Picture the latest Netflix Original anime – Aggretsuko. The premise is this – an adorable red panda, named Retsuko, is a stressed-out office worker, and takes out her frustrations by singing death metal.
I would never have expected the level of depth this show has, as well as how it would manage to touch a nerve – some of her feelings of frustration were all too familiar. And it was certainly not something I would expect from Sanrio.
I grew up with Hello Kitty – one of the world’s best known mascots. She’s basically the cat equivalent of Barbie, and Sanrio’s crown jewel. Hello Kitty has graced my backpack, pajamas, laptop wallpaper and pencil case. While being a cutie – I wouldn’t say she was aspirational, or really relatable. She’s five apples tall and has no mouth to talk back with. The same goes for the majority of Sanrio characters – they’re Mary Sues and John Smiths, with personalities summarised as “a dog who wears a beret and loves pudding” – not saying they aren’t cute (they so are), but I can’t say anything they do is surprising or resonates with me in a meaningful way.
Aggretsuko, however, surprised and resonated with me on another level – cuteness, yes, but also every other emotion that a working woman would feel. During each episode, there is a portion where Retsuko unleashes her inner monologue – a death metal tirade of frustration and rage. She calls her boss a chauvinist pig (and not just because he is an actual pig) – something which I didn’t think was a part of Sanrio’s vocabulary. So why would Sanrio make this show?
The creator of Aggretsuko, known only as ‘Yeti’, states that her inspiration for the character was the working women at the centre of Japan’s corporate culture – and that she heard their “heartfelt screams”. Common workplace inequities such as being patronised to by male superiors or expected to do menial tasks due to their gender – something which Sociology Professor Kumiko Nemoto describes as obligatory femininity. Submitting to fulfil norms of femininity such as “obedience, cuteness, and weakness” and expecting mild to moderate levels of sexual harassment is a regular occurence in Japanese white collar culture.
While Retsuko is an unwilling participant in this behaviour, visibly frustrated at behaviour expected of her, her co-worker Tsunoda is the classic suck-up. By fulfilling stereotypes and dumbing herself down, she gets less of a hard time from their boss, but is consistently disparaged by her co-workers for being a suck up. Retsuko mentions this to her, and Tsunoda openly admits she chose the easier way out – a character choice which subverted my expectations when I watched the episode. Rather than be portrayed as a trope of a women other women love to hate, Tsunoda has depth – she was a woman who made the autonomous choice to not fight back, in order to make her own life easier.
While I am not working in Japan and my workplace isn’t anywhere near what Retsuko has to deal with, I’ve also put up with my fair share of obligatory femininity at my office job. At one point I was scheduled to do kitchen duty almost every time I was in at work, while my male co-workers were only doing it once a fortnight. When I queried the work split, I was informed that it was due to my ability, or rather, their inability – the guys would neglect to do the work, and it was a hassle to ask them to do it – because boys will be boys, right? So we’d rather have you do it.
Scenarios that are unfair and unjust are rife in Aggretsuko. In case you weren’t already impressed by the content from a seemingly light and fluffy show, let me give you a quick rundown of some of the themes that Aggretsuko touches on over one season, spanning ten, fifteen minute episodes:
- Career dissatisfaction
- Workplace harassment
- Sexism and misogyny
- Female friendships
- Intersectional feminism
- Learning assertiveness, and standing up for yourself
- Relationship complacency
Japanese women have been considered to hold more traditional and submissive roles in their corporate environment – in fact only 11% of managers in the Japanese workplace are women, as well as having the highest gender pay gap in the developed world. This is reflected in the show as a norm. Characters don’t enjoy making tea for their manager, they know it’s demeaning and not their job, but it is acknowledged as the status quo. Youth psychology professor Yasumasa Kosaka, suggests this is typical for young people in Japan. “They are, to an extent, more conscious about how their actions affect others,” he said. “They tend to be afraid of disturbing the community atmosphere”.
Dat vacant expression tho
Spoiler if you haven’t watched the show – but the final arc of Aggretsuko involves her dating a co-worker named Resasuke, referred to as the office space cadet. Retsuko is delighted, as she considers this relationship an escape route, and will be able to quit her job within a matter of years to become a housewife. This career trajectory is highly regular for women Japan, with advertising giant Hakuhodo’s survey results finding that a third of single women over 20 aspire to become a housewife.
Becoming a housewife is seen as its own form of career in Japan – Anthropology Professor Robert Marshall suggests that while they have “autonomous responsibility” over the home and finances, they are expected to bear the responsibility of the entire household. However, here women are allowed to freely express themselves, and no longer have to put on a “cooperative public persona”, like they might have in the workplace.
However ultimately, and very maturely, Retsuko realises that her relationship with the inattentive Resasuke does not fulfil her – and while she would enjoy being able to escape work, she decides against complacency, and breaks it off.
Washimi and Gori are basically #mentorgoals
She is able to overcome these difficult choices with the help of her female colleagues, who all have different ways of dealing and coping with their work. This support primarily comes from two co-workers who are higher up in the company, and take Retsuko under their wing. The Harvard Business Review determined that mentoring is key to women feeling supported and fulfilled at work – but in order for women to be truly successful they must also have supportive management and inclusive work environments.
I’ve been lucky to have incredible female mentors present throughout my work, and in cases where I have been without one the work environment has been a lot more difficult to deal with – Retsuko and I are both lucky to have been able to find women who support us while navigating the difficulties of climbing the corporate ladder.
Sanrio Danshi speaks the truth about gender expectations.
This isn’t the first venture into more progressive themes for the Japanese megacorporation. Sanrio Danshi aka Sanrio Boys, explores gender roles and toxic masculinity – asking us why men shouldn’t be allowed to like stereotypically feminine things. Sanrio’s slow introduction of progressive shows is likely a reflection of millennial Japan’s more progressive views – with fashion movements like genderless-kei spearheading the cultural movement against traditional gender norms.
Aggretsuko is a love letter to millennial working women – discussing happiness, careers and relationships. It covers a lot of ground in terms of what working ladies in 2018 may deal with on a day to day basis.
And please, oh gracious Mouthless Kitty God, let me have a Season 2.