If you’re unfamiliar with the Netflix series Aggretsuko, our protagonist is Retsuko, a young red panda struggling to find purpose in her daily life. In the opening scene, she’s hopeful and earnest about starting a new life as a company employee. But the second scene shows her five years later struggling to drag herself to work. Later on in the episode, we see her privately raging in the office toilet trying to get herself back into the mindset of “a mild-mannered office employee.”
And so begins a show that has been praised for its scathing portrayal of Japan’s modern work culture and the damning issue of gender inequality that lies at its core.
While Aggretsuko is technically an anime musical comedy, each 15-minute episode brilliantly reflects what it’s like to be a cog in the Japanese workforce machine. Especially for women.
Aggretsuko, a portmanteau of the full title Aggressive Retsuko (アグレッシブ烈子 in Japanese), features a host of characters from the unlikely cute character world of Sanrio—the company behind Hello Kitty—and was first aired on TBS Television before being picked up for an adaptation by Netflix.
Released in April 2018, the first season on the streaming service was a global hit. It currently has a 100% scoring on Rotten Tomatoes, has inspired a slew of think-pieces and has even generated a Buzzfeed “Which Character Are You?” quiz (for sure, a mark of when a show has truly resonated with the popular consciousness). Season 2 premiered in June 2019.
So what is it about Aggretsuko that’s struck such a deep chord with viewers?
A mirror image of the reality for working women
Retsuko’s life is all too familiar to women here. In each short episode, the scenes that play out are painfully relatable, as is the depiction of her relentless frustration and despair. Her boss is—quite literally—a sexist pig, several of her superiors harass her daily, and Retsuko often works long into the evening. In other words, business as usual in Japan.
Both seasons explore the concept of marriage and children and their implications in modern Japan. The narrative centers around the idea that as Retsuko is considering her priorities for her future, her coworkers discover she might quit.
Ton, the pig boss, nicknames her koshikake (腰掛け), which is subtitled as “short-timer” but could also be translated as “bench warmer.”
While the nickname is used as a punchline in the show, it holds a painful degree of truth.
In Japan, a man looking to change jobs may not receive such a label, but women are often considered as temporary employees thanks to their uncanny ability to create life. Many are made to choose between their career and having children. Because, you know, it’s impossible to do both.
Japanese companies often have unwritten gender policies, too. One company I worked for only offered permanent positions to male applicants, while women were given short-term contracts. The assistant manager—a woman—told me it was because women under 40 were more likely to need maternity leave. If they asked for it, the company just wouldn’t renew their contract.
The discrimination can start before women have even entered the workforce. Just last year, Tokyo Medical University admitted they rigged exams to lower the number of successful female applicants. Their reasoning? Women are more likely to quit or take leave to raise children. Yes, this is still happening in 2019.
In Retsuko’s case, she and her fellow bench-warming female colleagues are responsible for things like making tea for their section, cleaning, and even serving their boss at company parties.
Like many other women, Retsuko feels trapped by these expectations. She starts having frequent escape fantasies and her frustrations come out through death metal karaoke where she belts out poetic lines such as, “neanderthal, knuckle-dragging chauvinist pig” and “selling my soul ‘cause I’m a corporate slave.”
Her raging rants reflect what many of us may think of our heinous bosses or strenuous work life, but that we’d never dare say out loud. Watching Retsuko being consumed by rage hellfire, so viscerally drawn in that anime style, has a cathartic effect for those burdened by similar social pressures.
Crippled by burnout and depression, too, Retsuko finds it difficult to get out of bed every morning. The fact that mental health discussions are still largely taboo in Japan resonates with us all.
Aggretsuko is anime imitating life
It’s no secret that workers in Japan are often subjected to long hours of overtime, leaving them with very little time to spend on themselves, let alone build a meaningful relationship.
In a desperate attempt to ensure the happiness of their adult children, many Japanese parents turn to match-making services. The show doesn’t miss a beat highlighting this, with Retsuko’s mother aggressively insisting that she attend an arranged marriage gathering.
While Retsuko doesn’t hate the man she meets, she still has reservations. She declines her marriage prospect, much to her mother’s chagrin. This is such a contrast to the typical Japanese and Korean dramas you’ll see elsewhere on Netflix, where sweet female characters lead fairytale fantasies to their inevitable happily-ever-after conclusion.
Aggretsuko also doesn’t just limit its portrayal of women to helpless victims of a capitalist society. In the series, we meet a variety of female characters with different personalities and problems. One character, Washimi, is proudly divorced and enjoys being single. Gori, on the other hand, regrets putting her career over starting a family.
Women are not robots with the same programming—we all have different wants, needs, and life goals, Japanese or otherwise. What Aggretsuko highlights is the general lack of control women have over realizing their own desires.
New problems in a globalizing work culture
Japan’s traditional employment system finds itself in the crosshairs of a globalizing work culture. The senpai-kohai relationship system is directly challenged as changing careers becomes more common and employees are less likely to receive pay bonuses based solely on seniority.
Aggretsuko quietly asserts that “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down” isn’t always the healthiest approach.
We see that through the new hire at Retsuko’s company Anai who is essentially the Western equivalent of a “woke” young person afraid of working for a company that violates employee rights.
While his motives are understandable, his fear drives him to blame his ineptitude on his colleagues. After terrorizing the office with his tactics, he is ultimately calmed by another, motherly coworker.
Here, Aggretsuko quietly asserts that “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down” isn’t always the healthiest approach. But if you know anything about Japan’s education system, you know this is at odds with how the curriculum is delivered.
It’s more than just a comedy
The show effortlessly masks serious topics with a facade of humor, yet I have friends that couldn’t actually make it through the series because it was too relatable and triggering.
Recently, a friend came to me upset because our boss told her she wouldn’t be allowed maternity leave if she got pregnant. Another was isolated by her coworkers until she quit.
Is it the pressure to conform in a workplace that values homogeneity? The impermissibility to express anger as a woman? Or perhaps it’s the pervasive societal push to get married that makes the show sting so much.
Consider the fact that Japan has one of the highest gender inequality rates in the world, and you’ll probably find your answer.
Aggretsuko unpacks this sort of harassment and lays it out for viewers to dissect. Though it’s especially relatable for women, men can enjoy watching their woes addressed with comedy as well.
As the younger generation continues to challenge old mindsets, hopefully, we can expect more series like Aggretsuko to show that people are angry with the current situation in Japan—and that they don’t have to accept it.