In all honesty, I had written off Sanrio’s latest character Aggretsuko — a cute red panda with a secret penchant for blowing off steam from her office job via death metal karaoke — as a one-note joke. The company was clearly shifting to a new class of characters that would hopefully resonate with a fan base that grew up with its characters. Coupled with another new character Gudetama, a perpetually listless egg yolk, I was convinced Sanrio had unlocked an impressive profit model by appealing to the disillusioned hearts of millennials.
But Aggretsuko, the 10-episode animated series that recently arrived on Netflix, surprised me. Aside from its liberal use of profanity and booze, the animated series is impressive for its refreshingly accurate portrayal of working women in Asia — especially their pent-up rage in response to the ways they’re expected to perform in society. The fact that it comes from Sanrio, a company whose most famous character is a mouthless cat so devoid of personality that she can literally be anything, is even more jarring. If Hello Kitty is a blank canvas ready for all manner of brand partnerships, Aggretsuko is her polar opposite: she is the frenzied energy of a Jackson Pollock painting, and it’s comprised only of red and black paint.
The show follows Aggretsuko — a portmanteau for “Aggressive Retsuko” — as she deals with her sexist boss, who relentlessly orders her to bring him tea (it’s a “woman’s job”) and scolds her for not pouring his beer correctly (label side up) at after-work drinks. Though gender inequality in the workplace is still a widespread global issue easily quantifiable with statistics in the wage gap or the abysmal percentage of female corporate executives, misogyny in Asia runs uniquely deep with implied expectations. Societal norms that expect childcare to be women’s work have contributed to the lowest birth rate in years for countries like Japan and Korea, due to women’s desire to prioritize their careers. Frustrated and desperate, Aggretsuko entertains the escapist idea of getting married so she can leave her job.
Luckily, the 25-year-old has the support network of Washimi and Gori, two older women who hold senior positions at her company. They rightly tell her this is a terrible idea. The two have worked their way up the corporate ladder, and their strategy of never showing any sort of emotion or weakness in the workplace has worked for them. Another colleague, doe-eyed Tsunoda, is resented by everyone in the office for sucking up to the boss, but for her, buttering him up is one of the ways she can get ahead and navigate office politics as a woman. Aggretsuko, for her part, just takes all her rage to the karaoke bar, where she guzzles beer and growls and shrieks into a microphone with a demonic fury.
It’s been years since I quit my corporate job in South Korea, but this show prompted so many visceral flashbacks, from having to fetch tea for men who weren’t even my bosses to being forced to laugh off sexist “jokes” at mandatory after-work drinks. In the working world there, it’s critical to have a sense of nunchi, a sort of hyperaware emotional intelligence that involves being able to read delicate social situations and interpersonal relationships. Everything comes down to subtle implications. Especially in entry-level positions, you have to simply know to be the first to arrive and stay after your boss leaves, in order to be perceived as the kind of dependable person who can climb up the ranks. At these obligatory after-work drinks, I used to sneakily pour water into my shot glass so I could pretend to take soju shots with my boss. If you want to be seen as a team player, you’ll have to find a way to humor everything.
The fact that a Sanrio anime is both acknowledging these inequalities and portraying fantasies of taking the easy way out is incredibly refreshing, because it validates so much of what goes unspoken — or at least, underexplored in mainstream media — about female anger and when and how it is allowed to be expressed. The show’s best moments are rooted in painfully relatable realities: like when Aggretsuko daydreams about calling out a lazy supervisor, or when an annoying salesclerk follows her around the store relentlessly until she feels pressured to buy some socks. (In Korea, overly attentive salesclerks have become so ingrained in the culture that some stores have color-coded baskets shoppers can use to indicate whether they want help or not.) In so many aspects of Asian culture, the pressure to be polite can be suffocating, and Aggretsuko’s death metal karaoke jams lamenting all of these societal ills is a much-needed catharsis.
Aggretsuko calls her karaoke booth a sanctuary, one where she can be her true self. There, she becomes the opposite of kawaii — a term her parent company Sanrio has become synonymous with over its 40-year reign — when she transforms into the death metal version of herself: her eyes glow blue and the soft edges of her giant head turn jagged and spiky. Beer runs down her face as she chugs it by the pint. It’s neither cute nor ladylike, and that’s the point.
“I observed office workers who are at the centre of Japan’s corporate culture and I could hear their heartfelt screams,” Aggretsuko’s designer, who goes by the pseudonym Yeti, told BBC last year. Now that the show is streaming on Netflix, audiences worldwide can scream in solidarity together.