Netflix dropped the third season of its popular original anime, Aggretsuko, on August 27, bringing back more of everyone’s favorite death metal-singing red panda and her daily battles living as an average member of Japanese society.
Aggretsuko is a short, somewhat childish anime that follows the titular red panda, Retsuko, as she navigates a world filled with office work, difficult romances, boredom, personal dreams (or lack thereof) and everything in between. Set in the bustling city of Tokyo, and accompanied by a diverse cast of animal friends, Retsuko’s life provides an interesting portal into both the mundane and extraordinary components of what it means to be a proper member of society.
The Japanese setting of Aggretsuko is an essential element of the show and its plot, and is certainly intriguing to viewers who are not all that familiar with Japanese work-life culture. The very first episode opens with Retsuko’s personal countdown, where she states “after I count to ten, I will be a model citizen.” Retsuko utilizes this countdown fairly often, substituting “model citizen” with “obedient office employee” or “well-behaved girl,” and other similar roles that she must fulfill. Her need to return to a “normal” member of society is evocative of the Japanese cultural standard of being consistently responsible, attentive, and productive, especially for working-age adults and college graduates.
For women, this standard is even stricter. Women in general Japanese society, like most societies around the globe, are seen as primarily mothers and caregivers. They are in a difficult position where they are expected to get married and have children, and taking care of their family is their primary responsibility. Women that push off marriage and children in order to enter the workforce are often seen as neglecting their feminine duties; even when they have already entered the world of job opportunities and career paths, they are still expected to take on the role of wife and mother later on. This expectation is made clear in the show by the way Retsuko’s mother aggressively pressures her daughter into arranged marriage meetings, and her constant harassment of asking when Retsuko is planning to get married.
The treatment of women in the Japanese workplace is also a key plot point in Aggretsuko. Retsuko is often pushed around by her boss, a large and demanding pig named Ton (yes, he’s literally a pig), who is constantly belittling her and forcing her to complete more “feminine” tasks for him, such as cleaning his desk or serving tea to everyone in the office. The same duties are not expected from Retsuko’s male co-workers. While this behavior is exaggerated, especially with the show’s bold animation style, this type of treatment is undoubtedly prevalent for women in the workforce, and not just in Japan, either. If women are expected by society to cook, clean, and accommodate the needs of men, why should that expectation stop in the workplace?
Despite the maltreatment from her boss, Retsuko remains a so-called “model citizen” in front of the people around her at the office; this characteristic follows the Japanese culture of women being submissive, obedient, and passive. Very rarely would a female employee ever speak out against her boss, especially if you consider the substantial societal value of showing respect to your superiors. Retsuko’s friend and male co-worker, Haida, does not even step up to defend her at work, highlighting how gender does not change the importance of respecting and not speaking out against superiors in the workplace.
Following the small injustices that Retsuko faces everyday, whether it’s from work, her nosy mother, or the mediocre love interests that she pursues, at the end of the day she has one thing to call her own: her private karaoke booth and her signature death metal screech. Retsuko has these death metal outbursts at least once per episode, where she can really “be herself” and take out all of her anger and frustration on the microphone that she keeps in her purse. While the private death metal habits of Japanese people in the real world would be difficult to verify or investigate, in the show it offers an entertaining and somewhat goofy outlet for Retsuko, who is otherwise just an ordinary person like us viewers.
The mundaneness of Retsuko’s work and personal life, combined with the loud and aggressive eruptions of death metal, are what made the show so appealing in the first place. Many viewers can relate to loathsome jobs, or relationships that fall through, or any of the tumultuous events that Retsuko takes on on a daily basis. She might be an animated, cute little red panda, but Retsuko’s character represents what we as members of society all feel sometimes: rage.
This formula that the show’s creators utilized worked well… while it lasted. The first two seasons of Aggretsuko had cohesive plots, likeable characters, and a strong main character that is relatable and entertaining to viewers. The secrecy of Retsuko’s death metal hobby also added a lot to the show, because we felt like we were privy to confidential information that nobody else in Retsuko’s life could know about (other than her best friends, Gori and Washimi). While the plot could feel a bit monotonous at times, simply circulating from Retsuko’s work to personal life and back again, it was something that was consistent and relaxing to watch.
Unfortunately, a lot of the enjoyable simplicity that we saw in Season 1 and 2 was thrown out the window for Season 3. Perhaps the creators felt pressure to move away from the somewhat dull, daily life plot of Retsuko, but they took it too far with the outrageous Season 3 plot twists. In Season 3 we see Retsuko get in a minor car accident, create a lot of debt for herself, and then suddenly… join a band? While the underground pop idol girl group was a weird concept to begin with, it became weirder when Retsuko was suddenly integrated into the group as a member. Not only that, she makes the split second decision to expose her impressive death metal voice in front of an entire crowd of people, and then becomes wildly popular with a growing fan base. This plot could be analyzed as the favorable reaction of Japanese people to venting out your frustrations instead of just being another passive member of society; however, there was no consistency in the way the creators went about crafting this narrative.
Retsuko tells her boss, Ton, later on in the season that she will quit her accounting job and pursue being a death metal singer full-time. After watching two seasons of Retsuko turn down exciting opportunities in order to maintain her need to be a “serious” model citizen, this decision to suddenly become a singer seemed very unlike her. Her singing career also takes a bizarre turn into Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue territory, when her fame creates a menacing stalker who hunts her down and tries to kill her. This much darker tone is unbecoming of the show’s core content, which used to be a likeable girl trying to navigate her way through life. The show already had an enjoyable plotline and theme, and the creators should have stuck to that in Season 3, instead of throwing the plot all over the place with crazy (and at times violent) twists and turns.
While Season 3 still provides a few laughs and an encouraging outburst of Haida’s feeling for Retsuko (we’ve waited so long for something to happen between them), ultimately it confuses viewers by taking the plot in a completely different direction than what we are used to from this show. Viewers were looking for some kind of advancement in Retsuko’s work life, or romance, or the discovery of a new personal dream, but not for a singer-turned-stalker victim. Will there be a season four? Until we find out, we’ll have to keep our rage to ourselves.