October 22, 2020 § Leave a comment
This post contains plot spoilers
Netflix has aired a number of excellent Japanese TV series, including “Sparks,” “Midnight Diner” and “Terrace House,” but the animated series “Aggretsuko” surpasses all of them in its writing, acting and insight. A show about anthropomorphic characters developed by Sanrio, the inventor of “Hello Kitty”, sounds like a gimmick; instead, “Aggretsuko” is very funny, occasionally sad, and always compelling. And its depiction of Japan’s corporate hamster wheel and the plight of office workers, especially women, is profound.
Retsuko, an adorable red panda, is a junior accountant for a big corporation, which means she not only gets extra work at the end of the day but is expected to fetch tea and tidy the office of her boss, Director Ton. An obnoxious pig (literally) who spends his days practicing his golf swing and complaining about how overworked he is, Ton insults Retsuko, screams for tea and labels her a “short-timer,” destined for a career-ending exit. Retsuko maintains a docile and cheerful exterior, but inside she roils with resentment. Her anger finds an outlet in karaoke, in which she becomes Aggretsuko, a death metal head who adapts her favorite song, “Rage” to fit the day’s indignities. In a private booth, she howls:
Neanderthal knuckle-dragging chauvinist pig/ Looking at your face just makes me sick/ How can any person be such a dick?!/ Shitty Boss!
It’s not only Director Ton who earns Retsuko’s wrath. In Season 2, Retsuko’s overbearing mother mounts a maddening campaign to get Retsuko to grow up and find a suitable mate. After sending Retsuko an absurdly childish pink, bow-covered dress—“It’s practically cosplay”, remarks one of her co-workers—her mother tricks her into trying it on for a photo, ostensibly for her grandparents but in reality for a matchmaker. This leads Retsuko to reject the attractive, likable man she meets, not only because she doesn’t want to be fixed up but because marriage, usually a zero sum game in Japan, is too daunting. At this point I realized that Retsuko is more complex than most human characters in movies, plays and TV, and not only because of her karaoke alter ego. Under her cute red panda exterior, Retsuko is deeply stubborn, confused about her desires and unwilling to admit fault.
But she’s also capable of change, and by Season 3 Retsuko is living on her own terms. No longer bottled up and insecure, she has broken up with a fabulously wealthy slacker/tech entrepreneur because he didn’t want marriage and wanted her to quit her job. Happy at work, she achieves success both as an accountant and, through a series of twists, as a death metal “idol” in a girl band. Her friends and co-workers grow too, and even Director Ton proves to be more than he seemed: an accounting whiz (though he still uses an abacus) and a source of insightful advice for Retsuko.
Three seasons weren’t enough for me, but Japanese programs are designed to end before they get old. A bonus for Japanese speakers is the treasure trove of contemporary language. For those who don’t speak Japanese, the dialog is brilliantly subtitled by John Haguewood. Kudos to Rarecho, who not only wrote and directed every episode but supplied Retsuko’s death metal voice. And Kaolip, who happens to be Rarecho’s wife, is pitch perfect as Retsuko. Forget the dubbed version; even if you don’t know a word of Japanese, the voices speak volumes.