In Defense of Resasuke: Autism-coding and ableism in Aggretsuko

By: Marina Garrow May 10, 20190 Comments
Resasuke and Retsuko in a roller coaster holding up a can of coffee and a beer respectively

I’ve been thinking about Aggretsuko a lot lately, the anime about the quintessential millennial red panda who blows off steam from her oppressive accounting job through Death Metal Karaoke.  Season 2 is supposed to air sometime this year, we had the Christmas Special a few months ago, and the protagonist Retsuko herself was nominated for Best Protagonist at the Crunchyroll Awards.  

People loved the deceptively cute death metal panda. The show’s seemingly simple yet charming premise got me on board as well.

Fenneko, face in shadow, holding up her phone to the camera
Seriously, this anime also has ZERO chill. Fenneko is legitimately talking about Japan’s real life “demographic crisis” here, without coding or symbolism, she’s just straight-up referencing the actual statistics.

But now I have mixed feelings about it.  There is one problem with this otherwise awesome and even progressive anime that really bothers me, and it has to do with Resasuke.  

Specifically, it has to do with the fact that he is very heavily coded as being on the autism spectrum, and in how the ending of the anime played out.

close-up of Resasuke

Autism, its Symptoms, and Portrayal in Media

Autism is a neurological disability people are born with that can be the source of a variety of symptoms and challenges in life.  Most of the symptoms tend to involve challenges in socializing and with language use. The large amount of diversity in the specific symptoms and in the severity of said symptoms that people experience is why most people describe autism as a spectrum.  I myself was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum when I was in middle school.

Because of the variety of symptoms, there are also many characters in media, including anime, with characteristics that could be seen as an indication they’re on the autism spectrum. Symptoms include difficulty picking up on social cues or implied meaning; abnormal speech and/or body language (often portrayed in media as a perpetually “blank” expression); reduced or delayed motor skills; or an over- or under-sensitivity to stimuli, resulting in particular preferences in clothing and food. [1][2][3]

On one hand, some people on the spectrum can learn to hide many of these symptoms. Maintaining eye contact, for example, is often one of the first things we are taught to do even though it makes many of us very uncomfortable.  So technically almost any character can be on the spectrum; they just might be very good at hiding it.

On the other hand, if we could “diagnose” a fictional character based on only one-to-three visible characteristics, then something like 90% of all shounen leads would be canonically on the spectrum and that would be ridiculous.

A crowd of identical chibis making different expressions

 Even if it would also, admittedly, be pretty awesome, but that’s beside the point.

In any case, I do not intend to “diagnose” any characters. For the purpose of this article, I will only consider many of them to have autism-like characteristics if there is a significant amount of textual evidence.

I am also obligated to caution against diagnosing yourself based on this article. Guidance on how you might be able to get financial help in getting professionally tested can be found here.

There are several anime characters who express very similar characteristics and go through similar experiences as people on the spectrum. Devon Buchanan here on AniFem wrote an amazing piece on Violet Evergarden and how closely Violet’s experience mirrored that of someone on the spectrum. Patricia Baxter also wrote about a trio of characters she interpreted as neurodivergent for your further reading.

Manumaru putting his hand on Resasuke's head and pointing to him

The Case for Resasuke

In his debut episode, Resasuke exhibits many of the same common characteristics and clues described above. Frankly, he turns out to be one of the most heavily coded ASD characters I’ve seen.

In the first several minutes of episode 8, there’s a lot of hints that might not mean much on their own, but build up over time.

Being clumsy and walking into walls doesn’t really mean much on it’s own. Anyone can be clumsy, or just tired, or hungover, or etc.

Resasuke seen from behind, looking through a doorway

In his very first appearance, we see Resasuke getting reprimanded by Tsubone for “flaking out” and losing track of a receipt needed for his reimbursement.  There are four things to notice here:

  • Tsubone does most of the talking in the conversation, to a somewhat abnormal degree for her.  Resasuke never says anything more than one word at a time for the entire conversation.
  • Resasuke’s facial expression never changes—we have here an example of the perpetually blank facial expression.
  • Fenneko introduces him to Retsuko and the audience as “the space cadet,” commenting on how he’s always “flaking out like that.”  In the Japanese version she specifically describes him as a “spaced-out guy from sales.”
  • Resasuke is clearly clumsy and forgetful to the point of being barely functional: the episode implies this is far from the first time he’s left his receipts in his pockets when he puts his clothes in the wash, and then he walks into a wall in the same scene.  

In any case, the big “ah-hah!” moment for me came later during the singles party.

Resasuke doesn’t speak at all (even when others are teasing him) until Retsuko asks him a question, and then there is a long pause before he begins speaking and Retsuko can’t hear him over the din of the party.

Retsuko and Resasuke sitting across the table from each other at dinner

Don’t you hate it when that happens?

While anime most commonly uses the flat-monotone voice, some people on the spectrum may have a hard time controlling the volume of their voice as well.  This can either mean they always speak too loud, or in some cases (such as Resasuke) too quietly, depending on the person.

In Resasuke’s case, he is either a quick thinker, or most likely he’s been in this situation many times before, so he shows Retsuko a QR code to register his phone number.  The two of them spend the entire party communicating via text.

This is also the first time we see Resasuke communicating with full sentences. Using a device to communicate is common among some people on the spectrum.  In some cases, a device is practically a requirement. This is one of the autism-related characteristics that is very rarely shown in media, much less portrayed in an endearing manner.

Retsuko smiling at her phone at the table

Did I mention I thought that this whole scene was the most adorable thing ever?

There’s another detail made obvious in episode 9 that truly seals the deal: Resasuke clearly has difficulty “taking hints” or understanding implied meaning.  This is one of the most common symptoms of autism in real life, as described in this Psychology Today article.  

But this is where things get complicated.  

Resasuke and Retsuko in a roller coaster holding up a can of coffee and a beer respectively

Dubs, Subs, and the Two Resasukes

In episodes 9 and 10, the subtle but striking divergence that the English dub takes from the source material becomes the primary source of unease for me as a viewer.

After the singles party, Retsuko gets sent on errands to pass messages on to Resasuke.  It’s at this point that Retsuko realizes she has a crush on Resasuke. Each time she brings a message, she also brings a can of coffee with a colorful sticky note reminder of his assignment on the can.

A group of coffee cans, all with post-it notes on them

All of these are from Retsuko

When Resasuke’s friend Manumaru comments on it, in the Japanese version Resasuke says “she sure seems disciplined,” which admittedly could mean a lot of things. In any case, the translation that the English dub chose to go with was “She sure cares about those invoices.”

The subtle difference between the English version and the Japanese version in this case is that the English version sounds almost patronizing and dismissive on Resasuke’s part.  Meanwhile the Japanese version is merely a neutral and honest opinion, perhaps expressing gratitude towards Retsuko’s discipline in helping him, or complimenting her discipline as a good employee, depending on how you interpret it.

In any case, both English and Japanese Resasuke missed his friend’s point: the girl clearly likes him.

Manumaru crossing his arms

 “She’s obviously trying to nudge you into asking her out” – Manumaru in the Japanese version

On one hand, having a neurotypical friend help someone like Resasuke navigate a relationship by giving relationship advice is a fantastic idea.  Bless Manumaru’s soul for that.

But there is one serious problem: Manumaru is pressuring Resasuke into the relationship.  Apparently Manumaru is “worried” because Resasuke doesn’t have a girlfriend.

As well-meaning as it is, getting pushed into a relationship generally doesn’t bode well for that relationship. It’s why I don’t necessarily have a problem with the fact that Retsuko and Resasuke broke up. I only have a problem with how it was handled, the way the dub translated it, and—as a result of the impression that the dub left us with—how the viewers and fandom reacted.                         

Resasuke in profile

Maybe he just doesn’t want a girlfriend, Manumaru?

The biggest and for a long time only glaring functional problem with the relationship between Retsuko and Resasuke has to do with communication.  Retsuko doesn’t directly communicate with Resasuke, and Resasuke doesn’t explain to her that she needs to be direct when speaking with him.

For example, when they go on a date to an amusement park, Retsuko gets tired walking around so much. But instead of telling Resasuke that, she indirectly suggests they take a break by asking if he is tired.  Resasuke isn’t tired, so he says he’s fine. The two keep exploring the park—and Retsuko’s feet end up covered in blisters as a result.

In both versions (but more so in the Japanese version), I got the impression that literally all Retsuko had to do was say “I am tired,” and Resasuke would not have had a problem with resting.  

Retsuko consistently drops the matter when similar misunderstandings pop up in their relationship, even when her feet are literally bleeding. This utterly baffled me when I first watched it, because I thought the entire point of the previous arc where Retsuko told off her boss was so she could learn to assert herself.

Retsuko blushing and reassuring Resasuke

Yet this might not be something a neurotypical (someone who is not on the autism spectrum) person would easily pick up on. And, unfortunately, the English dub only makes it harder for the viewers to empathize with Resasuke and easier to place the blame for the breakup on him and his “uncaringness.”

This became especially obvious when Retsuko and Resasuke watch fireworks at the amusement park. In the Japanese version, when Retsuko asks Resasuke if he is cold, he takes this literally and replies that he’s fine and not cold.  He doesn’t realize the proper thing to do in this situation would be to lend her his jacket.

The English dub, on the other hand, went to town with this interaction. Retsuko says, in a much more general fashion, “Wow, crazy how cold it got, huh?” Yet not only is Resasuke unable to pick up on a hint that was easier than the one given in the Japanese version, he responds, “I’m fine. Good thing I brought this jacket.” It effectively, even intentionally on the part of the translators, makes him seem like an actual jerk.

Retsuko blushing and imagining Resasuke as cool and stoic-looking

The Breakup

The sub’s and dub’s different opinions of Resasuke become glaringly obvious in the lead-up to their break-up. Noticing that Retsuko’s struggling at work, Ton (the sexist boss, of all people) gives her a pep-talk, telling her she needs to stop giving more than she’s receiving.  Resasuke is never mentioned by name, but it’s obvious to other characters in the show that Retsuko’s dating him, and her odd/exhausted behavior was explicitly called out by Ton himself earlier in the same episode.

After he asks if she understands, and she responds with an affirmative, in the English version she tells Ton: “You’re not a bad person.”

In the Japanese version, on the other hand, she says “demo warui hito ja nai’n desu” (でも悪い人じゃないんです), which directly translates to “but is not a bad person.” Pronouns (such as “you” and “he”) are frequently omitted in Japanese, but given the context of the conversation and that Retsuko began the sentence with an expression of disagreement or concession (“demo,” commonly translated as “but”), the most reasonable conclusion is that she’s actually referring to Resasuke, not Ton. The translation reflects this, as the subtitles read “He’s not a bad person” instead of “You’re not a bad person.”

A close-up of Retsuko with tears in her eyes, cheeks flushed. She says "He's not a bad person..."

With the pronouns changed, the entire narrative clicks into place. The transition to her telling Resasuke that she’s been lying about who she is and falling out of love with him flows much more naturally from an admission that “he’s not a bad person,” as opposed to transitioning into this directly after another unsatisfying date which ended in more bleeding feet.

In the Japanese version, it’s made much clearer there’s more than one reason they aren’t getting along as a couple, and all of the reasons are addressed with a respectful amount of weight.  In the English version, the only conclusion that narratively makes sense is that she broke up with him because he can’t tell when her feet are hurting—essentially, because Resasuke is a jerk.

Retsuko doing death metal karaoke for Resasuke

Missed Opportunities and Reaffirmed Stereotypes

It’s not necessarily how Resasuke’s portrayal is “distasteful” that’s the true problem in-and-of itself.  In fact, the dub version of Resasuke could technically still be a well-meaning ditz. People on the spectrum can inadvertently say very embarrassing and rude-sounding things by mistake, like the dub version of Resasuke does.  The problem is this only works if the character’s assumed flaws (in Resasuke’s case, uncaringness) are directly, explicitly, and dramatically proven false in spite of their surface quirkiness.

In practice, the fandom at large did not consider Resasuke as a well-meaning ditz, but a jerk. For example, The Mother’s Basement on YouTube offhandedly summarized the entire Resasuke plot as, “catching drunk feelings for someone who is actually a bit of a boring, thoughtless jerk,” and I don’t entirely blame him for getting that impression.

Resasuke reaffirmed negative views about people who “can’t take hints” and share other autism-related characteristics. Because this “distasteful” portrayal reaffirmed negative beliefs instead of subverting them, Resasuke’s portrayal is therefore actually distasteful.  

Resasuke looking at his phone

For aware viewers, the Japanese version would have been fine—fantastic, even. It’s a nuanced depiction of what happens when two people who aren’t ready for or don’t want a relationship get pressured into one, and including neurodivergent people in that narrative in a respectful manner is certainly valuable.

But for some out-of-the-loop neurotypical viewers, I’m not sure they would have realized Resasuke might have had a legitimate reason to miss Retsuko’s “hints.”  If Resasuke’s disability was intentional on the part of the writers, I find it strange that the same show that called out sexual harassment failed to include crucial details to inform the audience about what was actually going on with regards to Resasuke as well.

Resasuke standing in a doorway, looking at a bedroom full of houseplants

I don’t want to discount how important Aggretsuko might be in other departments, but in the anti-ableism department, it leaves much to be desired.  The dub changes the entire narrative to blame Resasuke exclusively for the breakup and portrays him as a jerk only because he could not understand Retsuko’s indirect language.  The dub also reinforces two of the myths people should stop believing: the myth that people on the spectrum are uncaring, as well as the myth that people on the spectrum wish to stay isolated.  

The Japanese version also happens to reinforce the second myth, although perhaps by coincidence. Not everyone wants a significant other and this applies to neurotypical and neurodivergent people alike.

However, the script’s choice to not come out and say Resasuke made all of those mistakes by mistake is strange given that the show never pulled any punches with anything else. It also makes me less hopeful that we ever will see Resasuke fleshed out as a character who truly does want company (be that friendship or whatever), let alone that he will ever get the redemption he deserves.

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