An anime programme about a cute red panda who sings death-metal karaoke sounds about as niche as it can get. At least that’s what I thought when Netflix first released Aggretsuko. This new show didn’t remotely seem like the type of thing that I, neither a fan of anime nor death-metal, would be interested in; and yet a few weeks later I had watched every episode. The reason why? Because by the time the credits rolled on the season finale I was ready to write a whole essay about how the protagonist, Retsuko, is both a feminist icon and an advocate for workers’ rights.
This original online animation series was designed by Yeti for the mascot company Sanrio, best-known for their character Hello Kitty. Retsuko is no sweet and silent Hello Kitty though – even if she looks like she should be. In fact, the interesting thing about this programme is its reliance on juxtaposition: the credits display images of Retsuko looking cutesy in front of a pink background as roaring death-metal about her ‘rage’ blares. This not only provides comedy but resonates with the heart of the show’s message: she is feminine, she is kind, she is angry – and there’s a reason for that. Last year Yeti told the BBC that whilst observing “workers’ at “the centre of Japan’s corporate culture” he “could hear their heartfelt screams”. Retsuko is one of these workers; her death-metal karaoke singing is an expression of these “screams”. The show’s title, a portmanteau formed from ‘Aggressive’ and ‘Retsuko’, really hammers this home.
The show focusses on Retsuko’s life and in particular her experience as an accountant in a large trading firm. Not only does she endure the toxic leadership of an abusive and unfair boss but she is also subject to sexism in the work-place. Mr Ton, the boss, is a pig – literally a cartoon pig – suggesting that Yeti is going for clarity over subtlety in his portrayal of the corporate world. Ton does not appreciate his employees and overworks those he dislikes, with Retsuko falling into the latter category. He is the stereotypical misogynistic boss: he plays golf, favours young women who flirt with him and expects his ‘inferiors’ to do things outside of their work descriptions such as clean his desk and bring him drinks.
Retsuko’s death-metal freestyling expresses her dissatisfaction with the work place and Ton. Lyrics throughout the season include ‘Shitty boss’, ‘‘Here it comes, pig! Here’s my battle cry!’ and ‘Choke on my rage!’ Yeah, she’s definitely not another Hello Kitty. The idea that Retsuko can be considered a feminist does come into question at one point in the show: when she decides that she needs to get married so that she can quit her job. When Retsuko actually gets into a relationship, though, she stops singing death-metal; she becomes a shell of who she was. The show doesn’t claim that all relationships result in a loss of identity but suggests that relationships for the sake of relationships, those that don’t add anything to a person’s life except a sense of false security, can. Aggretsuko ultimately proposes that it’s the workplace that needs to change, not a worker’s relationship status.
When Resasuke, Retsuko’s short-term boyfriend, hears her sing death-metal for the first time he does not react in the same manner as most. When Retsuko’s friends (two awesomely powerful female characters) first hear her sing they sit in awe, amazed at her gift, and request more. When she drinks too much and sings karaoke at a work party her co-workers are literally blown away. When she sings to Resasuke, though, he gives her nothing. Just a polite clap. He doesn’t seem to have heard a word she’s said. It’s at this point, when Retsuko realises her voice is not being heard, that she ends the relationship and gets back to being who she is: an imperfect, overworked and stressed but strong-minded woman – or, should I say, red panda.
You can watch the first season of Aggretsuko now on Netflix. Check out the teaser trailer for season two below: