Japanese company Sanrio is best known for creating the iconically adorable Hello Kitty and her similarly adorable friends like Badtz-Maru and My Melody, all of which have been merchandised into oblivion with little dolls, toys, and games that are primarily targeted to kids who like cute animals. Aggretsuko, Sanrio’s latest adorable animal character, takes a slightly different approach. She’s still very cute, certainly, but she also has a tendency to get so frustrated by the world around her that her only release is getting drunk and screaming death-metal songs at karaoke. She is, in another words, the perfect mascot for the stupid world we’ve found ourselves in, and her new Netflix series takes that concept admirably far.
Aggretsuko is short for Aggressive Retsuko, and the eponymous Retsuko is a red panda working a soul-crushing job at an office in Tokyo. The first episode lays out her typical frustrations, including a self-obsessed co-worker, an annoying gossip, and her demanding bosses, and at the end of an aggravating day she grabs a drink and lets it all out in a deep, terrifying howl at the local karaoke bar. The central gag of a cute little thing screaming her lungs out in an unspeakable rage is a fun hook, but the specificity of Retsuko’s aggravations helps the show transcend that.
The show is ostensibly kid-friendly, even if Retsuko does drink, so it’s weirdly refreshing to see that her boss, a pig named Director Ton, isn’t just mean but a full-on misogynist who talks down to Retsuko specifically because she’s a woman. Retsuko knows she could appease him by flirting a little, but she refuses to debase herself like that for a man who is such an unrepentant creep. It’s sad and depressing that a cartoon has to deal with that, but it’s a reality that frustrates plenty of real-life office workers, so it’s cool to see a cutesy cartoon show tackle such a relevant issue.
Aggretsuko isn’t some unflinching nightmare, though, as it also has some great moments of weird comedy. There’s a scene in the first episode where Retsuko realizes she wore the wrong shoes to the office, prompting her to come up with a goofy dance to distract any co-workers from noticing. One of her work friends also has an incredible sarcastic laugh (at least in the Japanese dub) that the show deploys a few times as a perfect button for a few gags, like when a misunderstanding makes one of Retsuko’s male co-workers think she recently gave birth. (The look of terror on his face implies he has a particular reason to be concerned about this—wink, wink—but the show doesn’t go into it.)
Retsuko is a great character with relatable goals and quirks, but she’s almost too endearing for what the show needs to do. You want her to succeed and make her life better, but Aggretsuko doesn’t really give us any indication of what a better life for Retsuko would look like. Her most defining characteristic is that she puts up with a lot of shit and fights back the only way she knows how, but—much like The Office—it would start to become too saccharine if everything began to work out for her and she no longer needed to let out a healthy scream while hiding in a bathroom stall.
Part of the issue there is that Retsuko keeps her karaoke habit private, so she’s always alone when she screams her songs. Netflix only made four of Aggretsuko’s 10 episodes available ahead of the premiere, but going forward the show should open Retsuko up a little more and embrace death metal as a healthy outlet for her anger rather than a secret she has to hide. Retsuko is actually far too alone in general, an issue that pops up in one aggressively lousy subplot in which she throws all of her plucky self-determination away and decides that she can get out of her dead-end job if she marries a rich man. Aggretsuko lays some groundwork for how it can recover from that truly terrible twist, with Retsuko attending a yoga class alongside some seemingly perfect women from her office who are definitely hiding some anxieties of their own, which could get the storyline back on track. If not, Retsuko will have a lot more to be angry about.