“There is a bright future full of hopes and dreams,” Retsuko, a fluffy, anthropomorphic red panda thinks to herself while walking beneath cherry blossoms, her eyes full of stars and quintessentially kawaii face blushing. She has just joined the accounting department of a mega-conglomerate and listened to the CEO’s speech welcoming new employees and congratulating them on being “effective members of society.” She is so happy that, like most anime heroines enthusiastically embracing their futures, she leaps into the air. But when she lands, unceremoniously spraining her ankle, her face distorts into pure pain and rage, and the conceit of Aggretsuko’s twist on the conventions established by Hello Kitty and the like comes into focus.
Cut to five years later, and we find Retsuko mindlessly grinding through her days as an office worker, vexed by her superiors and endlessly bothered by overly chatty colleagues. Known for being a pushover, she is not even able to tell an overzealous sales assistant to just let her browse a store, and buying three pairs of socks in order not to disappoint. But despite her “nice girl” veneer, Retsuko’s studio apartment is a dump strewn with dirty clothes and empty beer cans; in addition to drinking heavily, the only way she can cope with the drudgery of her job is by holing up in a private room at a local karaoke bar and belting out death metal songs whose lyrics always start with the Japanese word for “rage.” These solo screaming sessions are Retsuko’s main release from the innumerable micro- and macro-aggressions that make up her daily life. Appropriately, the title of the animated series detailing her bleak life is a portmanteau of “aggressive” and her name: Aggretsuko. What started off as a set of animated shorts by Japanese kawaii conglomerate Sanrio was recently developed into a full-length series by Netflix.
Anyone who has ever worked for a big company will recognize the toxic dynamics of Retsuko’s generic workplace. The daily indignities include senior staffers dumping work onto junior members at the end of the workday, and giving them demeaning tasks such as opening a tightly sealed jar or serving them tea. But the highlight of Aggretsuko is not the merciless portrayal of old-school workplace chauvinism. If that were the sole focus of the series, the shtick would get old quickly.
The strength of the series lies in the cast of characters Retsuko encounters at work, and her relationship with each of them. Retsuko’s deskmate, for example, is a fennec fox named Fenneko whose cute demeanor conceals a cunningly all-knowing personality; her manipulations range from office gossip gathering to social media stalking the coworkers she despises the most. Tsunoda, the annoying and doe-like coworker whose Instagram feed Fenneko ridicules relentlessly, has a well-earned reputation as a suck-up. “Doesn’t it feel like you’ve surrendered if you flatter him?” Retsuko asks her over dinner, hoping to commiserate about their abusive boss. “It only feels like you’ve lost. So it’s not a defeat, is it?” Tsunoda replies cheerfully.
At a particularly low point midway through the first season (there’s no word yet on whether the series will be renewed for a second), Retsuko resolves to find a rich husband and leave her desk job forever, taking up yoga to become more fit and attractive. At her class, she befriends marketing director Gori (a gorilla) and executive assistant Washimi (a graceful bird), two elegant women who seemingly have it together and whom Retsuko had looked up to for years, never daring speak to them. They mentor her firmly but warmly on the best ways to move up at the company, and she reciprocates by teaching them how to turn their voices into a screech for heavy metal karaoke.
With Aggretsuko and its predecessor, Gudetama (about a Bartleby-like lazy egg), Sanrio is in line with the growing tendency across many forms and media to meld kawaii aesthetics with seemingly incongruous genres including horror, the surreal, and dreary narratives about everyday themes in Japanese culture. Artist Sebastian Masuda, who considers Takashi Murakami his Senpai, for instance, likes to meld a cute aesthetic with surreally nightmarish elements in his installations; artist and graphic designer Mori Chack created the character Gloomy Bear, a pink bear who is not too different from Hello Kitty, even though he likes to routinely maul his human companion, a boy named Pity, and for this reason has a perpetually blood-smeared face. The 2011 magical-girl animated series Puella Magi Madoka Magica makes use of overly cute aesthetics, including a fluffy cat-like animal, but actually portrays the psychological and physical horrors that girls who decide to become Sailor Moon-like fighters endure.
Aggretsuko takes this mashup of kawaii aesthetics and clashing plot lines one step further. It completely lacks the escapist component that often comes with narratives rooted in fantasy. On the contrary, the series deals with banal situations that the majority of the adult populations of developed countries have endured at some point. It features a more nuanced portrayal of early-career workplace misadventures than series like Lena Dunham’s Girls, where Jessa (Jemima Kirke) breezily observed: “You know what the weirdest part about having a job is? You have to be there every day, even on days you don’t feel like it.”
Retsuko, for her part, would show up at the job with a respectful attitude without compromising her work ethic. Indeed, when her chauvinistic boss starts ranting about how his underlings are part of the “pressure-free generation,” she just asks what she did to spur yet another tirade. (Her infraction in this particular instance, it turns out, is that she failed to staple a document at a 45-degree angle.) “There are probably tons of office girls like me,” she reflects after her umpteenth humiliating workday. “But I have a secret.” The secret is her passion for death metal, which keeps her afloat without — thank god — letting her character succumb to trite millennial ennui.
Aggretsuko is now available on Netflix.