“Afraid to Grow Up”: Gendered rage in Aggretsuko

By: Megan Navarro Conley February 19, 20200 Comments
Annai framed and backlit imposingly, subtitle: I will be reporting everything to our superior

Content Warning: Discussions of workplace harassment and sexism.

Spoilers: For character arcs and plot points in Aggretsuko Seasons 1-2.

You wouldn’t think that a show produced by Sanrio would be the most accurate portrayal of the youngest generation of office workers, but there Aggretsuko is. Watching the show as a young woman office worker myself, Aggretsuko felt almost like a homecoming: I loved Sanrio as a kid, with my Hello Kitty backpack and stuffed animals and even utensils for snacktime in kindergarten, and now here was a show by the same company aimed towards me as an adult. 

I couldn’t help but relate to red panda Retsuko’s struggle to feel satisfied and happy in the stressful 9-to-5 job that she’s had for five years. As its aggravated heroine navigates workplace gender dynamics, Aggretsuko unexpectedly becomes one of the best depictions of modern female-coded rage in anime. However, where season one mostly dealt with how Retsuko handles her emotions, season two instead explores the different ways in which men and women are allowed to express their anger in society, exposing a double-standard within the show itself. 

Aggretsuko smiling against a fiery background

At the beginning of season two, we can already see how much Retsuko has grown from the events of season one. After previously joining yoga classes and socializing more with Washimi and Gori to enrich her life outside of work, Retsuko has started to focus on personal goals for herself, starting with getting her driver’s license.

She’s nervous but attacks her lessons with a desire for freedom, not only from the workplace, but also from her mother’s pressure and her life in the city. Retsuko’s renewed determination in life sets up season two’s theme: being afraid to grow up, but doing it anyway. 

However, it is her workplace that still prevents Retsuko from focusing on herself and her own improvement. Season two introduces Anai, a junior coworker new to the office. At first harmless and enthusiastic, Anai quickly turns into a threatening, bullying nightmare in Retsuko’s life. 

Images of Retsuko's daily routine. subtitle: Work, go home, internet, sleep.

On Anai’s first day of work, Retsuko tries to teach him how to answer company phone calls, but it quickly becomes clear that his upbeat attitude and loud enthusiasm actually covers up an intense social awkwardness. After watching him fumble through phone calls, Retsuko simply offers to answer them for the moment. 

Later that night, she learns about the third layer to Anai when he sends her a violent email, accusing her of being “detrimental to his career” and a “lazy superior,” while also demanding an apology from her. He threatens to report her to Director Ton for attempting to “sabotage” his future with the company.

With the introduction of Anai, Aggretsuko returns to its central theme of exploring suppressed anger in the office. Where Retsuko’s female-coded rage was the crux of the show’s first season, now we have Anai’s male-coded rage to compare her to. The crucial difference between Anai and Retsuko is whether or not they choose to direct their rage at people: Retsuko painstakingly hides her metal screaming from other people, while Anai emails those he believes have wronged him. 

Retsuko stressing next to Annai. subtitle: that includes Accounting.

Over the course of season one, Retsuko grows more comfortable with sharing her anger with other people, but she still goes to great lengths to keep it hidden. She goes to karaoke alone until she becomes friends with Gori and Washimi, after which the karaoke sessions also become a place for gossip and venting. 

But at work, Retsuko politely excuses herself to go the bathroom, where she sits in a stall and mutters, “I’ll count to ten, and I’ll be a model citizen again.” When she’s upset with her boyfriend Resasuke, the mantra becomes, “I’ll count to ten, and I’ll be a happy girlfriend again.” 

She frequently hides her rage behind a strained smile before walking off to a private area to scream about her situation. Retsuko does not want people to know how angry she can get, even though she regards that anger and her specific expression of it as part of who she is. 

Retsuko hiding in the bathroom. Subtitle: when I count to ten, I'll be a happy girlfriend again

Anai, however, clearly goes out of his way to take his anger out on others. Like Retsuko, he waits until he is alone: we see him sending emails in his empty new apartment, surrounded by boxes and sitting on the floor. He literally seems to become another person, the same way Retsuko does, depicted with a different, boldly stylized expression.

When he sees Retsuko in real life, though, Anai exhibits his usual sparkling cordiality to all of his coworkers—until he corners Retsuko in a storage room to threaten her out of everyone’s view. 

The show draws plenty of parallels between Retsuko and Anai, but the starkest example is when Anai suddenly begins to rap in episode 5. At their company festival, Retsuko has to rely on Anai to cook the dish they’ve decided to sell, meaning she now has to cooperate with the coworker who’s been secretly harassing her.

While he cooks, Anai breaks out into a rap over EDM synth music. He appears to be singing the way that Retsuko does: removed from the world of the other characters, a narrative tool to show how he is feeling.

Annai rapping while cooking. subtitle: check the steps but innovate! Give 'em all a treat to masticate

Because screaming is Retsuko’s core trait as a Sanrio character, music is also a signature tool of the show. In season one, the only other characters we see and hear singing are Director Ton in the karaoke battle and Resasuke in his love song with Retsuko. Both of these characters sing because they are interacting with Retsuko, but Anai’s song is only for him, and he remains the only other character throughout season two to have a song in this way. 

Metal music is Retsuko’s primary way of venting her frustration and rage with the world, and it is a significant trait built into her character. Because the show gives that trait to another character who exhibits rage in a harmful and potentially violent way, it draws a parallel between Retsuko and Anai’s rage, marking them both as equivalent and valid. 

The show completes the comparison between Retsuko and Anai’s anger when Retsuko finally confesses what’s been happening between her and Anai to Gori and Washimi. Both of these women are higher-up executives at Retsuko’s company, as well as implied to be older than her. Throughout the series, Retsuko goes from being intimidated by them to becoming their friends. She confides in them about her workplace and relationship angers. 

Retsuko doing karaoke for Washimi and Gori

Washimi and Gori are important to Retsuko because they give her advice on how to function in the workplace, despite feeling the same way that she does, as these two role models are also looking for fulfillment outside of their work lives. Yet when Retsuko tells them about Anai, Gori sympathizes with him:

“I wonder if this type of employee is on the rise. We had one in our department as well. […] He threw fits at the drop of a hat and kept calling us an abusive company. […] I should have been better to him. By giving him some hope, maybe. […] They’re probably afraid of becoming adults and joining society. An adult shouldn’t act anxious in front of an anxious child. We have to instill confidence in them.”

The idea that men are simply “children” who are “afraid to grow up” is not a new way to excuse them for abusive behavior, especially when it comes to excusing their actions towards women. Often, the defenders in sexual assault and harassment cases refer to grown men as “kids” or “boys” who have simply made “mistakes,” attempting to convince the public and authorities to be more lenient on them. The language that Gori uses here is a perpetuation of this culture that forgives men for their violent behavior towards women by making them seem younger and less accountable for their actions than they are. 

Gori with a glass of wine. subtitle: an adult shouldn't act anxious in front of an anxious child.

Gori’s language here dovetails into season two’s theme of growing up, but it also creates an inherent double-standard in the show. Aggretsuko’s main focus has always been about the sources of Retsuko’s anger and how she deals with those feelings. Whether it’s through screaming metal music or talking to her friends, Retsuko has always been clumsily trying to find ways to release her feelings in a way that does not affect anybody negatively, even when that is the only solution to her anger. 

After Gori gives her perspective on Anai, Retsuko goes to work the next morning, ready to apologize to him, because she thinks, “I’m as scared of becoming an adult as Anai is.” The problem with this is that even if Anai is scared, even if he is nervous about his job, even if he is lonely, he doesn’t have the right to take that out on Retsuko or any of his other coworkers. 

By having Retsuko acknowledge Anai’s feelings as identical to her own, the show seems to imply that Anai’s violent threats are simply a way for him to express anger, just like Retsuko’s metal singing. The show downplays his harassment as a “man’s way” of expressing the same anger that Retsuko experiences as a woman.

However, this juxtaposition exposes the show’s double-standard: men are allowed to take their anger out on other people, while women are expected to suppress and control that same anger. 

Annai framed and backlit imposingly, subtitle: I will be reporting everything to our superior

Retsuko accepts Anai’s violence by identifying with it, even though we’ve seen her, time and time again, go to painstaking lengths not to harm anyone with her own anger. So not only does the comparison between Anai and Retsuko equate Anai’s violent anger with Retsuko’s careful suppression, but Retsuko appears to forgive him by accepting that this is just how men express their rage. 

The damage of this forgiveness is two-fold. For women, it implies they have to appease the anger of men in order to prevent their own harassment and to not rock the boat of workplace dynamics. If women don’t appease and forgive, then the harassment is simply “their fault.” And, for men, this forgiveness and the continued metaphor of men as children implies that they need to be coddled by women because they have no self-control. It harms everyone.

A rage-filled Annai on his phone. subtitle: and part of the power imbalance that plagues workplaces...

Through all of Anai’s episodes, one word rang constantly through my head: “Why?” What was the point of drawing all of these comparisons between Retsuko’s signature female-coded rage and her male coworker’s violent harassment? Why did the show seem to want me to sympathize with this character that had scared and threatened Retsuko, a character I had identified with so much?

I was disappointed in the show after Gori had made that speech with thoughtful, epiphany-inducing music in the background. It was disheartening to see Aggretsuko give in to the same patriarchal rhetoric I thought it had purposefully avoided. 

And then Anai’s arc just sort of… ends. He and Retsuko do not have a final discussion about how he treated her. Like so many of his counterparts in the real world, Anai goes unpunished. Instead, he uses his cooking skills to make friends at the company. Once he has learned how to be a team player, he helps Retsuko with some of her work.

As viewers, it feels as though we’re supposed to believe the issue is resolved. Unfortunately, perhaps the fact that Anai’s harassment simply ends makes Aggretsuko all the more realistic.

Anai, wearing an expression of exagerrated rage, looks at his phone while Retsuko watches him from down the hall, looking angry

What I always liked about Aggretsuko was that charming juxtaposition of being a “very realistic” anime. Its sobering mix of realism and optimism made me binge the whole first season. I liked Retsuko because she was frustrated and somewhat naive, but she was still funny and determined to reach her goals, once she had them. 

But this second season has made me question what exactly realism’s purpose in this show is. The season clearly sets up the theme of “growing up, even if you’re afraid,” then promptly shows the audience examples of how that anxiety can manifest as anger in both women and men. Not only that, but it shows us Retsuko harassed and verbally abused by a new character whom we are supposed to believe is her equal simply because he is afraid of the same thing that everybody else is.

When the arc wraps with Retsuko forgiving and understanding Anai’s anger, the show essentially reinforces the double-standard of real-world society: male anger matters more than female anger. It is the woman’s job to forgive, to help the insecure man even if he’s harassing her directly. In the workplace especially, male frustration may be vented upon other people, while female rage can only be expressed outside of working hours. 

Retsuko mid-song. subtitle: You wanna fight?! You gonna catch these tiny hands!

While Retsuko goes on to achieve her goals and a better understanding of herself throughout the rest of the second season, Anai’s arc fails the audience—especially those who are themselves young women working in offices—by simply showing us a “realistic” version of these events, instead of how Retsuko could overcome the injustices in her workplace.

Season one was so captivating because the blending of realism and optimism showed us how Retsuko could find healthier coping strategies. It humanized her antagonists without excusing their harmful actions. Season two should have been a continuation of Retsuko’s journey towards healthier relationships in and out of the workplace. It’s a shame that isn’t what we were given.

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