Death metal is often the only solution, even for the cutest and nicest among us. Perhaps, especially for the cutest and nicest among us, like say red pandas–my go-to for the cutest among us*. It is for Retsuko, the red panda protagonist of Aggretsuko. She is an accountant in a large company based in Tokyo. Retsuko is nice and cute. She’s good at her job and tries hard. Her friends thinks she is “responsible.” She does more than her share of work in the office. She gets roped into organizing social functions. She gets taken for granted. She tries hard to make things work that just won’t work. When she got the job she felt she was taking her “first step as a true member of society.”
Five years later, Retsuko hates her job, her boss and her boss’ misogynist crap so much so that sometimes the word rage glows on her forehead. Her rage can only be exorcised by singing death metal. Corpse paint appears on her face as she sings what she cannot say. She sings her fury in her imagination, in the bathroom or in an after hours karaoke sanctuary where the mandrill attendant knows her simply as, “party of one.” I appreciate how Retsuko’s songs appear karaoke-style on the screen. Sing along about your shitty boss!
Though Retsuko tries a variety of solutions for her unhappiness at her job over the course of ten episodes, Death Metal is the only solution. As is so often the case, it’s not only a release for Retsuko, it’s a revelation of her truest self.
Netflix’s Aggretsuko expands on elements from Aggressive Retsuko / Aguresshibu Retsuko, a series of 100 one-minute shorts that aired on Japanese television from 2016 to 2018. Both series were produced by Fanworks using characters created by Japanese cuteness conglomerate, Sanrio. And both series were written and directed by Rarecho. Rarecho also performs Retsuko’s singing voice while his wife Kaolip performs her speaking voice. The flash animation is charming with the stripped down character design. And it’s apparent simple cuteness and very stylized world is a nice juxtaposition with the intensity of Retsuko’s songs and some of the more adult-not-in-the-euphemistic-sense content.
Aggretsuko has the structure of children’s animation, at least in terms of length. Adventure Time, We Bare Bears, The Powerpuff Girls are all about eleven minutes in length, not including ads. Aggretsuko is about fifteen minutes, without ads. Animation meant for adults on American television tends to be longer. But Aggretsuko is not meant for anyone younger than eighteen and not because of adult language. It’s because of adult situations like: a sexist, abusive boss; co-workers sticking you with their work; an inattentive, utterly passive partner; being trapped listening to boring stories; keeping a terrible job because rent needs to be paid; wearing cute shoes that hurt; falling in love with the idea of your relationship with someone; and, not being safe in revealing what should be innocuous parts of oneself.
Children would be bored and it is possible adults will be distressed, except there’s cuteness and catharsis.
I like both series, though I find Netflix’s Aggretsuko a bit more appealing than the one-minute shorts. This slight preference is probably a combination of getting to see more of the characters’ lives in an episode; the intensity of watching 30 one-minute shorts at a time rather mixed with other programming over the course of two years; and being a member of the English-speaking audience Netflix’s Aggretsuko was aiming for. And in Netflix’s Aggretsuko, her songs are often longer. We see more of her relationships with her literal pig boss, Director Ton, and her co-workers, Fenneko and Haida, are fleshed out. Her yoga instructor takes on a much larger role. And some characters, like Buffalo Boss, disappear, though he might re-appear in season two. Also, I enjoy seeing more of Director Gori, the gorilla marketing director of Retsuko’s company, and Washimi, a secretary bird and secretary to the company’s CEO.
The shorts rely on the universality of Retsuko’s experiences to convey character: The misogynist boss; the boss’s lackey; the gossipy co-worker who overshares; the viciously passive-aggressive supervisor; the drily sarcastic co-worker who creeps on everyone’s business; the apparently friendly yet secretly vicious co-worker. And all contained within a frustrating world where the only release is through death metal karaoke, because anything else has unpleasant consequences or, possibly worse, everyone pretends nothing happened. When Retsuko confronts her boss in a drunken karaoke battle, both pretend not to remember, but both do. And it makes things more difficult for Retsuko.
Retsuko is a nice person and wants to be a nice person. She is trapped by a confluence of work and gender roles. Some of these are particularly Japanese–say, pouring booze for her boss at an afterwork mixer–but most are things that are pretty universal. Retsuko is understood by her co-workers as a responsible person–one who can be taken advantage of. The series opens with Retsuko smacking her alarm clock and then saying to her self, “After I count to ten, I’ll be a model citizen.” Mid-way, enduring her bosses’ abuse, she tells herself, “After I count to ten, I’ll be a model employee.” Later as she hides from her boyfriend and her own feelings in a mall bathroom, she says “After I count to ten, I’ll be a happy girlfriend.”
But Retsuko does have friends who do consider her feelings: fellow accountants Fenneko and Haida; Director Gori, the gorilla chief of marketing; and Washimi, the secretary bird and secretary to the company’s CEO. At work Washimi and Gori are careful to be poised, confident business women, but they recognize their own precarious position. Gori is more emotionally open with Retsuko than Washimi, but Washimi uses her fearsome chopkick to motivate the company’s CEO to address abusive behavior in the workplace.
Retsuko is an interesting direction for Sanrio to take–the juxtaposition between Sanrio cuteness and death metal truth. I have heard criticisms of Sanrio’s globally dominant ambassador of cuteness, Hello Kitty, that start and end with, “She doesn’t even have a mouth.” And, yes, there is something there. And, yes, it is more complicated than that because of gender, culture and design. Most of the time, Retsuko tries hard to be nice and it would be too easy to see her as a victim of her own niceness. But it’s easy to blame the victim and to just assume shitty bosses are going to be shitty bosses, and that can imply everything should change for the convenience of shitty bosses and the shitty world they create around them. But Retsuko has a mouth and she sings brutally when she’s had enough.
Sanrio knows what it is doing in appealing to adult women. It always has. Children aren’t buying all those Hello Kitty toasters—no matter how much kids might enjoy Hello Kitty’s face on their breakfasts. Not to mention Hello Kitty coffee makers, cyclonic vacuum cleaners and shoulder massagers***. Sanrio is clever in creating a character who combines the cuteness with the repressed rage of adult women. Aggretsuko is the kind of show that cannier writers than me will write clever headlines for–”Not your Mother’s Hello Kitty!” (For my part, I feel awful writing that even as a joke).
Retsuko is far more Johannes Krauser II than Sanrio’s badly behaved Bad Badtz Maru. In Kiminori Wakasugi’s Detroit Metal City ,* mild-mannered Soichi Negichi would really prefer to wear trendy mushroom hair cuts and sing songs inspired by perky and sincere Swedish pop songs, but his talent lies in singing death metal as Johannes Krauser II. Like Retsuko, Krauser has a character on his forehead as a part of his corpse paint. His says, “Kill.”
Retsuko is more ambivalent about her nice side than Soichi is, but she doesn’t want to be abused for it. And where Soichi is upset by and detached from his talent, Retsuko is anything but detached from her own brutal singing. When she sings, Retsuko reveals her feelings and revels in her dark depths. Her corpse paint is her real face. Well, that might be going a bit far. It’s just that Retsuko’s death metal singing face is real, too.
*I have no idea if red pandas are the nicest among us, but maybe?
**Whichever way you use “massagers.”
***Go to DMC!
Carol Borden thinks Retsuko would defeat Johannes Krauser II in a karaoke duel.