She’s as cute and cuddly as any red panda can be. She’s mild-mannered with her inherent Japanese politeness combined with her culture’s representation of young working women making her an arguably adorable concoction of demure and relatable.
An overworked accountant in her mid-20s, who is facing workplace harassment that would enrage even the most even-tempered of people. With an almost non-existent social life and a boring routine in her life in, she is, in her own words “probably like a ton of office girls out there.”
Unlike other office girls (or guys) however, our commonplace easy-going heroine has a very distinctive secret: by night, she transforms into a raging death metal-head, releasing her frustrations in a “for one” room at the local karaoke joint. Death metal is her deep hidden passion of her life, and these nightly solo karaoke sessions are the lifeblood she craves, delivering her from the misery of her monotonous, mediocre existence. She even carries her own mic in her handbag!
This is Aggretsuko, Netflix’s new-ish insightful animated series about the beloved character created by “Yeti” for Sanrio, and it’s the best damn anime Netflix has released this year!
If hearing the words “insightful” and “Sanrio” in the same sentence made no sense to you, you’re sorely behind on the atypically-cute characters as well as the delightfully perceptive and acutely observational animated shorts that the company has been churning out for the past few years. Sanrio, Japan’s mascot design giant, which was (until recently) most famous for making adults annually buy into $7 billion worth of merchandise featuring a little cat that was originally aimed at preadolescent females, has somehow managed to redefine and subvert kawaii culture, which is a huge part of Japanese popular culture and society.
With Retsuko, Sanrio subverted not just kawaii stereotype, but also the Japanese working women. At first glance, she’s conventionally kawaii: polite and submissive, to her colleagues, superiors, or the staff at a department store. She often counts down to ten and wills herself to be the exemplary young working woman.
All day, she sits in the accounting section of her company where she’s been working for five years, going about her mundane tasks as her superiors keep piling on more work on her desk. Not only that, but she has to endure a litany of other tiresome things. Like the pointed shame directed at her from a reptilian manager (who deliberately saves hard-to-open jars for Retsuko, so she can yell at her when Retsuko can’t open them). Or the wrath of their department head Director Ton (who’s literally a pig, like a “chauvinist pig”) who spends half his day pretending to be busy when all he does is practise his golf swing, all while being surrounded by bootlickers and other suckers including Tsunoda, who’s a doe-eyed fawn (she keeps “fawning” over Ton), and the other half of his day ordering Retsuko to run busboy errands for him, such as making him tea multiple times a day or fetching him a beer and then yelling at her when she pours it the wrong way (ie. label side down).
Retsuko, on her part, works hard and diligently. In between her often-overwhelming work, she takes short breaks with her colleagues/friends: Fenneko (a fennec fox co-worker who’s really cool, witty and perceptive, and generally uncaring about social norms) and Haida (a nice-guy hyena co-worker who has a crush on Retsuko which he’s never expressed to her), while lamenting her sad work life and co-wallowing in their shared grief.
All of this is so typical and relatable, it’s kind of uncanny how close to real life the situations and characters are. Anyone who’s ever worked in a cubicle in an office, will instantly identify with Retsuko and commiserate with her. Many might think she’s their spirit animal. But that’s pretty much where any similarities end.
After she’s done with work, Retsuko doesn’t just head home. Instead, she embarks on a nightly ritual where she books herself a room at a local karaoke bar, and proceeds to (figuratively) rip through anyone who crosses her during the day, with pitch-perfect death metal roars. Director Ton, reptile manager lady, department store lady who keeps hovering around Retsuko and forces her to buy a few socks when she’s just “looking” — none of them are safe from the rage of Aggretsuko!
She sometimes also launches into her rage-filled roars in the office, when she stays back alone to finish somebody else’s work, or when she’s in the restroom, and she sometimes also engages in rage-filled headbanging on the office printer, which results in some really photogenic printouts.
Retsuko’s guttural screams of “choke on my rage” or “selling my soul ‘cause I’m a corporate slave” are so far removed from her public persona in the office that when she befriends a couple of older female colleagues from other departments (Director Gori, a gorilla lady who’s the director of marketing at the company, and Washimi who’s a bird lady and secretary to the company’s president), we get a nearly “coming out” moment when she discloses her death metal karaoke obsession to them. Watching her navigate her relationships with people she works with as well as an old friend she runs into (a risk-taking and slightly flakey adventurer who takes great pleasure in showing Retsuko how boringly responsible Retsuko is), is really fascinating. When Director Ton is harassing Retsuko at work, Gori and Washimi conspire with her to teach Ton a lesson and also to soothe Retsuko’s relationship with him. Fenneko, who unearths more about people from their social media posts than any in-person interactions with them, is also a good friend to Retsuko; despite being in the dark about Retsuko’s death metal loving alter ego, and despite making fun of Retsuko’s sometimes-insipid personality, Fenneko always has her friend’s back. It’s all rather heartening.
What’s also heartening is how brutally realistic the show’s portrayal of high ranking female employees is. Gori and Washimi are like a power-duo in the office, and the envy of most other female employees, including Retsuko.
The show does a great job of illustrating even their insecurities, from having to wear high heels to work everyday, to buffing up in the yoga studio in the evenings. Just the sheer range of female characters on Aggretsuko, and the nuanced ways in which they’re portrayed at work and outside the office, is remarkable. Especially for a Sanrio character! I know that the ten-episodes of Aggretsuko are a Netflix production, but the animated shorts before this series also had similarly empowering tones. Which makes for incredibly fun binge-watching.
With Netflix’s Aggretsuko, we certainly have a new version of kawaii. One in which women don’t have to be submissive and affable and demure, or even cute. They don’t always have to be bright-eyed and pink-cheeked and kawaii-voiced to be liked and admired. They can be listless and melancholic and unambitious, with a healthy disdain for old-fashioned norms and a penchant for solitude and rage-filled death metal music.