So cute. So cuddly. And Retsuko’s death-metal vocals will shred your clothes and melt your face off. Netflix’s newest animated series is raging against the machine and looks adorable doing it.
Starring Retsuko, a red panda character developed from the same company that masterminded Hello Kitty, “Aggretsuko” (a portmanteau of “aggressive” and “Retsuko”) depicts the life of the 25-year-old accounting clerk by day who deals with workplace frustrations and injustices by growling death metal at her local karaoke joint at night. More than just escapist fare, Netflix’s anime series manages to fit in a remarkable amount of insight about society within 10 brief, 15-minute episodes.
The injustices seen at Retsuko’s workplace are typical: her overly demanding boss Director Ton who literally is a pig just practices his golf swing all day, the fawning brown-noser Tsunoda gets special treatment, and the office busybody doesn’t seem to have anything to do except spread uninformed gossip. What the series does well, however, is actually illustrate the everyday microaggressions, polite effacement, and small compromises that eat away at one’s soul. There’s even one manager who specifically saves a hard-to-open jar around in order to yell at Retsuko when she can’t open it. Diabolical.
Enter death metal. For every abuse or insult, Retsuko spews fury to a driving beat, whether it’s in her workplace’s bathroom stall (for emergencies only) or her private room at the karaoke parlor. Fortunately, watching a tiny red panda transform rage into fiery scream therapy is equally satisfying for the viewer to experience vicariously.
Retsuko is more of a blank canvas than an aspirational character. At this point, her clandestine death metal venting is the most interesting thing about her. She doesn’t have any ambitions to speak of other than to be happy, but she hasn’t figured out what makes her happy except for death metal. At least in that, she’s dedicated and even carries her own microphone.
This is not to say that she’s not relatable, rather just young and inexperienced. Fortunately, a couple of jaded co-workers and two new friends help temper her foolishness. They question her dreams of marriage because they’re driven by a wish to escape her job. They also reflect back to her the image that she has unknowingly adopted and nurtured: the good and reliable girl who won’t rock the boat.
Nevertheless, even her friends are tarnished products of an oppressive society. Perfect Washimi is so inured to manufacturing appearances that she recommends a chiropractor to her co-worker who can’t deal with wearing high heels at the office. And Fenneko prefers to deal with people through their social media, analyzing them from a safe distance rather than interacting face to face.
While “Aggretsuko’s” subversive observations save it from being completely superficial, it still remains lightweight, goofy, and a whole lot of fun. It’s kawaii rebellion at its best, following along with Sanrio’s more recent and offbeat mascot creations, such as Kirimichan the salmon fillet, who defies the laws of physics with her unbalanced head, and Gudetama, an egg with crippling depression.
Written and directed by Rareko, who had also done the previous “Aggretsuko” shorts at Fanworks that aired on Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) Television, Netflix’s series is undeniably Japanese. When the charming animal characters drink, they all get a rosy-cheeked glow. Private karaoke rooms full of tasty bites and beer are the norm. Giving items to another person is done with two hands. All of these cultural details are unremarkable to the Japanese, but make the viewing experience that much richer for American audiences. That’s why, despite the debate over dubbed or subtitles, “Aggretsuko” should still be viewed in its original language. The cutesy tone and inflections used by Japanese women just cannot be mimicked in English. It also plays into the societal expectations for a certain amount of arrested girlish femininity that is Retsuko’s lot.
And that is the crux of “Aggretsuko’s” problem. As it stands, this delightful season is more like filling up on Costco samples than a more substantial series binge. That’s no doubt part of its charm. If Netflix sees fit to renew it for another season, however, there’s definitely an appetite for meatier fare.
But Retsuko is a mascot whose branding is dependent on the incongruity of her nature: innocence with just a touch of darkness. Any additional evolution of her character would have to be slight or incremental at best. In a crowded TV landscape, that might be enough for a counterprogramming reprieve, but on its own, “Aggretsuko’s” charms might be its own worst enemy.
All 10 episodes of “Aggretsuko” Season 1 are currently available to stream on Netflix.