We've had at least one terrible job, the kind that makes it hard to get out of the bed in the morning. There were those bosses who treated you snidely at every turn; those co-workers who seemingly lived to irritate you; the endless sexist microaggressions and the overwhelming sensation that things will never get any better. Sometimes, you just needed an outlet for all that pent-up rage.
Netflix’s latest animation, Aggretsuko, keenly understands that conundrum. Centered on Retsuko, a 20-something office worker in the accounting department of a faceless Japanese corporation, the series follows her ceaseless frustration with the drudgery of her life. Her boss hates her, half her co-workers spend their days taking advantage of her passive kindness, she has no money and no other options, and she's long been sapped of her self-confidence. But Retsuko has a secret weapon. Every night, she heads to the local karaoke bar and releases her bottled-up anger through the power of screaming death metal.
Oh, and she's also a cute red panda.
Based on a series of animated shorts made by Fanworks, the series is now a 10-episode season courtesy of Netflix. The synopsis for Aggretsuko sounds like a parody of anime that Adult Swim would make a fake commercial for. It just seems too cutesy and gimmicky to actually work. Yet, by some miracle of skill and commitment, the show is kind of genius.
Aggretsuko is an unabashedly feminine show, but its approach is uniquely contrasting of two oft-maligned sides of femininity. First, the show is just giddily girly in its style. The world is populated by achingly cute anthropomorphic animals that deliberately echo the iconic aesthetic of Japan’s other famous adorable heroine, Hello Kitty. The color palate is vibrant and the world primarily populated by women and it’s completely shameless in its celebration of all those things. Yet its femininity is also depicted in less shimmery and pastel ways.
Where Aggretsuko truly shines as a show is in its depiction of the other side of femininity — the power of female rage. Retsuko spends her working days forcing down not only her anger but her entire personality, to the point where she is deemed a complete pushover by everyone around her. Co-workers force extra work onto her, knowing she won’t say no, while her boss reduces her to the role of glorified maid simply because he can. Even her friends can’t help but point out how “nice” and “responsible” she is, as if that’s compensation for feeling like dirt every day. Too many women I know are familiar with that feeling, and the forced obligations that come with it.
Part of bottling up all that female rage is donning the facade of acceptable femininity for the public to consume. You can’t be angry, so you make yourself small and quiet and adhere to every demand made of you. You don’t make a fuss, you don’t make men mad, and you certainly don’t assert yourself as any sort of authority. Retsuko wants more from her life, but she’s so worn down from bending over backwards to suit everyone else’s needs that she’s not sure how she can evolve.
Later in the season, she has a chance to change all that, as she starts dating a co-worker. Yet the cycle continues, and for fear of ruining this one small thing that makes her even somewhat happy, she reverts to that smallness. Her new boyfriend isn’t the sexist pig her boss is, nor is he especially mean in general, but even in his blandness, he’s still a man. Retsuko can’t help but force herself to play second fiddle to him. Aggretsuko sharply conveys how sexism and women’s anger isn’t as simple as screaming or slurs; it’s in the quieter, more insidious ways that we are truly left damaged.
The build-up of Retsuko’s anger is what makes it so satisfying when she goes full-on metal. What could be better a release for all that fury than the loudest music possible (and a genre where women singers are rare)? The sheer visual of a super adorable cartoon red panda screeching down a microphone, her face morphed into one of primal anger that resembles the KISS make-up, is just hugely entertaining on its own (and the music is genuinely pretty damn good). The power is in that contrast of sound and visuals — the cuddly, girly protagonist with the voice of a hardcore mosh pit dweller. The pairing should seem mutually exclusive, but together, it highlights how often such things go hand-in-hand. The sweetness hides the fury, and sometimes vice versa.
What makes this all that much more interesting is how the show frames these instances of emotional release as completely healthy. Other characters encourage Retsuko to keep unleashing her anger in this way as it helps her function on a daily basis. When she stops her karaoke sessions, claiming she doesn’t need them anymore, the negative change in her life is obvious.
For a cartoon comedy about a metal-loving red panda, Aggretsuko also has some of the most interesting and diverse female characters on TV. Each of them shows the various ways women try to get by, both in life and in the workplace. Some adopt a cool exterior while forcing their focus elsewhere; others suck up to the male bosses and play into their sexist assumptions in the hopes it will help them move forward; and even the more senior women keep their personalities malleable enough to fit the concerns of men, adopting whatever role is needed by them so important decisions can be made. What unites them all is genuine concern for one another, and that tangible sense of community under the harshest of situations. Everyone has their own way of coping with the shitty sexist boss, but at the end of the day they all still have the same shitty sexist boss.
For a lot of millennial women, Aggretsuko is their reality. Sure, they’re not all as cute as red pandas, but they know the disappointment that comes with realizing your life didn’t go as it was supposed to. The back-breaking work of higher education didn’t lead to the prestigious job, the temp position ended up being more permanent than desired, the pay isn’t getting any higher and it’s clear that the world views you as disposable. You’re called lazy and entitled every day even as you do more work for less money than everyone else. If you complain about it, you’re a “bitch” or even worse, so you don’t do anything, and you let the anger fester. Sometimes, you just need an outlet, and there are few things more cathartic than shaking off the expectation of womanhood and letting it all hang out. Aggretsuko knows that, sometimes, you just need to rock.
Aggretsuko is currently available to watch on Netflix.