Binge or Purge?: Aggretsuko.
Netflix adapts the Japanese short series about a put-upon office worker with death metal in her soul to mixed results.
When I heard that Netflix had scooped up director Rarecho’s series of animated shorts about the adorable red panda Retsuko who hates her workplace, I was very excited. The shorts are delightful two-minute bursts of Office Space style topical comedy that are punctuated by the wailing screams of death metal music as Retsuko imagines all of the things she would like to say to her boss and co-workers.
The result of moving the stories into a longer format fundamentally alters the nature of the series in ways that are both positive and negative, making Netflix’ Aggretsuko a markedly different beast that fans of the original may not love.
Retsuko is an office worker (OL in Japanese idiom) who is the very model of self-sacrificing modesty on the outside, but a roiling cauldron of righteous indignation on the inside. Her chauvinist pig boss (literally a giant pig) subjects her to relentless misogyny, and her co-workers – with rare exceptions – embody every nasty stereotypical employee trait you can think of. Retsuko’s only escape from a life of subservient drudgery is a karaoke bar where she sneaks off to every night in order to scream out the death metal ballads she composes all day long about destroying everyone around her.
Episode 1: A Day in the Life of Retsuko.
We meet Retsuko, first as a newly minted employee fresh out of school and later as a jaded office worker who has put up with five years in a dead end accounting job. From gossipy co-workers, oppressive bosses, and “team” members who endlessly fob their chores off on her, we get an understanding of why Retsuko is so “aggressive” in her imagination.
Since Aggretsuko has the same director and writer as the shorts, this first episode has an uncanny aspect of feeling like more of the same old comic that I loved while being unsettlingly different. We get a lot less of the tried and true (and stereotypical) coworkers who fueled the shorts, and more build up with the few allies who Retsuko has in her life. I’m still up in the air on whether the additional back story for our heroine is a welcome addition or a detriment that takes away from her universal accessibility.
It really depends on how much they make of it (and later episodes do at least mention her school days and her family life, so they could be building to some nice beats about those outside-of-work elements.) I can say I was not instantly impressed with the opening credits, as it feels like a flimsy gloss on the whole shtick of the series and quite forgettable.
Episode 2: A Good, Hard-Working Girl.
An old schoolmate of Retsuko returns to Japan after having lived the Bohemian dream abroad. Retsuko dreams of the day where she can tell her boss off in real life and join her carefree friend in a joint venture to sell foreign keep-sakes.
The second episode finds the sweet spot between telling a larger story and using the death metal gimmick to its fullest. Not only do we get a new character who fleshes out Retsuko and adds variety to her routine, but we get a couple of really excellent death metal songs that show just how delightfully twisted the source material was, and what potential there can be in a longer story arc.
Episode 3: Short-Timer.
The dream of starting her own business starts to wear down Retsuko’s facade, allowing her defiant and righteous inner personality to appear at work…much to her detriment when her friend begins to flake out on their plans.
The turning point of the season’s arc has arrived, and it highlights the big differences between the shorts and the episodes. We have a much more cohesive story that is building to a climax, but we have less of the flare that made the shorts so great. I can’t even remember if this episode has a song or not…and the whole damn point of the shorts was to see what crazy death metal song Retsuko was going to concoct about the daily outrage! The direction of the first season has pretty much been outed, so it’s a good place to assess how invested you are in the story that is being developed.
The transition from micro-sized skits to full blown episodes does a bit of violence to the charm of Aggretsuko. In the previous format, we got an easily relatable event that would precipitate Retsuko’s furious, imagined response. Somebody spread false gossip, Retsuko explodes. Somebody stole her lunch, Retsuko explodes. Somebody ropes her into doing their work and then takes the credit, Retsuko explodes. It’s definitely a running gag, but it was so pointed and focused that it was a blast.
The longer format adds in a larger story that is more fleshed out: Retsuko has a life beyond her work (though it is dominated by work, like much of modern life) with recurring characters and sub-plots that are wider than just “gossipy worker who gossips” or “chauvinist boss who is a dink.” It adds some depth to the world, but subtracts the glorious jolt of expected anarchy you get from the simpler set-up. It reminds me of when Dilbert and Garfield went from 4 panel comics to animated series. Sometimes the extra depth is useful for more pointed jokes; more often the longer run-time saps the humor by ruining the timing and inserting filler between the jokes.
Binge or Purge?
This is a tough one. I still really like Aggretsuko’s premise, and for a few moments in the series I also really liked its execution. The larger narrative has potential to be engaging; the only reason I didn’t finish the fourth episode is because my device ran out of steam. On the face of it, I would say that makes this a de facto binge…but I don’t really love the way the series is unfolding and how it has fundamentally changed.
Folks who are new to Aggretsuko may really enjoy the series. She is a great character – both an earnest and honest citizen and a gleeful firebrand revolutionary who can’t wait to see the people in power marched off to the guillotine. The problem is not the character or characters, since many of the new players are fun and interesting. The problem is that I came for two minutes of thrashing anarchic death metal and got a socially satirical opera instead.