Sanrio have branched out from the cuteness they’re known for recently. Everyone knows Hello Kitty, and plenty of people recognise the other characters like My Melody, Keropi and the Little Twin Stars. Admittedly, before I came to Japan I only had a vague idea of these characters, but after visiting Puroland and watching most of the Sanrio Danshi anime, I have a pretty clear picture of who is Kiki and who is Lala, which cat is a British schoolgirl and which is a real cat, and even what the hell Patty and Jimmy are supposed to be (preferably forgotten).
Lately, they’ve come to understand their core fanbase are growing up and made characters to suit that. Part of that is embracing a growing affection for ugly-cute, best illustrated by the monstrous success of Gudetama, the egg-blob who is 50% butt and can’t be doing with life. Even if you protest Gudetama isn’t ugly cute, it’s just cute, the fact is if you present a seven-year-old with a Cinnamoroll and a Gudetama and ask which is cute and which is just weird, you know which they’ll pick.
And that brings us to Aggretsuko, or Aggressive Retsuko, with the ‘Retsu’ in her name meaning ‘rage’. The first, regular form of Retsuko is typically cute and babyish, a lovely little red panda character. But then she loses it, the similarities between a red panda’s facial markings and a death metal singer’s face paint highlighted, and you see the meaning of the character. Retsuko is aimed firmly at young working women who can identify with her, outwardly unassuming and cute (got to have an element of flattery there), but with deep, simmering rage burning inside.
This two-sided element is popular in Japan. It probably derives mostly from Detroit Metal City, even if that can’t be called the origin of the concept of an unassuming, friendly person who expresses their inner rage through screaming death metal vocals. The idea also went viral in Van Houten hot chocolate adverts that were shared around the world but basically ripped off the concept of the Retsuko anime, transplanting it from the office to the life of a housewife.
This is the modern Sanrio fan: a woman in her 20s or 30s stuck in a dull office job, having to do overtime, suffering constant annoyance from her coworkers, worried about her love life and future, and suppressing inner fury in a shining example of true Japanese honne-and-tatemae style. In the beginning, there’s a general diegetic idea that Retsuko’s rage-filled death metal rants are in the karaoke booth after work, but it soon gets repackaged as an internal fantasy sequence that, other than in some fourth-wall-breaking moments, the other characters cannot see. But the format of each sub-2-minute episode is roughly the same: Retsuko encounters some annoyance, usually at the hands of her coworkers, and flies into a rage about it, with a cacophony of guitars and blastbeats to back her. Most of these are funny because they are very identifiable - people pushing their problems onto you, work putting you in Catch-22 situations (a long lecture from the boss about working too much overtime followed by them piling work on you guaranteed to make you have to stay late, or someone not showing up to when you've arranged to meet, but keeping on telling you they'll be there soon so you can't go and do something while you wait. In fact, some of the best episodes revolve around subverting the expectations set up in the vast majority of these shorts - perhaps by giving Retsuko a little bit of happiness, or having her make an assumption about her friend misusing a gift only to discover she was mistaken and then feeling penitent about getting suspicious.
The animal cast is generally chosen to match the character types portrayed. So a fat, sweaty, annoying coworker is a pig, and a somewhat overly masculine friend is a gorilla. A yappy little dog makes for a good hapless office junior, and a pretty gazelle is that annoying younger worker who acts so childish to get her way then takes advantage of others' kindness. Some are a little more unexpected, like an axolotl as the somewhat airheaded, open-mouthed office gossip, or for some reason the suave fox being called Mr. Wolf (in Japanese). Generally, the animal cast is instantly identifiable as certain character types, and largely we're conditioned through decades of anthropomorphism to equate certain animals with certain personalities, so there's very little explanation needed.
The manner in which the show aired was a little unusual. It was part of popular Saturday morning variety show Ousama no Brunch, or King's Brunch. That means its audience is much broader and more universal than most anime. That fits with the intended appeal - not just anime fans, and certainly not kids, but with regular working people who can identify with Retsuko's struggles. Of course, some of her concerns are pretty gendered, and yes, she gets ranted at by her superiors who expect her to quit as soon as she gets married (the junior worker leaping to her defense by saying she's not like that and will definitely never get married almost more hurtful than the initial accusation), and some of the quirks are very Japanese, but largely anybody who's ever had to work in an office environment will understand what Retsuko is going through.
Cute, relatable, easy to understand, sometimes very clever but mostly carried by its central amusing idea, Aggressive Retsuko is compulsive watching and quick and easy to watch, very much like 4-koma directly put on screen. Well worth the time, and even if it's no longer going to air as part of Ousama no Brunch, I'm keen to keep on watching!