If the word Sanrio means anything to you at all, it’s most likely thanks to Hello Kitty, the cartoon cat whose wide eyes have appeared on merchandise all over the planet. Or maybe you’re familiar with Badtz Maru, or Keroppi, or Gudetama, or any one of a plethora of cute, colorful characters the Japanese has introduced over its long history.
Aggretsuko, meanwhile, is rather different. Although Sanrio’s made forays into anime before – Hello Kitty’s appeared in a number of films and TV series, for example – Aggretsuko is aimed at a somewhat older audience. The animated show, and its protagonist, are as cute-looking as anything Sanrio’s produced in the past, yet Aggretsuko has an incisive, realistic edge that really makes it stand out.
In essence, Aggretsuko is a comedy-drama about the trials of the modern workplace. Its fulcrum is Retsuko, a 25 year-old red panda who’s spent a fifth of her life as an office drone at a Tokyo trading company. And after five years of employment, it’s fair to say that Retsuko’s life isn’t going anywhere particularly fast; her boss, the blazing-eyed Ton, is a literal male chauvinist pig. Retsuko’s single, shy, often late for work, and constantly lumbered with stacks of documents by the head of accounts, a surly lizard named Tsubone.
While Retsuko maintains a demure image at the office, she regularly vents her frustrations at a karaoke bar. Renting out a private room each evening for an hour or two, Retsuko lets rip with a death metal song, the lyrics reflecting whatever’s on her mind at the time (“Shitty boss! Shitty boss! Shitty boss!” she wails, in one particularly brilliant number). On occasions, her anger becomes so volcanic that she won’t even make it to the karaoke bar – instead, she’ll retreat to the office bathroom, lock herself in a cubicle, and scream and roar into a microphone she keeps in her handbag.
Aggretsuko began life on the web as a series of shorts (called Aggressive Retsuko), before migrating to Netflix in a 10-episode series in April 2018. Written and directed by Yawaraka Tank (better known as Rarecho, who also provides Retsuko’s metal singing voice), Aggretsuko is told in snappy 15-minute segments – a canny arrangement that means the story constantly trips along smoothly from one scenario to the next.
With its karaoke bars and stifling office culture, Aggretsuko might seem a little too Japanese to really resonate with western audiences, at least when judged from a casual glance. What makes Aggretsuko universal, though, is its central theme: Retsuko’s determination to not let adult life crush her spirit.
This is why Aggretsuko works so well as a drily comic – and sometimes quite moving – animated drama: although the image of a wild-eyed, screaming death metal animal sounds like just another cute Sanrio mascot, there’s a lot more going on beneath the surface. Retsuko, who spends hours typing at her desk so that she can spend a few minutes each day screaming herself hoarse into a karaoke machine, represents the strange and faintly absurd push-pull dynamic between the modern worker and their normal human desires.
Most of us will recognize the repetition of a full-time job depicted in Aggretsuko: the need to be on-time, alert, and capable of performing sometimes intricate tasks over and over again without making a mistake. We do this for hours at a time each day, five per week or sometimes even more, every week for much of our adult lives. It’s the kind of repetition that requires us to be more like zombies or machines than highly-evolved animals – being a good, responsive and useful worker requires us to push at least a few of our natural instincts into the background.
This is brilliantly illustrated in one desperately sad Aggretsuko episode. For one brief moment, it seems as though Retsuko has an escape route from the job she hates; a friend talks about starting up her own business, and asks Retsuko if she’d like to be her first employee. Basking in the warmth of a new venture, Retsuko briefly comes to life in the office from hell – she’s relaxed, sarcastic, and even makes a smart remark to her accounts manager. But then Retsuko’s other job opportunity falls through; Ton, the porcine boss, brutally puts her in her place during a long tirade from his office chair, and Retsuko’s spirit seems broken.
For days, Retsuko sits at her desk typing robotically and doing as she’s told, prompting her superiors to remark that she’s suddenly become a model employee. Thankfully, Retsuko still has her death metal: the spark of rebellion that allows her to keep at the daily grind while still retaining a shred of humanity. Hence the wonderful refrain: “Underneath the smile, I’m metal till I die!”
What’s also brilliant about Aggretsuko is that its characters are so humanely written. At first, they seem like archetypes: the office gossip, the evil boss and his sycophantic deputy, and so forth. But subsequent episodes reveal other sides to each of them – the office gossip, a big, grinning hippo named Kabae, is shown to have a heart of gold, despite her love of spreading rumours. Washimi and Gori, two perfect-seeming female co-workers who march into the office every day in lockstep, are less aloof and more kind than they first appear. Even Ton, the closest to the villain of the piece, is more than just a two-dimensional tyrant.
With its simple yet colorful animation and bold lines, Aggretsuko is an approachable anime with hidden depths. Like Bojack Horseman, it uses talking animals to tell a story that’s by turns melancholy and delightful. Retsuko may be a little red panda, but her ongoing quest to earn a living without selling her soul is one that most of us will recognise.