Ever feel like screaming in your boss’ face? Throwing your daily work aside and sleeping in? Publically quitting? Same. In fact, most everyone with a job has experienced the intense frustration that comes with work. Most businesses and companies operate upon some kind of hierarchy. Those at the top enjoy perks like comfortable offices, workplace freedom, and respect. But for those at the bottom, every benefit of the bosses is reversed. Run of the mill workers are treated like machinery instead of people. AGGRETSUKO captures this stress via an assortment of anthropomorphic coworkers at a trading firm.

The show’s main character, Retsuko, is a dutiful 25-year-old accountant. Her job makes her incredibly frustrated for all reasons above, and then some. While her easy going demeanor and cute appearance suggest inner calm, it’s the exact opposite. Retsuko vents her frustrations by occasionally screaming like a death metal singer. She stops by the karaoke bar nearly every day and occasionally has little mental bursts of frustration where she retreats to the bathroom with her own portable microphone. AGGRETSUKO takes these emotional outbursts beyond shock value or comic relief incredibly well. Retsuko’s venting changes as her needs and frustrations change. In that way, her life gets even more detailed and we understand her better.

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A Protagonist With a Secret

Our first clue into how truly important karaoke and death metal are for Retsuko is her action at Karaoke bars. There are four key details that characterize her experience there. First, she goes often enough for staff to recognize her. Second, she goes alone. Third, she is so familiar with her song of choice that its code is committed to memory. And finally, she never orders any food or drinks and turns down a menu when offered.

Retsuko launching into one of the internal death metal rants in AGGRETSUKO
Retsuko’s internal death metal rants | Image: Netflix

This encapsulates the role of karaoke by eliminating its normal use. Generally, karaoke is a social venue where you can eat, drink, and sing with friends. Retsuko turns down every facet of the establishment that would make it into something ‘fun’ for her. Singing, or rather, screaming, is an incredible catharsis for her. Death metal as a genre is the perfect contrast to her soft, fluffy appearance. It allows her to compartmentalize her anger and release it sporadically. Moreover, it’s essentially the exact opposite of her working life.

Rather than predictable, boring work, death metal is exciting. It’s loud and encourages the singer to express themselves vocally and physically. When she sings/screams, Retsuko doesn’t have to worry about the eyes of those around her. She jumps around and shakes her tail not as if the whole world was watching, but as if she had all the power over that world. But even death metal can’t solve all problems. AGGRETSUKO makes it quite clear that these kinds of solutions don’t work long term. After all, the mid-20s are one of the most stressful years. If anxiety could be dealt with by screaming, college graduates would be overflowing from karaoke bars.

Sexism on the Job

This is one of the most important depictions on the show. AGGRETSUKO’s main characters are animals. In Retsuko’s case, her boss is literally a sexist pig. Rather than do any work himself, he spends the entire working day sipping tea and practicing his tee shot in the middle of the office. Taking advantage of Retsuko’s diligence, he frequently talks down to her and orders her like a contractor. Retsuko is constantly forced to fetch him tea and then is criticized for minor details like ‘pouring tea the wrong way.’

Retsuko and her boss, Tom. AGGRETSUKO characters are animals, and Tom is literally a sexist pig.
Retsuko’s literal sexist pig-boss lords over her and constantly gives her meaningless tasks | Image: Netflix

One interesting detail in AGGRETSUKO is the inclusion of multiple other female characters who handle workplace sexism in different ways. One takes advantage of her boss’ penchant for narcissism and peppers him with compliments in order to avoid work. Another maintains a consistently cold demeanor toward strangers and is rarely slammed with others’ work. Retsuko idolizes two others who strut about the office in an aura of grace and power. Even those two find it necessary to weaponize their grace; they shed it in private, social settings but maintain it in the office as a show of authority over their chauvinistic peers. But part of the difficulty in handling her boss’ sexism is Retsuko’s own fear of reprisal. In any work situation, the decision to strike back against sexism is a tough one.

Via Retsuko’s constant outbursts, however, we get to see every mental step of this process. This neatly sections Retsuko’s pure rage from the rational advice she seeks from coworkers about a response. Over time though, she slowly unites these two sides of herself. Her steady support from female coworkers and strong morals becomes the vehicle by which she expresses her frustration.

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Choosing a Path of Life

The contrast between the semi-cartoonish characters and their serious perspectives doesn’t stop there. Retsuko not only has to navigate the complexities of her career but also in determining whether that career is right for her. Plenty of Retsuko’s friends have happy, fulfilling lives doing things spontaneously. One even proposes opening their very own store, tempting Retsuko with the prospect of low-effort work. Ultimately, this opportunity proves to be nothing more than a naïve business idea. While Retsuko puts hours of thought into planning her departure from work, her living situation, and managing a new place, her friend does nothing.

Retsuko grabs dinner with a friend in AGGRETSUKO episode 3.
Many of Retsuko’s friends are the same age as her but have radically different lifestyles | Image: Netflix

This too is an unfortunate reality. Some people with wealthy families have carte blanche to be irresponsible with no major repercussions. And those of us in the world who pour legitimate effort into good ideas often end up worse off. Moments like this teach Retsuko that whatever she does in life needs to be her choice. There is no convenient walkthrough for one’s own existence. There are no secret tunnels to treasure, or a bizarre combination of inputs to activate some easy mode. Retsuko is strong and dependable. Like before, she uses this experience to understand her own burning desire to leave work.

The exaggerated tears and child-like images of the show make funny scenes even funnier, but the serious elements really come through. Retsuko’s death metal outbursts prevent viewers from forgetting how incredibly frustrating adult life can be. It makes watching Retsuko reconcile her struggles even more satisfying since you begin to feel like you’re right beside her, screaming into a microphone then calming down for another day of work.

The Parables of Romance

As with any slice-of-life show, romance and finding love are very important to the narrative. But slice-of-life shows have a horrible track record of creating simple, shallow romances with very little backing. Protagonists fall for each other in very predictable ways without much thought. AGGRETSUKO uses a long-run path for its romance, and Retsuko is constantly at the center.

Retsuko so dazzled with love that her eyes turn into hearts draw with AGGRETSUKO cartoonish style.
After meeting the man of her dreams, Retsuko is absolutely starstruck | Image: Netflix

She begins the series not entirely considering romance as a possibility. Retsuko avoids even office mixers in favor of her work and career. The possibility of marriage and building a family appeals to Retsuko, not only for the possibility of leaving her job after marrying someone relatively rich but for stability and fulfillment. Even then, AGGRETSUKO doesn’t operate with the same shallow romances of most slice-of-life anime. Before Retsuko even reveals a possible love interest, there is tons of counseling with friends and thoughts from Retsuko herself. The man she finally decides on barely even talks, keeping her at the center of her story. Without spoiling the details of it, the show also makes sure not to blindly have her fall for the most conventionally attractive guy around. She has her own unique views on romance, making the pursuit of her dream date even more fulfilling.

Growth from Struggle

Retsuko doesn’t completely become free of the trials of employment, but how could she? Short of a Marxist revolution alongside her coworkers, she can’t avoid her problems. However, the series slowly brings together and integrates the various aspects of Retsuko’s life. Originally, we see her compartmentalize her rage, bottle her emotions, and neglect her health. This results in a totally different mode for Retsuko’s personality depending on where she is and what she’s doing. In the real world, this is called ‘code-switching.’ While code-switching is a fine way to adapt to different social contexts, it should be something natural and voluntary. Retsuko’s initial version of it was harshly enforced by the discrimination in her workplace and her attitude toward careers.

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By the end of Season one, Retsuko has made strides toward integrating these various modes of her persona. She’s able to be her authentic self in extraordinary ways. Now, she no longer sings death metal alone. Rather karaoke became as much a social experience as a cathartic one. Retsuko begins to make more friends, take more risks, and challenge hierarchy. By understanding what the issues are in her life and learning to confront them rather than internalize them, she becomes stronger and more tempered in the process. At times, the humor throughout the show might seem to minimize how problematic corporate culture can be. Retsuko’s development and growth alongside her coworkers and friends, however, couldn’t be more authentic.

AGGRETSUKO Captures Real Experience!

Overall, AGGRETSUKO encapsulates some of the most frustrating but common facets of life and packages them. Rather than present some boring workplace story with tired tropes, it blazes forward. Retsuko’s death metal singing is a great thematic symbol of catharsis and oppositional symbol for repressive bureaucracy. On top of that, real problems in the workplace like rampant sexism and abuses of power have multiple perspectives shown in several episodes. The show not only covers tons of issues but offers plenty of good takes on them too.

Netflix is beginning its steady entry into the anime industry, releasing entire seasons at once as opposed to week by week. While I’m not entirely sure whether I prefer Netflix’s style over the traditional weekly broadcasts, I definitely appreciated having a full season to binge. Series like this aren’t nearly common enough. But as someone quickly approaching workplace life myself, it’s a great watch even if a rare one.

Featured image from Netflix.

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