Your co-worker said something patronising, what do you do? Your boss is being unreasonable, what do you do? Your life is going nowhere….what do you do? We all have different coping mechanisms, but Retsuko – a 25 year old female office worker in the accounting department of her company – has a very specific method. When it all gets too much she quietly locks herself away and screams death metal to burn away her frustrations with riotous anger!
Aggretsuko (a blend of ‘aggressive’ and ‘Retsuko’) is a character created by Sanrio – those bastions of Japanese kawaii (a term used to describe the over cuteness of many Japanese items and mannerisms). Sanrio are mostly known in the West for the cutesy Hello Kitty brand (a symbol so inoffensive that it can be used to sell literally anything). However, whilst Aggretsuko does appear to be more of the pink childish same, under the glossy exterior growls a surprisingly sharp take on office life.
Each character in Aggretsuko is represented by an animal. Office boss Director Ton is a grossly large pig (in more ways than one) that shamelessly practices his golf swing rather than work. Komodo Dragon supervisor Tsubone pushes extra work onto Retsuko and then snakes her tongue in delight at watching her fail. Brown nosers come in the shape of meerkat Komiya who hangs on the Director’s every word, and gazelle Tsunoda. The latter is more calculating and uses her femininity to flatter her way into favour.
Office satire has been done in many forms and the characters I’ve listed are in many way stock examples. But what Aggretsuko does very well is cover the simple day to day frustrations of a young woman in the work place. Especially for East Asian countries like Japan. It may come in the form of overt sexism, such as Director Ton insisting that making the tea is ‘women’s work’. Or it may come from the snide remarks and stereotypical expectations that permeate the office. Woman should stay quiet, work hard, know their place, but pander to male egos.
The kind of thing that bubbles away and grinds you down on a daily basis.
When Retsuko takes the strain all day and lets loose with death grunts and ugly grimaces in a private booth at her local karaoke club, the leap from animation to real life is not that far.
The episodes are short bite sized chunks. Just fifteen minutes each and 10 episodes in total (with a Christmas Special added on the end). The format is mostly the same each time. Retsuko (a red panda) begins her day with a naive but stoic attitude. She takes the events of the day on the chin. Such as being dumped extra work or dreaming of leaving the company only to be shot down. But when the pressure gets too much she pulls her personal microphone out of her purse and lets rip with a fearsome tirade of screeches and screams. The show knows that this is the money shot: time slows down before the death metal blast fills the screen in pure jagged fury.
If this was to be every single episode then the gimmick would get tiresome. But Aggretsuko develops enough over its short run time to keep your interest. Retsuko is befriended by the no-nonsense female power due of Gori and Washimi. They are often seen purposefully striding the corridors of power with emotionless efficiency. But outside the social pressure of work they loosen up and encourage Retsuko to do the same. They build her up, encourage her, and point out the folly of her looking to escape her working hell by searching for a well off husband so she can quit.
If Gori and Washimi represent the women who have made it in business (albeit by shutting down parts of themselves to conform to male perceptions) then overtly super cute Tsunoda represents the opposite end. She bats her eyelashes and lavishes praise on male seniors, but is also fully aware that she is despised for it. She represents every woman who is simply playing the cards they are dealt to get ahead in a system throwing constant micro-aggressions and barriers in a woman’s way. Her method is no better or worse, just necessary.
Although easily transferable to office life anywhere, Aggretsuko works so well because of the distinctly Japanese nature of office drone life. Karaoke bars, singles mixers, and semi-mandatory work nights out feature. Plus the patriarchal power progression inherent in many Japanese companies. This inevitably loses something in the dub, so try to watch the subtitled version instead for the full experience!
The submissive speech patterns of Retsuko land much stronger in the native Japanese. Which makes it all the more satisfying when she switches from meek underling to unleashing hell on her mic. Especially when she delivers a devastating takedown right in the face of a drunken ass who thoroughly deserves it!
The Christmas special (‘We Wish You A Metal Christmas') deals with those who don’t want to admit loneliness during the festive season combined with the power of social media to hook you into false interactions in the hunt for likes. A worthy subject certainly, but the episode merely skirts around the edges of it. And, as it stands alone from the slow progression of the main series, doesn’t quite hit the satisfaction button. But regardless, as Aggretsuko has resonated well with audiences and here’s hoping for a second series.
As subversive as Retsuko may be for Sanrio’s roster, the nature of owning a ‘mascot’ character may mean that she undergoes a reset each time. Hopefully Aggretsuko can move beyond gently prodding at its office tropes. Because if the pokey figure can get a bit more stabby under the disguise of kawaii then who knows? Maybe we’ll all start stashing microphones about our person in solidarity….
Words by Michael Record