Striking that work-life-death metal balance in Aggretsuko

By: Alexis Harper July 27, 20180 Comments

SPOILERS: General discussion of Aggretsuko Season 1.

In 2015, Retsuko joined the Sanrio line up as a part of the ever-expanding list of fresh, new characters, such as Gudetama or the Sanrio Boys, through a series of shorts on the Japanese network TBS. After over 100 one-minute episodes, Netflix debuted a ten-episode series in 2018.

While the shorts were limited in their scope and characterization, the longer episodes of the new series offer a multi-dimensional look into the life of the twenty-something office lady/red panda as she struggles with a daily clerical mountain at work, obnoxious co-workers, a troublesome love life, and her literal chauvinist pig of a boss, Ton. The whimsical setting of a corporate animal farm accentuates the dramatic nature of navigating life as a young working woman.

A red panda (Retsuko) in a business suit smiles and leaps into the air, one paw raised.

While just as cute and charming as its predecessors, Aggretsuko might be an unexpected property from the company that created iconic, child-friendly characters such as Hello Kitty and her frog friend Keroppi. The premise of the show revolves around Retsuko, a red panda, who works at a typical business firm complete with cubicles, paperwork, and menial tasks. When she gets frustrated with the day-to-day, she blows off steam at the local karaoke bar by singing her favorite genre: death metal.

Unlike characters we may be more familiar with from Sanrio which seek to appeal to children, Aggretsuko speaks to the sensibilities of adult women. As many can relate to, Retsuko struggles in a space that leaves her overworked, disrespected, and misunderstood at every turn.

The show’s humor varies from relying on the relatably mundane antics of her coworkers, to the ridiculous, to the downright cynical. Dry-witted Fenneko, Retsuko’s fennec fox co-worker, busies herself by scrutinizing her peers’ lives through social media. She is, to a large extent, disengaged with office drama; she is the co-worker who observes without getting involved. Kabae, the office gossip, operates as an irritant as she fails to read Retsuko’s disinterest in her pictures, stories, and bubbly presence. The characters who populate Retsuko’s office serve not only to engage the audience with familiarity, but provide contrasts to Retsuko.

Sometimes, the humor gets weird as Retsuko’s voice changes to an impossibly deep death metal tenor while she sings away the stress of the day in her karaoke room with profanity-laced lyrics. Other times, her superiors’ absurd power trips, such as demanding she open tight jars, drive the punchlines.

Retsuko, eyes glowing angrily, stands on a couch and roars into a microphone. Light rays shine around her.

However, the themes Aggretsuko confronts are what truly make the series compelling.

Throughout the series, Retsuko struggles with performance at work and the idea of quitting her job. Her boss, Ton, antagonizes her at every turn. He makes constant demands of her, ordering she get him tea—not because he’s her boss, but because it’s a “woman’s job.” The slightest error, such as pouring his beer with the label down, leads to mockery. He openly jokes with his male-coworkers that “the only thing worse than an incompetent woman is a competent woman.” Ton goes so far as to freestyle rap about her incompetence at an office party. By the fourth episode, Retsuko considers the possibilities of marrying rich to take her away from it all.

Retsuko’s trials and tribulations are not all Aggretsuko offers the audience. The way Aggretsuko approaches women’s relationships and the possibility of empowerment is vital to the show’s ethos. As the story moves forward, characters develop from expected archetypes to more nuanced depictions.

Retsuko sits at a desk with a doe (Tsunoda), who holds her hands together and cooes. Retsuko looks tired.

In the first episode, when Retsuko triumphantly jumps into the air after graduation, she lands painfully on her ankle, making her come across as a typical ditzy, clumsy protagonist. Retsuko’s death metal karaoke contrasts against her mild-mannered work personality. She is full of righteous rage and knows that she deserves better, but she also understands that she needs her job.

Tsunoda, a doe, initially appears to be somewhat of an antagonist to Retsuko. She literally fawns over Ton, as he practices his golf swing in the office in lieu of working, and doesn’t seem to have any problems with his constant sexism. As the show continues and Retsuko spends more time with her, Tsunoda reveals herself to be unexpectedly practical and uncaring of others’ opinions of her.  She’s perfectly aware of her actions and, like Retsuko, is doing what she has to in order to make her—and everyone else’s—day easier.

Washimi, Gori, and Retsuko’s friendship is the series’ most meaningful element. Washimi and Gori, a secretary bird and gorilla, are introduced in the first episode as two powerful, elegant, high-ranking women in the office. Washimi is the president’s secretary and Gori acts as the marketing supervisor.

A secretary bird (Washimi) and a gorilla (Gori), both in business attire, stand in a hallway. Gori is bent over, holding her back and looking pained.
That “Ow My Back” pose is deeply hashtag-relatable to all of us over-30s out there

Despite their position in the company and Gori’s intimidating, self-titled “baddest bitch in the room” walk, they are immediately receptive to Retsuko. In fact, they notice Retsuko first and take initiative to reach out to her when they wind up in the same yoga class and persistently encourage her to spend time with them.

Aggretsuko not only demonstrates the importance of older or more powerful women as mentors, but also avoids the common trope of depicting older women as unhealthy competition or uncommunicative. Media like The Devil Wears Prada and Ugly Betty have made American audiences expect older women to be pitted against their younger counterparts. Instead of jealousy or unhealthy competition, Washimi and Gori represent a healthy friendship as they offer to take Retsuko under their wings and reject office politics in the name of companionship.

Washimi advises Gori that they must never show “weakness” in the workplace, but it becomes apparent that their office personas are just that: personas that they’ve developed in order to survive in an especially toxic work environment. Washimi and Gori have Retsuko’s best interests in mind because of their common ground as women in the firm. Despite Retsuko’s reservations with revealing her death metal side to Washimi and Gori, when she finally does, they immediately support her with genuine interest.

Washimi, Retsuko, and Gori are in an exercise room all wearing workout clothes. Gori is flexing proudly.

Aggretsuko juxtaposes collaborative female support with the near-constant misfortune and antagonism Retsuko faces. The karaoke room is Retsuko’s only place of reprieve. It is where she vents, where she can say all the things she can’t tell her superiors in person. When her job fails her, the karaoke room remains a constant in her life and the one place where she has control.

When Washimi and Gori stumble on the karaoke parlor, the space starts to mean more. It transforms from a space of self-care and venting to a place of collaborative empowerment. In their private box, Washimi and Gori offer guidance and support in all avenues of Retsuko’s life, from work to love.

Washimi and Gori support Retsuko first by listening to her complaints about Ton and believing her. Their support is not just emotional, but material; they have power they can exercise. Washimi goes so far as to aggressively confront the director of the company. When he blows off her grievances about Ton as rumors not worth addressing, she, being a secretary bird, stomps his desk open with her foot.

In a private karaoke room, a red panda screams into a microphone, her face a mask of rage, while a white bird and a gorilla dance behind her. all three are wearing business clothes.

Towards the end of the season, Retsuko enters a relationship with her co-worker Resasuke, another red panda, at a singles’ night she attends at Tsunoda and Fenneko’s behest. At the end of the night, Retsuko passes out drunk to discover that Resasuke helped her make it home. This causes Retsuko to fall hard for him.

Resasuke is neither an antagonist nor a villain, but he is not good for Retsuko. Resasuke’s coworkers are comfortable calling him the “space cadet” because he acts like a potted plant around the office. He guzzles canned coffee all day, yet daydreams so severely he misses his train to work, forgets his paperwork in his dirty laundry, and does not even speak up beyond a whisper to Retsuko when they meet at the social—opting to text her instead as she sits right across the table from him.

Resasuke is so inattentive he does not notice when Retsuko is rapidly losing weight from their constant outings or wrapping her ankles in band-aids after stomping behind him in heels. Her performance at work declines, causing more ire from Ton. She becomes as spaced out as Resasuke at work—despite spending energy making sure Resasuke files his invoices on time.

Desperate for an escape from her office lady life, Retsuko projects delusions onto Resasuke and their relationship. The show illustrates this delusion in Resasuke transforming into a bishounen character every time Retsuko looks at him. When pressed on why she likes Resasuke by Washimi and Gori, she can only say he’s “nice to her” and that she feels “calm” around him.

In a store, Retsuko holds up two coats of a similar design but different colors and presents them to another red panda (Resasuke) who is facing away from the camera. Retsuko's smile seems forced.

Washimi and Gori give her space as an adult to navigate the relationship in its more nascent stages, despite their clear reservations. As the relationship continues and its damage becomes more apparent, they warn her that she’s performing as the “happy girlfriend” in her relationship just as she puts on a performance as a “good worker” at a job she loathes.

Retsuko finally follows the wisdom of her older friends and breaks up with Resasuke after bringing him into the sacred space of their karaoke room and realizing he’s unable to appreciate her. Washimi and Gori wait for her at the door, ready to welcome her back. Her female support system remains intact despite the obstacles she confronts.

While the trio does not necessarily have the tools to turn the culture of the office upside-down or immediately fix Retsuko’s life, the importance of their dynamic lies in the themes of support, advocacy, and friendship across the social classes they represent.

Although Aggretsuko is informed by Japanese work culture, Retsuko’s day-to-day struggles transcend cultural boundaries. Aggretsuko ultimately reveals many of the serious experiences that young women face as they come into their twenties. With humor and care, the series moves through many stages of the perpetually unlucky Retsuko’s life, while still providing moments of empowerment for women and handling its characters without pandering to its audience. This is a series which skillfully reckons our time.

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