What’s it about? Tonegawa Yukio is the legendary number two of the Teiai Group, a money management firm with obviously shady ties. This is the tale of his daily struggles—to meet his boss’s demand for a thrilling death game, and to remember the names of his identically dressed subordinates.
Are you a middle-aged manager working in an office job? Then this anime might have something relatable to offer you. The rest of us are kind of out in the cold, though.
Middle Management Blues is doing its best to strike an absurd tone: the art is drawn with thick black lines more befitting Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure or Fist of the North Star than a slice-of-life series, there’s a flashforward opening to the survivor of the Death Game who will serve as Tonegawa’s rival, and every event from the murderous to the mundane is narrated by a hyper-intense sports announcer.
It’s all clearly meant to elevate a mundane job to pulse-pounding stakes. Fair enough in concept, if somewhat breathless and grating in execution.
At the same time, though, Tonegawa is working for a clearly evil company that’s going around threatening people into paying off their debts before the “death game” element is even produced. And MMB wants to play an absurd angle off of that as well, with the meeting Tonegawa convenes to discuss Death Game planning devolving into mundane introductions among the identically-besuited henchmen. Again, fine. Horrific evil done in mundane ways has been a ripe subject for comedy.
Trying to do both at once, however, results in neither approach getting full attention and sometimes even cancelling each other out. There are a few jokes that work, like the initial hard shift into the introductions scene, but every effective joke is subsequently beaten into the ground, through the molten crust, and right on down into Hell. Never let a joke go once when you can repeat it six times, that’s Mr. TONEGAWA‘s motto.
What’s left over most consistently across both approaches is the show’s wish-fulfillment angle. Thankfully it’s not nearly so mean-spirited and ugly as Inuyashiki, but its worldview is squarely in sympathy with its protagonist, and how you feel about that is likely going to make or break the show for you.
I said “middle-aged manager” at the beginning of the series, but “male” is no less an assumption for this show. Aside from a Teiai customer getting shaken down in the first part of the episode, who gets a handful of lines, the only women in this episode are pretty, silent dancers in skintight white leotards being used to advertise the Teiai Group. They’re not part of the company that we’re shown here, at the very least.
Even when the show is motioning toward ridiculousness, Tonegawa is being built up as either a semi-mythic or relatable figure: he’s the best at intimidating people who owe the company money, wow isn’t he cool when he tells them society doesn’t owe them anything; he’s bound and required to please his boss, even if that means creating an arena for people to fight to the death; and he’s just so relatable when he yells at his subordinates for having names he can’t remember.
Maybe some of that is indeed relatable for some in a writ-large sort of way. My experience, though, is a little more on the side of the employee being asked to do something by their employer and then yelled at for not meeting an arbitrary and unspoken expectation.
I want to go bowling with the besuited mooks Tonegawa dubs “The Gutter Balls,” not hang around listening to the commiseration of a guy whose biggest concern is whether he’ll be able to go golfing on the weekend. Particularly when this show is so uncertain of its own identity.