Aggretsuko: You’re going to fall in love with Netflix’s adaptation of Sanrio’s death-metal loving red panda

Sneha Khale

May,17 2018 14:02:31 IST

She’s as cute and cuddly as an anthropomorphic red panda can be. She’s agreeably mild-mannered too, her inherent Japanese politeness combined with her culture’s representation of young working women making her an arguably adorable concoction of demure and relatable. An overworked accountant in her mid-20s — facing workplace aggression that would enrage even the most even-tempered among us — with an almost non-existent social life and a growing sense of tedium with her life in general, she is, in her own words “probably like a ton of office girls out there.”

Unlike other office girls (or guys) however, our commonplace genial heroine has a very distinctive secret: by night, she transforms into a raging death metal-head, growling about her frustrations in a “for one” room at the local karaoke joint. Death metal is the great love of her life, and these nightly solo karaoke sessions are the lifeblood she craves, delivering her from the misery of her monotonous, mediocre existence. She even carries her own mic in her handbag! This is Aggretsuko, Netflix’s new-ish insightful animated series about the beloved character created by “Yeti” for Sanrio, and it’s the best damn show out this year!

If hearing the words “insightful” and “Sanrio” in the same sentence made no sense to you, you’re sorely behind on the atypically-cute characters as well as the delightfully perceptive and acutely observational animated shorts that the company has been churning out for the past few years. Sanrio, Japan’s mascot design giant, which was (until recently) most famous for making adults annually buy into $7 billion worth of merchandise featuring a somewhat-anthropomorphic little cat that was originally aimed at preadolescent females, has somehow managed to redefine and subvert kawaii culture, which is a huge part of Japanese popular culture and society. When Hello Kitty was first created by Yuko Shimizu and marketed by Sanrio in 1974, the character fed into the “cute craze” that had begun in Japan in the aftermath of the country’s defeat in World War II. As Roland Kelts (author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the US) said in this Vanity Fair article back in 2009, “There’s no doubt that cuteness has been a part of the Japanese aesthetic since the postwar years. One theory, which has been proposed by a lot of Japanese artists and academics, is that, after the humiliation and emasculation of Japan in the postwar years, Japan developed this quasi-queer position of ‘little brother’ or ‘little boy.’ If you become ‘little brother’ or ‘little boy,’ the only way you can get big brother’s or fat man’s attention is by being so cute or puppy-like that he has to take care of you.”

The idea that post-war social misery made the Japanese realise and embrace their own vulnerability and apparent weakness, thereby giving rise to characters such as Hello Kitty with their own so-cute-I-want-to-take-care-of-her vulnerability, may sound strange, but when you think about it, it does make some sense, even from a consumer’s point of view. In times of social upheaval, unrest and tension (all of which might make one feel vulnerable), you want to turn to comforting things. There’s a reason why dog and baby videos have refused to go out of fashion, just like there was a reason why the warmth and comfort of hygge became so popular last year (one of the worst years sociopolitically, worldwide). If you think about it from an existential point of view, the overabundance of kawaii in Japanese culture doesn’t seem so strange after all.

Which is all well and good, except that the Japanese obsession with kawaii has been so deeply linked with sexism, it’s alarming.

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As the above article notes, “Japan’s glass ceiling is much lower than its Western neighbours. In 2016, The Economist released data ranking the best and worst countries to be a working woman. Of the 29 countries on the list, Japan was nearly last (only beating South Korea), with many European countries like Iceland on the other side of the spectrum.” According to the data, women make up only around 15 percent of parliaments in the low glass ceiling countries, and are “underrepresented in management positions and on company boards.” The Economist also snarkily remarked that “In Iceland, which currently provides the most equal working environment for women according to our index, female workers staged a protest last October in which they marched out of their offices early to call attention to the country′s 14 percent gender pay gap. If Japanese women were to do likewise, they would be leaving much earlier.” Ouch!

In such a culture rampant with sexism, where women are expected(!) to be kawaii and demure and submissive, enter our red panda heroine Retsuko! Sidenote: Aggretsuko is a playful combination of the title of the series of one hundred animated shorts released back in 2016-17 under the name Aggressive Retsuko. To be fair, before Retsuko, Sanrio had produced the character of Gudetama — a genderless, lazy and hilariously zeal-less egg yolk in a perpetual state of ennui. It was such an unusual addition to the Japanese understanding of kawaii that there’s now a subcategory to describe the unconventional kawaii nature of something like Gudetama: kimo-kawaii or guro-kawaii (that which is strange, and grotesque-cute). While I don’t think there’s anything grotesque or disturbing about Gudetama, I do find the many minute-long videos of it going about life only because, endearingly addictive. Its whimsical randomness, apathy, and purposelessness feel like vindication on a dull, boring and tiresome day.

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But with Retsuko, Sanrio subverted not just kawaii stereotype, but also the Japanese working women (OL or Office Ladies) trope. At first glance, she’s conventionally kawaii — polite and submissive, to her colleagues, superiors, or the staff at a department store. She often counts down to ten and wills herself to be the exemplary young working woman.

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All day, she sits in the accounting section of her company (which is some sort of trading firm) where she’s been working for five years, morosely going about her mundane tasks as her superiors keep piling on more work on her desk (and sometimes, on her head, literally!). Not only that, but she has to endure a litany of other tiresome things. Like the pointed shame directed at her from a reptilian manager (who deliberately saves hard-to-open jars for Retsuko, so she can yell at her when Retsuko can’t open them, sheesh). Or the wrath of their department head Director Ton (who’s literally a pig, like a “chauvinist pig”, get it?) who spends half his day pretending to be busy when all he does is practise his golf swing, all while being surrounded by bootlickers and other suckers including Tsunoda, who’s a doe-eyed fawn (she keeps “fawning” over Ton), and the other half of his day ordering Retsuko to run busboy errands for him, such as making him tea multiple times a day or fetching him a beer and then yelling at her when she pours it the wrong way (ie. label side down, eyeroll).

Retsuko, on her part, works hard and diligently. In between her often-overwhelming work, she takes short breaks with her colleagues/friends: Fenneko (a fennec fox co-worker who’s really cool, witty and perceptive, and generally uncaring about social norms) and Haida (a nice-guy hyena co-worker who has a crush on Retsuko which he’s never expressed to her), while lamenting her sad work life and co-wallowing in their shared grief.

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All of this is so typical and relatable, it’s kind of uncanny how close to real life the situations and characters are. Anyone who’s ever worked in a cubicle in an office, will instantly identify with Retsuko and commiserate with her. Many might think she’s their spirit animal. But that’s pretty much where any similarities end.

After she’s done with work, Retsuko doesn’t just head home. Instead, she embarks on a nightly ritual where she books herself a room at a local karaoke bar, and proceeds to (figuratively) rip through anyone who crosses her during the day, with pitch-perfect death metal growling. Director Ton, reptile manager lady, department store lady who keeps hovering around Retsuko and forces her to buy a few socks when she’s just “looking” — none of them are safe from the rage of Aggretsuko!

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She sometimes also launches into her rage-filled growling in the office, when she stays back alone to finish somebody else’s work:

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Or when she’s in the restroom, nbd:

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She sometimes also engages in rage-filled headbanging on the office printer, which results in some really photogenic printouts:

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Retsuko’s guttural screams of “choke on my rage” or “selling my soul ‘cause I’m a corporate slave” are so far removed from her public persona in the office that when she befriends a couple of older female colleagues from other departments (Director Gori, a gorilla lady who’s the director of marketing at the company, and Washimi who’s a bird lady and secretary to the company’s president), we get a nearly “coming out” moment when she discloses her death metal karaoke obsession to them. Watching her navigate her relationships with people she works with as well as an old friend she runs into (a risk-taking and slightly flakey adventurer who takes great pleasure in showing Retsuko how boringly responsible Retsuko is), is really fascinating. Also fascinating is seeing the dynamics between Retsuko and her female colleagues and friends, irrespective of their backgrounds and their positions in the company. When Director Ton is harassing Retsuko at work, Gori and Washimi conspire with her to teach Ton a lesson and also to soothe Retsuko’s relationship with him. Fenneko, who unearths more about people from their social media posts than any in-person interactions with them, is also a good friend to Retsuko; despite being in the dark about Retsuko’s death metal loving alter ego, and despite making fun of Retsuko’s sometimes-insipid personality, Fenneko always has her friend’s back. It’s all rather heartening.

What’s also heartening is how brutally realistic the show’s portrayal of high ranking female employees is. Gori and Washimi are like a power-duo in the office, and the envy of most other female employees, including Retsuko.

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But the show does a great job of illustrating even their insecurities, from having to wear high heels to work everyday, to buffing up in the yoga studio in the evenings. Just the sheer range of female characters on Aggretsuko, and the nuanced ways in which they’re portrayed at work and outside the office, is remarkable. Especially for a Sanrio character! I know that the ten-episodes of Aggretsuko are a Netflix production, but the animated shorts before this series also had similarly empowering tones. Which makes for incredibly fun binge-watching.

So, is angry the new cute? Maybe, according to CNN:

But with Netflix’s Aggretsuko (and Sanrio’s creation of the character of Aggressive Retsuko), we certainly have a new version of kawaii. One in which women don’t have to be submissive and affable and demure, or even cute. They don’t always have to be bright-eyed and pink-cheeked and kawaii-voiced to be liked and admired. They can be listless and melancholic and unambitious, with a healthy disdain for old-fashioned norms and a penchant for solitude and rage-filled death metal music. I’ll drink to that!

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Aggretsuko: ★★★★★

Number of episodes: 10

Best episode: Episode 7, The Duel (Retsuko battles Director Ton in a battle of karaoke at a drunken office dinner. Death metal wins, obviously).

Best quote/s:

“Tsunoda. I hate that girl. I’m following her online though. Based on my analysis, there’s a pattern here. She uploads photos as if she’s an idol...Selfie, dessert, latte art. Selfie, dessert, latte art. Selfie, dessert, latte art. Selfie, dessert, latte art. Selfie, dessert. Selfie, dessert. Selfie, selfie, her bare thighs. She posts a thigh picture once every 13 days, without fail...She posted a picture of her thighs again on Saturday, three days earlier than her usual pattern. She must have found a man she wanted to show this to. I highly suspect it was at Friday’s office party” — Fenneko, ever the sleuth.

“Sockets have started to remind me of Director Ton’s face” — Retsuko. Director Ton is literally a pig, so his face does in fact resemble a Japanese wall socket.

Better to watch in original Japanese with English subtitles or English dubbed? Dubbed English for the death metal karaoke parts. Original Japanese with English subtitles for the rest.

Updated Date: May 17, 2018 14:02 PM