The Subtle Social Commentary of Aggretsuko
Japan's latest export, a small red panda with a karaoke mic, is taking on workplace bullies.
First published on Medium, November 2019
The latest Japanese amine set to take the English speaking world by storm is Aggretsuko. The Netflix show features a diminutive red panda office worker named Retsuko whose version of self-care is singing death metal at karaoke after work. She packs her own mic. She’s amazing. Aggrestuko, which is short for Aggressive Retsuko, is a nod to her headbanging pass time.
Season 2 focuses on Retsuko’s love life and relationship with her mother and a passive-aggressive trainee, Season 1 is all about her struggles at work. In this Aggretsuko is commenting on a fundamental feature of Japanese life and really all our lives. At 25, she is one of the younger women in the office. Because of this, she is subject to overwork and abuse from her superiors who give her the work they themselves do not want to do. She finally comes to the conclusion that she should get married in order to escape the abuse.
It’s not uncommon for women in Japan to quit their jobs after marriage. In service of this pursuit, Retsuko signs up for a yoga class. She wants to get in shape to get that husband. The side-eye to the wellness industry isn’t lost here. How many of us are told to work on ourselves before we can find love? On hearing this we promptly sign up for every yoga, meditation, crystal healing class we can. Or maybe we’ll start going to the gym and eating healthy.* Retsuko’s honesty in her reasons for signing up for the yoga class is refreshing. The irony is that she turns down outings with a co-worker who is smitten with her because of the class.
A yoga class may not actually get Retsuko a husband, it does help her make two new friends. Two older women, Ms. Washimi and Director Gori who happen to work at her company as the secretary to the President and the Marketing Director respectively, befriend the red panda. She shares her secret love of death metal karaoke with them and her plan to get a husband to escape her abusive boss. They are horrified. Not by the death metal, they love the death metal but that Retsuko is being bullied. Springing into action, they help rectify Retsuko’s work situation.
There are aspects of work culture on the show that are unique to Japan, but others are universal. The stress of having to keep a job where you are treated horribly in order to pay your ever-increasing rent and student loans leaves Americans vulnerable to bullying and overwork.
Not to mention that over one-third of American mothers don’t return to work after having children. While, the reasons for not returning are complex and often involve a combination of access to paid leave, affordable childcare, and personal choice. Of the women that did return to work only 12% did so because they loved their jobs. American women may not see having a family as a way out of an unpleasant work environment. At the same time, they are much less likely to return to such a job after having one.
At the end of season 1, Retsuko finds a better way to deal with her bully of a boss with the help of Ms. Washimi and Director Gori. It’s her love of death metal karaoke that saves the day. It’s ultimately an ode to being yourself. For young women in Japan that is radical. But isn’t it radical for young women or women of any age to be themselves, to stand up to bullies whether at work or at the highest levels of government who try to intimidate them into silence? Like Retsuko women everywhere can pack their karaoke mics in their purse and pull them out when they need to rage at the injustices around them.
*For the record, I enjoy many of these things.