of Nakamura’s queerness.
At the start of the second chapter, when characterizing Nakamura, the narrator focuses on two primary qualities: his love of Hirose and his love of his pet octopus. No explanation is given regarding where he got Icchan or why he finds them so cute, but Syundei leaves plenty of hints for readers to find connecting Nakamura to the eight-legged cephalopod.
Later in the chapter, Nakamura’s class is shown opening a takoyaki stand for the school’s cultural festival. The other students react in disgust at the live octopi their teacher brings for them to cook, but Nakamura is–unsurprisingly–immediately comfortable around them. Syundei promptly links Nakamura’s sense of identity to the octopus through Nakamura’s anxiety regarding how other people might perceive him as they do the creature.
A few panels later, it’s revealed that Nakamura, whether consciously or not, associates the octopus with his sexuality. Seeing Hirose holding his favorite animal triggers his desire for Hirose and reminds him of a recurring fantasy.
The panel that follows is a peek into Nakamura’s mind–a sexually charged image of a fully clothed Hirose wrapped in a giant octopus’s tentacles. Were it not for all of Hirose’s clothes staying on, the image wouldn’t look out of place in a fetish-porn manga and though it’s natural for teenage boys to fantasize about their crush, the characters’ young ages make the moment uncomfortable for me as a reader. Even if I feel the same idea could have been conveyed without explicit visualization, the connections linking Nakamura to the octopus thus far in perception, identity, and sexuality make it a key moment in situating the octopus at the center of Nakamura’s idea of the queer experience.
The first time we see Nakamura really begin to open up to Hirose is when he is asked about his love of octopi. Just like before, he begins enthusiastically but becomes self-conscious and shies away from the subject after he remembers being made fun of for his interest in octopi when he was younger.
Queer people are not inherently born with a fear of heterosexual threats and aggression; these worries are learned through traumas of bullying and rejection. In place of Nakamura being harassed for his sexuality, a trauma that’s been visited time and again in media, Syundei smartly evokes the same feeling of withdrawing into oneself for preservation through Nakamura’s interest in octopi. By avoiding the time-honored tradition of queer people having to read about or see themselves tragically brutalized, Syundei allows Nakamura’s rejection to be known without the upsetting tropes that would make the series a much heavier read.
Similarly, when Nakamura is at his most self-doubting later in the volume, Syundei uses Icchan to visualize Nakamura’s darker feelings creeping up on him.
Octopi are cute to Nakamura, but to many, they also seem extraterrestrial: very alien, very “other.” Queer people are often trivialized into accessories for straight people to fashion themselves with on trips to the mall or jaunts into the “justified” use of slurs, and are only made all the more other by their allies’ efforts. Here Icchan, the queer, the alien, the other, represents Nakamura’s otherness and looms his alienation over him in a fit of anxiety. There is joy in queerness and Icchan brings Nakamura much of it, but there is also the ever-creeping reminder that despite shared laughs and walks home from school, you will always be the one with a few extra arms that doesn’t quite fit into the world around you.
Queer people must learn to survive by reshaping themselves. Squeezing themselves into dark holes or learning ways to navigate the world that others will never need try. It’s no surprise that when Nakamura visits the aquarium seen above and manages to tell Hirose what he likes about octopi, he mentions their abilities to do the very same things that queer people must.
Not only is Nakamura a teenage boy, shifting and changing and fitting himself into molds he may not like, but as a queer person, his need to fit himself into narrow spaces to survive exceeds that of his straight peers. As a queer person, he cannot simply run up and wrap an arm around another boy at school or share his real feelings. As a queer person, he has been shoved into a jar by rejection, stereotypes, and expectations. After being forced into hiding for so long, queer people have to find new ways to open up to others, requiring problem-solving skills their straight peers don’t need to develop.
This scene at the aquarium crystallized my ideas about the connections between Nakamura, octopi, and queerness, and it made me look back on a lot of Nakamura’s actions leading up to it in a new light. Yes, he can be overbearing and awkward. He’s overenthusiastic, yet defeatist. He’s a teenager and he’s queer. Every time he did something a little too selfishly or strangely or embarrassingly in an attempt to just be near Hirose, I’d just look into his eyes, and I couldn’t help but identify with him. As a queer person, I couldn’t help but identify with that queer young man who doesn’t yet know how to use all the extra arms that queerness grants him. Who doesn’t yet know how to push his tentacles up against the metal lid of self-doubt and oppression and twist it off. Who isn’t yet able to expel all that confusion and rejection like a cloud of black ink and surge down to trenches where straight people never dare drift to join his fellow otherworldly, queer creatures in the dark.