Dragonball Super would be more fun if Goku belted Death Metal while going Ultra Instinct.
As usual, I’m late to the party on this one. But that’s not to say that I’ve been sleeping on Aggretsuko. I’ve been watching (and rewatching) it for some time now. It’s the first time that I’ve been genuinely excited about a Netflix series since Castlevania.
But where my interest in Castlevania was fueled mainly by nostalgia for the games it was adapted from, Aggretsuko is an original property reworked from a set of shorts and given an actual plot. Normally, adding plot where none was meant to be is just asking for trouble. So, why does it work?
Well, among many things…
The writing (the animal symbolism, especially) is clever
The titular Retsuko is a Red Panda; a species known for being more active after dark (she works long hours and goes to the karaoke bar at night) and being highly territorial despite its cute appearance (the series revolves around her Death Metal-fueled ranting and raving).
Her co-worker Haida, a Spotted Hyena is never seen laughing like we’d expect, but that’s probably because he’s lovestruck, loses his nerve around her and can’t loosen up (males in hyena clans are ALWAYS submissive to the women and their cubs).
Her boss, Director Ton, is a Hog who abuses his power and has little-to-no respect for women; a LITERAL male chauvinist pig.
These are just a few of the ways Aggretsuko plays with and/or subverts the stereotypes we attach to animals. It’s the sort of writing that you kick yourself for not thinking of yourself because it’s kind of obvious and works so well.
Of course, they also use that writing for clever humor as well. I’m actually surprised that so few people I know got how funny it was that Washimi, the company president’s secretary, was a SECRETARY Bird and that the director of marketing Gori was a Gorilla (get it, Guerrilla Marketing?)
It speaks to modern American work culture
This is the thing that EVERYONE talks about when they mention Aggretsuko. And to be fair it’s a big damn deal.
Retsuko’s plight is that of everyone between the age of 18 and 40 today. She spends her days at a job where she isn’t respected or compensated enough for the effort she puts in and what little time she does have to herself forces her to choose between her passion projects or a social life.
Think of it this way; the average American works 47 hours a week. Spread out over a standard 5-day work week, that’s about 9.5 hours a day. Subtract the recommended 8 hours a day we’re recommended for sleep and that leaves you with a mear 6.5 hours to do your daily chores around the house while likely running on fumes after work. And if you’re an office drone like Retsuko, you can expect to put in overnighters and be called into the office on weekends. And judging from her apartment, she also not being paid very well; another issue working adults face with increasingly infuriating frequency.
All of this culminates in the average person over 21 having little in the way of time, energy, and resources to focus on their own goals and becoming truly self-sufficient. The result is being forced to fight a constant losing battle to maintain mental health under the pressure of social responsibility; a scenario my generation refers to as “Adulting.” … which, hilariously, actually does have a Metal anthem dedicated to it.
Speaking of metal…
It also speaks to modern Japanese music culture
Let’s not forget that this is anime and, as such, draws its perspective from a Japanese point-of-view. So what is uniquely Japan in Aggretsuko?
Well, Japanese comedy has always been quick to poke fun at office life as anyone who enjoys slice-of-life anime can tell you. But I honestly feel that most people overlook the significance of Metal in Japan’s Pop music culture.
You see, one of the great things about Metal that has kept it alive through the years is that it’s highly adaptive; changing not only with trends but with the culture that picks it up. Norway gave us the second wave of Black Metal in the 90’s. German bands like Rammstein shaped Neue Deutsche Härte (lit. “New German Hardness”). Even us Yankees saw what New Wave British Heavy Metal was doing, pumped up the tempo, and made U.S. Power Metal.
But to see why Death Metal is so important to the modern music scene in Japan, you first have to first understand the place of J-Pop Idol Groups.
The Pop scene in Japan is the definition of corporate manufactured music. They are marketed as being cute role models first and music seems to be a tertiary thought. That would be offensive enough to a music snob like me, but the groups are VERY strictly maintained to an almost draconian degree. Members of the group “graduate” (read: are kicked out of the band) after reaching a certain age. They cant drink. They can’t smoke. They can’t even have boyfriends. And if they get caught breaking any of the rules, they’re publicly shamed online before being given the boot.
Naturally, a lot of people took exception to this. It’s not right that these girls be bullied for wanting to live a life outside of their jobs. Plus, some people don’t mind the controversy; they WANT to root for the bad girls that stick it to the man. This resulted in J-Pop taking influences from Death Metal’s aesthetics, sound, and counter-cultural drive to mock the shallow absurdity of the Pop Idol scene.
Thus we saw the rise of the Anti-Idols. Bands like Necronomidol and Babymetal have been leading this movement that pushes against the Pop music zeitgeist that has been dominating Japan for years and results in a sound that I can only describe as the cutest little girls covering “Awaken (Mustakrakish)” by Dethklok.
So how appropriate is it the same genre of music that inspired the Idols to throw two proud middle fingers at the industry would also be the sound backing Retsuko’s battle cry against her corporate overlords commanding them to, “choke on my rage?”