Content warning: Discussion of stalking, sexism, worker exploitation
Spoilers for Aggretsuko
When you graduate college, it’s a sign you’re heading towards something greater: the beginning of a brand new career, the start of the family you’ve always wanted, maybe even traveling around the world. For me, it meant landing headfirst into a mountain of greasy sixteen-inch pepperoni pizzas.
Delivering for this place was abysmal—I’ve done many menial jobs before and since that were worthwhile, so believe me when I say that this pizza gig was the worst. I worked long days for roughly $8 an hour, with some of them lasting fourteen or fifteen hours. Driving all the time meant I racked up three speeding tickets, and during my first week, I almost crashed my car into a tree. When I finally quit, I took the most glorious ride home to watch a show that mirrored my situation: an animated series about talking animals made by the Hello Kitty people. Of course.
At first glance, the white-collar business world of Aggretsuko differs vastly from the pizza shop I floundered in. I wasn’t filing papers, I wasn’t attending boardroom meetings, and I never had to worry about accidentally wearing shoes that weren’t proper attire. And yet, I still could relate to Retsuko’s situation. Because the job itself is just half of the equation. Aggretsuko isn’t just about the pitfalls that come with growing up and accepting responsibility. It’s about the pitfalls that come within the exploitative system of capitalism.
What makes Retsuko’s situation so interesting is how she’s tethered to the same systemic issues Karl Marx critiqued almost two centuries ago. In The Manuscripts of 1844, a Young Hegelian Marx took note of capitalism’s unscrupulous underpinnings by saying the system coerced workers into labor in exchange for wages and, in the process, stripped away the worker’s essence.
At her workplace, Retsuko is turned into another cog in the machine. Tsubone drops off stacks of papers at Retsuko’s desk for filing, only to later admonish her for making a few tiny errors. The boss, Ton, and his sycophantic sidekick, Komiya, berate Retsuko for doing what they see as women’s work, while they slack off to practice golfing—you know, for “business meetings”. For a moment early on, the belittlement transforms Retsuko into a mindless automaton, complete with a robotic voice and a creepy unflinching ability to take orders and work without stopping. It’s a brief scene, but it’s what Marx meant when he said that shitty jobs often have the worker “sink[ing] to the level of a commodity and becom[ing] indeed the most wretched of commodities.”
This all occurs within Aggretsuko’s first season, which best puts to use Marx’s theory of alienation. Marx outlined that alienation happens when the worker becomes so invested in their labor that they paradoxically become separated from it. It’s a process that comes four-fold, first in the form of being alienated from your work. As another disposable member of the accounting department, Retsuko manages finances and accounts that aren’t hers, files documents that eventually end up in Ton’s hands, all on a fancy computer that she can’t bring home for her personal use. This is something that is beyond Retsuko’s control and fuels her contempt for the job.
From there, Retsuko becomes alienated by the process of labor. Marx wrote, “the worker puts his life into the object; but now his life no longer belongs to him but to the object.” Retsuko realizes that her work is for the benefit of another (a boss, a client, whatever), resulting in a workflow that does not fulfill her “but mortifies [her] body and ruins [her] mind.” She lacks control over the process, and the repetitive nature of the job buries the talents and skills she has as a person.
Then comes the next stage of alienation: alienation from your peers. When we’re first introduced to Retsuko’s co-workers, they are all depicted as annoying and in-the-way. Kabae is a cantankerous, loud-mouthed, middle-aged mother who delights in spreading gossip and showing off pictures of her family. As the boss, Ton is a callous and misogynistic pig (literally) with no redeemable traits. Even a poor shopping clerk who sells Retsuko clothes is seen as a pain in the ass. The process of alienation turns workers who should share a mutual struggle into adversaries. In my world of delivery driving, I not only dealt with tough customers, but I also had a co-worker who took breaks to snort heroin in the bathroom. It happens.
This all leads to the final stage: the worker alienated from herself. Retsuko’s crappy nine-to-five reduces her down to a mechanized labor machine, and she becomes so indifferent that nothing else matters to her. The only way she can reclaim a scrap of her humanity is through complaining about her job via death metal karaoke. No wonder she envies her friend Puko. Even though Puko lives financially on the edge, the chains of capitalism don’t shackle her the way they do Retsuko.
Sanrio was wise to include their brand of cute animal mascots into the mix. Besides being a trademark of the company, the character designs match the idea of capitalism turning you into an animal. Marx noted that it is our species-being that provides us with the consciousness and creativity that animals do not have, and ultimately the mark that proves our superiority. We can create, invent, and enlighten through our work. But capitalism can rob us of these activities, making us work for its ends instead of our own.
We are only human when we work for the capitalist, and when we stop working, we become reduced to our immediate animalistic needs. In Marx’s own words, “In tearing away from man the object of his production, therefore, estranged labor tears from him his species-life, his real objectivity as a member of the species and transforms his advantage over animals into the disadvantage that his inorganic body, nature, is taken from him.” So what better way to establish this “cattle like existence” than to have barnyard quadrupeds work alongside woodland critters?
And yet, no matter how much it criticizes capitalism, we must never forget that Aggretsuko is still a corporate product made to churn a profit, meaning Sanrio needs to find things for the show to keep on going for five seasons. To do so, Retsuko’s desire to quit her awful job is always met with disappointment.
The first two seasons have Retsuko try to marry her way out of a job, but the men in her life fail to properly satisfy her. Season one’s Resasuke isn’t actually interested in a relationship and only dates Retsuko because his friend pressures him into doing it. Season two’s Tadano doesn’t want to marry or have children because they fall in line with boring tradition, which makes Retsuko realize she only loved him for the money.
In season three, Retsuko is forced to join an idol group to pay off debt racked from a car accident. This would have been the perfect opportunity to further dig into heartless capitalism via the idol industry. Maybe how youthful femininity is exploited by agencies to make a profit, or how the idol industry’s alienated labor is no different than that of Retsuko’s day job? Weirdly enough, our heroine finds freedom and thrives in her newfound celebrity as an idol. For the most part, her only real struggle is learning how to play an F chord on guitar (and yet nobody tells her about power chords or the magic of drop D tuning? How unrealistic.). Unfortunately, the script needs to find a way to end the season, so it decides to take a Perfect Blue turn out of nowhere by having a deranged fan try to stab Retsuko in an alleyway.
Needless to say, it’s a slapdash and awkward note to end the season on. It feels like a take on the psychoanalytic theory of desire realized—the idea that there’s always a phantasmic object-cause of desire that constantly tantalizes us from far away, and should we get it, we realize that we didn’t want it in the first place.
The idea that Retsuko is better off staying at her nine-to-five because her innermost desires lead her down the wrong path comes across as shallow. It’s especially disingenuous considering that not only does Japan still suffer from its karoshi problem, it was recently found that over a third of Japanese companies illegally overwork their employees. The surface-level interpretation is the wrong one to take away here. It’s not that Retsuko can’t quit her job because the alternative is worse. She can’t escape the ebb and flow of capitalism because there simply is no escaping it.
Mark Fisher once famously said that it’s easier to predict the end of the world than it is the end of capitalism. His words rang true when the COVID pandemic first hit us a few years back—even during a biological apocalypse, capitalism still soldiered on as usual. We often think of overwork as a Japan-specific problem, one with its own specific term. But during COVID, it became clear that societies worldwide are happy to demand their workers face serious, even fatal illness in the name of preserving the nebulously-defined economy.
In other words, not only were a few bourgeois denizens trying to rob us of our species-being, the entire system of capitalism was trying to kill us. Now we’re seeing a Great Resignation where many of these workers are quitting their jobs en masse. While it barely puts a dent in capitalism, it does reveal one important thing: that workers aren’t going to take it when their livelihood and souls are being sold just to scrape by in life.
I don’t want to end things on a dour note, so I’ll say this. It’s been four years since I quit my pizza gig, and now I find myself working Doordash as a second job. The irony here is thick. Just as there’s no end to capitalism, I guess there’s no end to delivering pizza, as well as Chinese food, McDonald’s cheeseburgers, and, on one odd occasion, a bike from Walmart for a kid’s Christmas gift (which rocked, by the way). It might not be the dream come true, but even with everything considered, I still know that there is something noble and admirable about being a productive member of society. If a fictitious red panda like Retsuko can prevail through so much mundane minutiae, then we real human beings must as well.
It’s the only option we have.