In late August, Netflix released the third season of its hit anime series Aggretsuko, which chronicles the daily life of a 25-year-old red panda who sings death metal at karaoke to destress from work.
The show is cute, witty, relatable. And despite all that, it’s also really f—ing dark. Building on its past seasons, the most recent installment delves further into our heroine’s psyche, and it’s not always a comfortable place to be. (Spoilers ahead!)
In the first season, the titular Retsuko dreams of getting married to escape her sexist and iron-fisted boss, a literal pig named Ton. In the end, Retsuko and Ton start seeing eye to eye, and she decides to stick out her job rather than settle for a less-than-perfect relationship.
Season 2 further developed the conflict at the heart of Retsuko’s character. Trying to live up to social norms—what an adult should be and what a woman should be—has almost erased her identity. Her boyfriend du jour, a tech mogul named Tadano, offers a contrasting vision of a life not bound by society’s rules, but in the end, Retsuko breaks up with him and dutifully returns to the office.
By this time, I was beginning to see a pattern.
Comedies like Aggretsuko have an inherent conservatism. It’s built into their structure—social norms are questioned and transgressed throughout the story, but are almost always restored in the end. The seemingly happy ending of each season, which unfailingly shows Retsuko returning to the company she’s been trying to escape, is always somewhat unsettling for precisely this reason.
What may seem like just a genre convention is actually what makes the show so realistic. Its contradictions reflect the growing pains of a work culture caught between tradition and change, with 20-somethings like Retsuko stuck in the middle.
Season 3 stays true to Aggretsuko’s now-familiar themes and structure, but it takes our woebegone heroine to a darker place than ever before.
All about idols—or is it?
Aggretsuko’s latest installment begins with the characters all abuzz about side hustles. One is pocketing some extra cash from publishing a cookbook, another is “having fun and discovering her potential” through developing a dating app. Retsuko, once again, is left feeling inadequate. “I don’t have the skills or energy for that,” she says.
What’s more, she’s going into debt, due to a gold-digging VR boyfriend. Then, precisely when money is tightest, Retusko gets into a fender-bender with an irritable idol producer named Hyodo. Using her money trouble as leverage, he pressures Retsuko into becoming the accountant for his idol group, the OTMGirls (they have an IRL website for merchandising purposes). At first, the side hustle involves just as much workplace bullying as Retsuko’s office job, complete with verbal abuse and thankless minor tasks.
After Hyodo discovers Retsuko’s talent for death metal, he manipulates her into taking over the group’s vocals. At first, Retsuko demurs that she has no interest in singing in front of others. This may be a hot take, but I think she’s telling the truth. Over two-and-a-half seasons, never once has the audience been shown that Retsuko wants to be a professional performer, not even in her wildest fantasies.
So what does the idol gig really mean?
Will scream for external validation
Despite the rocky beginning, before long Retsuko begins to find her side hustle fulfilling.
She develops Stockholm syndrome—er, I mean, a friendship with the OTMGirls because they make her feel unique and appreciated, contradicting the little company-fueled voice telling her she’s bland and easily replaceable. The OTMGirls only begin making money after Retsuko takes charge of their business plan, and her talent for death metal allows them to stand out from competitors. It’s the antithesis of how she feels at the office.
In one scene, Hyodo presses Retsuko on why she’s an idol (he’s not satisfied with “You forced me to be one”). But Retsuko doesn’t have an answer. In reality, she doesn’t necessarily want to make it as a musician, she just wants to feel validated.
What’s scary, and what the show does brilliantly, is that I’m in danger of agreeing with the maniacal, entitled fan who tries to shank Retsuko with a box cutter in the season’s final episode. Consider me sufficiently creeped out.
Retsuko’s sense of self-worth, fragile to begin with, reaches a new low following the attack. In a dream sequence, she imagines herself in front of a hostile audience and thinks, “There’s nowhere I belong. This kind of world… I can’t take it.”
But Retsuko steps back from the void. This is a comedy, remember! She quits the OTMGirls and returns to the office, her foray into idoldom having somewhat inexplicably taught her: “We can be anything we want.” The proclamation feels sudden and a little two-dimensional. I think it’s meant to be.
Lightly touching on heavy topics
As the show has in the past, Aggretsuko’s third season brings up serious, real-life issues without truly engaging with their horrors. (Remember Tadano, the chillest tech overlord ever?)
When the violent OTMGirls fan first appeared, I expected Retsuko to go to the police, only to be told there was nothing they could do. That’s what happened to idol Mayu Tomita, who was subsequently attacked by her stalker. But the show shied away from pointing out that Japan’s law enforcement often fails to protect women.
For an instant, Retsuko also seemed dangerously close to contemplating suicide at the season’s climax. It would be topical: The widely reported deaths of Terrace House’s Hana Kimura and South Korea celebrities Sulli and Goo Hara are only a few examples of suicide linked to online abuse. But, again, Aggretsuko doesn’t go there.
Then again, it doesn’t have to. The allusions are powerful enough.
Aggretsuko masterfully matches medium and message. Its cute characters, snappy pacing, and exaggerated expressions allow it to do what we all do when confronted with a little existential dread: Try not to think about it too much. And maybe hit up karaoke and scream.
Season 3 of Netflix’s Aggretsuko is streaming now.