Five days a week, from 8am until 5pm, Gwen could be found sitting calmly at the reception desk of a Chicago architecture firm. This was her job – her “survival job,” she told people back home. Freelance writing and literary management not serving to pay her rent, Gwen had joined the silent ranks of the artistically unfulfilled, eager for the day when she could stick up a middle finger to her job, quitting as she marched out the front door and into the awaiting limousine to success.
It was a dumb fantasy, and Gwen knew that. It’ll be a cab, not a limo, she thought to herself. But in her heart, she knew she wouldn’t be quitting the job soon – and when she did, wouldn’t want to burn bridges with the people who had been nice to her while there. As she set a phone back in its dock and began to type out client information into a spreadsheet, she considered her ideal departure from work: a new job arising in theatre, the discomforting assertiveness of handing in two weeks notice, the inevitable half-hearted departure conversations about staying in touch and we-hope-you’ll-visit-us-soon. This would happen. In the future. Not now.
Gwen glanced at the clock again. In six minutes, she would be only 30 minutes away from one hour until her lunch break. She sighed and rested her cheek in her palm. She grinned, reflexively, in case someone walked in at that moment.
Suddenly, her mind began to fill with a distant metal track. Quiet at first, but building in intensity within her head. She rocked her head back and forth, to the rhythm. It was just before she was to start singing along that she realized that all the lyrics from Aggretsuko‘s karaoke scenes – which her dull afternoon had inspired memories of – were in Japanese.
Not speaking Japanese, Gwen instead mumbled in an angry, whispered tone: “Rah-rah-rah-rah-rah-raaaaah! Reh-rah-reh-rah-rah!!”
A poor approximation of Retsuko’s screeching voice, but what else could she have done? It was only close enough to remind herself.
She was still headbanging when a man – mid-30s, five-o-clock shadow – walked into the lobby. Gwen immediately stopped, lifted her head, and spoke clearly. “How can I help you today?”
The guest was helped, and departed. Gwen straightened her collar. In three minutes, it would only be thirty to the top of the hour.
– – – – –
“Get off your phone and be with the conversation, Gwen,” Eleanor chided.
“Sorry, sorry.” Gwen slipped her phone back into her purse, and glanced around the dark room. At each of the tables, there were couples murmuring over empty plates. The clink and clatter of silverware on ceramic was white noise through the restaurant.
“I just wanted a nice quiet night out with you,” Eleanor added, looking to Dania. “On the one night in ages when we don’t all have work. Share the evening.”
“Yeah, Gwen,” Dania said, sipping her water. “Talk with us. Tell us about your job.”
“Nothing happens at my job,” Gwen said. “I direct people to other people.”
“Who was the creepiest person to come into work today?” Dania asked. She swirled the ice cubes around her glass, pinky outstretched.
Gwen considered this. “It was sort of an average…no, I know who.”
“Who?” Eleanor leaned in closer.
“There were these two businessmen,” Gwen said. “Old men. Old money. And they came in asking to see the CEO of the company.”
Dania waited for the other shoe to drop, but Gwen returned to her drink.
“That’s it?” she asked. “Two old rich guys?”
“Old rich people creep me out,” Gwen said. “That they were going straight to the CEO was also weird. Those people are probably planning their next cruise through the Bahamas.”
“Upper management is a cluster,” Eleanor said. “We’re just supporting their leisure in an unfair system.”
Dania glanced at Eleanor. “…maaaaaan,” she added.
“It’s the system, maaaaaaan,” Eleanor groaned, squinting into the middle distance.
“I keep thinking about Aggretsuko during my shifts,” Gwen said.
“Okay, I didn’t want to bring anything up,” Dania said, swiftly more engaged. “But, like, yes. You are living the Retsuko life in real life, and it’s weird.”
“Is that why you wanted me to watch it?” Gwen asked. “Because ‘it me?'”
“That, and because it’s really good,” Dania said. She cast an eye around the room again, on the lookout for any couples like Retsuko and Resasuke – work couples paired off out of necessity. None appeared, or rather none betrayed an awkwardness obvious enough to catch.
She turned back to Gwen, rapt in thought. Dania hesitated. “You do agree that the show is brilliant, right?” she asked warily.
“No, absolutely, it’s a smart show,” Gwen reassured. “I’m just considering something.”
What she was considering was whether or not the comparison to Retsuko – the 27-year-old repressed red panda working an office job in the center of Netflix’s new show – served as a compliment or insult. Sure, Retsuko was a largely sympathetic and engaging character, and a fine foil for the corporate world she inhabited. But did the comparison also trace onto Gwen the character’s suppressed fury, and desire to marry her way out of poverty?
“I just wish there was more of it,” Eleanor said, leaning back. “Like, I get that it’s based on a bunch of one-minute shorts, but you’d think the episodes could sustain being a full 30 minutes long, instead of fifteen.”
“There’s a certain elegance to the shorter run time,” Gwen said. “Everything in the episode is trimmed down until only what needs to be there remains.”
“I don’t know about that,” Eleanor said. “There’s definitely some pacing things that could be sped up. There’s a few times when characters get confronted – like, the default reaction to surprising news is characters going completely silent for, like, six seconds. It happens when Retsuko tells Washimi and Gori about her boyfriend for the first time. It’s funny once, but every time?”
“I’m pretty sure that’s just an element of anime,” Dania said, “especially anime of a more cartoonish style. Besides, when people are talking its still a very fast show.”
“It’s got that great feel where everything has the highest possible stakes,” Gwen added. “Characters caring so much about their jobs and prestige that every little thing that goes wrong is subject for outrage.”
“Not to mention, it’s just pretty to look at,” Dania continued. “Sanrio, the company behind her, is the same people who made Hello Kitty. The chibi animation is a strange pair to the corporate setting, but it also kind of works? I’m not sure why.”
“It’s cute,” Eleanor said. “But I don’t know, ‘brilliant’ is a little much for me.”
“Don’t you relate to it, though?” Gwen asked. “It’s one of the more accurate depictions of millennial strife I’ve seen in media.”
“I’m on the younger side of millennial, anyway.” Eleanor grasped her drink. “But I mean, it’s funny and all. The constant struggle to balance her own sanity with the struggles of living a good life makes it very funny.”
Eleanor shrugged. “Maybe the idea of cute characters going through real life struggles is sort of played out for me, at this point.”
“That’s fair,” Gwen conceded. “Although I don’t think the characters’ identities are chosen at random. There’s humor in the size difference between Retsuko and Fenneko, versus Gori and Washimi. The latter literally being “higher-ups” in the company, and being imposing forces visually. Director Ton being a literal sexist pig.”
“I honestly love Gori and Washimi,” Dania said. “I want more of them. Washimi is who I want to be professionally – using her influence to help other women in peril. Tearing up checks for corporate money that won’t be paid back. Able to do yoga.”
“I think Washimi and Gori are who we all want to be,” Eleanor said. “But Retsuko is who we are.”
“Unless we’re Fenneko,” Dania warned. “I’m absolutely Fenneko.”
“Fenneko is kind of amazing to me as a character,” Gwen said. “Everything she does is classic villain material, all this relationship subterfuge and digital stalking. But because of the framing, she becomes an instantly relatable character. Really, all of the characters are intensely likeable. Even the ones we’re supposed to root against.”
“It’s ’cause they’re all forced to work together and play nice.” Dania swirled the ice in her drink again. “Like, think about other stories where characters who are entirely different have to interact. Usually, it’s funny because one of them keeps refusing to act ‘normally.’ But with Aggretsuko, it’s a show about a bunch of strange people forcing themselves to play nice with each other.”
“It’s an interesting comment on modern society,” Gwen added. “The pressure is no longer external, where people ridicule you for being yourself, it’s internal. ‘What will people think of you?’ It’s like, you want Retsuko and everyone to succeed in the show, so they can go back to being the cute Sanrio characters they are. But the setting doesn’t allow that. So we keep watching in case they break out.”
“Which she does, every karaoke session,” Eleanor said. “And also all the other times when death metal karaoke is a metaphor for frustration at the system.”
“I can’t think of a better metaphor for frustration at the system,” Dania chuckled.
“Not if you overuse it,” Eleanor warned. “Which the show almost does. Maybe it would if the episodes were longer.”
“Another reason to keep it short,” Gwen said. “Simple, but effective. There’s so much that can be said with a word, or an expression. It’s a far cry from Hello Kitty – whose dot eyes and nose expressed so little emotion that anyone could project anything onto her.”
“Honestly, Resasuke has the same face,” Dania noted. “That blank stare. What a man.”
“Maybe that’s the appeal,” Eleanor said. “It’s so simple that you can apply whatever emotional attachment you want to it. Retsuko is everyone because her reactions – usually silence – are vague enough for you to fill in the gaps.”
“Exactly,” Gwen said. “That’s why I like it.”
“I’m pretty sure that’s why I’m more ambivalent,” Eleanor said. “I prefer that kind of stuff to be filled in. Specificity makes it easier to relate to.”
“There’s specificity in the office setting,” Gwen said.
“Yeah, but you work in an office,” said Dania.
Gwen shot her a look. “You don’t need to live the character to relate to her.”
Gwen finished her drink, and began to stand up. “We should head home. I have to be at work early in the morning.”
Image Credit: Netflix