Watch This is a Quartzy recommendation series that spotlights unusual or surprising television shows and films to check out. You’ll find all the entries here.
She’s in constant need of a beer; she commutes on a train smushed between heavy breathers; she eats bread crusts with mayo when she’s low on cash; she can’t refuse any work request, no matter how absurd. She’s Aggretsuko, and she’s the new mascot for the urban working woman.
Aggretsuko (a shortening of “aggressive” and the character’s first name, Retsuko) is a character introduced in 2016 by the Hello Kitty-making stationary powerhouse, Sanrio. Netflix has produced a show about her, voiced in Japanese with local language subtitles, and dubbed in local languages where available. The show debuts globally on April 20.
No other show captures the cartoonish misery of low-level corporate drudgery as empathetically as Aggretsuko does, in its 15-minute bursts of silliness.
Retsuko is a single, 25-year-old red panda who works as an “office lady” in the accounting department of a Tokyo corporation. In the show’s opening scene, we watch as a wide-eyed, freshly graduated Retsuko shines with promise at the prospect of joining the workforce. Cut to five years later, and she huddles under her covers in her tiny apartment. Bleary eyed, she snoozes her alarm until it’s time to devote herself to becoming a “model citizen.”
Retsuko’s immediately familiar office world is not like the action-packed anime universes viewers might be used to. Still, her corporate jungle brims with enemies: bullies, sycophants, gossip-mongering buffoons, and a literal sexist pig. Retsuko responds to her absurd colleagues inwardly, scream-singing her answers to a heavy metal soundtrack, until she can physically get to a karaoke bar after work to rage alone.
Her foes are often one-dimensional, but many of Retsuko’s allies will strike viewers as true to life: A quietly sarcastic fox-frenemy who never seems to get in trouble; a glamorous, yoga-doing gorilla from marketing; an eagle-secretary who never publicly falters in her heels; an irritating but well-meaning hippo of a middle-manager; and a cat friend from college who lives a gloriously free life, with her financial realities rarely discussed.
In one episode, Retsuko is twisted into inner turmoil as a shop attendant badgers her into signing up for a reward membership. She’s already bought three pairs of socks to be polite, and is about to sign up for something she clearly doesn’t want, when her cat friend swoops in like a self-assured fairy godmother and says easily, “She doesn’t need a card.” Calm and confident, she grabs Retsuko’s bag and walks out, calling over her shoulder for the red panda to follow her. In that moment, the viewer experiences Retsuko’s feelings of crushing humility, humble gratitude, and outright awe for the people so quick to assert themselves.
Later, we feel dread at Retsuko’s naïveté, when the same friend tries to recruit her for a new business venture. Frustrated at being judged for being too responsible, Retsuko dares to dream of quitting her job. This is the central question of the show: Will Retsuko ever self-actualize into something other than a corporate drone?
Retsuko is not a badass. She’s not empowered, or overtly a feminist. She’s a mild-mannered, self-described pushover who likes to follow the rules without ruffling feathers, who only very occasionally reflects on her life as a cog in a machine. That’s why she’s so relatable, and in some ways, so refreshing. By making a central hero out of this people-pleaser about to burst at any time, Aggretsuko displays all the frustrating ways women negotiate at work, without suggesting that the only solution is burning down the patriarchal barn this instant.
It may not be immediately obvious why you should spend precious time watching a cartoon red panda get beaten down on the job during the era of “peak TV.” But Retsuko’s inner rage, as funny and cathartic as it is, is just one part of what makes her compelling.
Perhaps social media is the right venue for the very brief episodes you can already find there. They generally end with a punchline of Retsuko metal-raging in response to something annoying. Watching the full-length (but still brief) episodes, however, the viewer feels palpable dramatic tension, waiting to see how Retsuko will respond outwardly to her colleagues. We come to care about Retsuko’s future, to feel frustrated by her spinelessness, and to genuinely hope she escapes the trap of her menial life.
The plot isn’t always sophisticated. The extent to which Retsuko’s sadistic bosses single her out would surely be an HR problem in many offices. It’s not a show to watch to better understand your job or the nuances of power dynamics at the office. But it may make you feel better about the job you do have. And until you can find a work culture that helps you flourish with purpose, you have an ally in this aggressive red panda.