Sanrio’s Aggretsuko Is More than a Cute Japanese Character—An Insider’s Glimpse to Modern Japanese Life

22 March 2021 by Tanner

Sanrio’s Aggretsuko centers around Retsuko, a red panda office worker who alongside her animal coworkers in a trading firm working day in and day out.

In this office job environment, we are shown a glimpse of a very stressful life, and this red panda expresses her frustration about work in a karaoke bar she visits often by releasing her anger by singing death metal karaoke. This is hinted at by her name and the character series title which you could break into three main parts—aggressive, retsu, and ko. Retsu means ‘rage’ or ‘fury’ while ‘ko’ means ‘child’ in Japanese.

A day in the life of Retsuko was featured in an anime series in 2016, but due to her popularity domestically and abroad, Netflix premiered and created a series around her character and her daily struggles in 2018. Since then the series has been running a strong three seasons with about 10 15-minute episodes. A lot of Aggretsuko aficionados are hoping for a fourth season, and while that is still in the air, there are a lot of character goods: including snacks, plush toys, comic books (now even offered in English through Oni Press), etc. to keep their Aggretsuko fix. In this article, let’s look at the history and the minds behind the creators of Aggretsuko and its significance and place Japanese society as a whole.

History

What do you think of when you hear the word Sanrio? The first thing in your mind is probably Hello Kitty, Sanrio’s long-running icon of kawaii and everything sweet alongside her friends, Little Twin Stars, My Melody, Bad Batz Maru, and many others. Sanrio is the first global brand that put cute Japanese characters on the world stage. However, while Sanrio’s characters are loved for their character designs and their cuteness, critics note her lack of personality and a background story.

In the early 2000s, there was a boom of cute Japanese character designs with interesting temperaments: it started with San-X’s Rillakuma (2003), the bear who relaxes all day long. Afterward, they created Sumikko Gurashi (2012), a group of characters who just as the name suggests, live in the corner and are left behind. Afro Ken, another San-X creation features a dog who changes his hair as he is in close proximity with objects and people. Then a wave of characters that have very unlikely personalities began to emerge. 

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It didn’t take long until Sanrio followed suit. It began with Sanrio’s creation of Gudetama (2013) proved to be a hit—this lazy and apathetic egg has captured the hearts of modern viewers so much so Gudetama starred in an animation series in 2016 that has a couple of hundred of episodes called Gudetama Sanpo (or Gudetama walk in English). 

Two years after Gudetama, Aggretsuko was created by the artist Yeti and debuted to the public. An instant hit, Atsuko and her friends gave a voice to the modern working woman and office workers in general. While Yeti remains very private and shy, we are given a small glimpse of her character creation process in her short interview with Netflix. Yeti states that “Retsuko is made of many people’s stories. She is a mixture of several people I know”. The fact that Retsuko sings death karaoke was inspired by a friend grumbling about work and life. In Yeti’s ears, her words sounded like death metal, and decided that adding death metal karaoke fits just right to Retsuko’s personality.

Aggretsuko’s Social Significance

Photo: "Aggretsuko" - Sanrio/Netflix

Retsuko and her circumstances speak specifically to working women, not only in Japan but abroad. Gender discrimination, searching for meaning, and juggling with personal and professional life are just some of the themes the animation series examines through Retsuko and her friends. Aggretsuko’s director Rarecho, notes that he found it very surprising that people overseas found Retsuko serving tea to her superiors funny. He then commented that when the #MeToo movement enflamed the world in 2019, he realized that the world has not changed much in terms of gender discrimination in the workplace.

Aggretsuko is a world that sheds a light on the modern Japanese office worker and their environment. While Retsuko is the young and somewhat lost young woman in the workforce, there are other characters that reflect other types of people in an office job situation. Some notable characters are two of her superiors whom she sometimes goes to karaoke after work with and knows her love for death metal—Gori, a gorilla that chooses career over family and regrets her decision and Washimi, an elegant eagle who chooses career over her family. We are also introduced to other office workers like Haida, a hyena who is romantically interested in Retsuko but finds himself not having the courage to tell her anything, and Anai, an insecure new recruit that finds himself anxious and paranoid about being criticized and is overly defensive about his work and himself. These are just not kawaii characters, but personalities that reflect a part of human society and ourselves. Isn’t that the reason why we are so drawn to these characters in the first place?

Japanese Characters Beyond

Japan’s ‘kawaii’ cultural power is far-reaching: it’s not simply for Japanese kids, but also for child-hearted adults who sometimes need a source of comfort and joy. We are pulled into the world of Studio Ghibli’s Kiki’s Delivery Service, saving princesses with our favorite Italian plumber Mario, reading Doraemon manga, and find solace hugging our favorite cute Japanese cartoon characters’ plush toy. Fictional characters like Retsuko, our favorite hard-working red panda who goes to karaoke after work, have given us a new take on social commentary, which alongside their cuteness reflects the real struggles of people and provides a means of release, empathy, and strength.

Which Aggretsuko character do you relate to the most? Have you watched Aggretsuko’s newest season on Netflix and if you did, which episode do you love the most? Which kawaii characters do you love and why do you love them? Leave a comment below and let’s talk about Aggretsuko!


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