By Sarah Osman
For some reason, Aggretsuko riffs on Japanese idols in its third season, and the shift makes the show less appealing.
It’s rather surprising that Sanrio – the creator of Hello Kitty and adorable pencil cases – created one of the most likable shows for Millennials. Aggretsuko has a rather simple premise: a 25-year-old mild-mannered accountant takes her anger out about her job, dating, and parents by screeching death metal at a local karaoke place. Watching her scream about her ridiculous boss is hilarious, but the animation is about much more than just death metal. Over the first two seasons, Retsuko dealt with dating, nosy coworkers, and making friends as an adult. All of Retsuko’s challenges are problems that other 20-somethings face at some point or another (and many of the problems aren’t just limited to young office workers).
Season three (on Netflix) takes a bit of a different direction. It opens with a newly single Retsuko, who has become addicted to a virtual boyfriend via a VR game. The guy isn’t real, but that doesn’t stop her from spending inordinate amounts of money on his outfits and goodies. The more she spends, the more broke she becomes. Worse, after Retsuko hits a band manager’s truck she’s forced to work with the group to pay off the debt. Known as The OTM Girls, the underground group are also idols, a distinctive form of pop entertainment in Japanese culture. The three girls are carefully groomed and marketed for their rabid fan base; they sell various kinds of merchandise as they work to form an “emotional” connection with their supporters. Retsuko’s struggles have now doubled: she is not only the band’s accountant, but she has to maintain her day job. Things turn upside down after the band’s manager hears her singing death metal. He decides to put a spin on The OTM Girls by making Retsuko the group’s lead singer.
This story line clearly mocks idol culture. The OTM Girls fans are envisioned as slobbering grotesques who follow them from town to town. Poor Retsuko has to put up with a fan who lives to insult her. But the show’s look at idol culture begins and ends there — as a lampoon. As an American, I would have been interested to learn more about this profitable phenomenon. Worse, Retsuko’s life becomes disappointingly limited, narrowed down to having to grapple with a stalker. Why not more on how she handles her new role and newfound fame? And there’s considerable dramatic letdown when Retsuko picks her office job over her idol life. The entire OTM Girls episode feels like a trivial detour.
While Retsuko’s story line loses its attractions, the predicament of her coworker Haida picks up considerable interest. Haida the Hyena (all of the characters on Aggretsuko are anamorphic animals; Retsuko is a red panda) has for a long time harbored feelings for Retsuko. He meets the sweet Inui, and is finally given a shot at love. Alas, he can’t let go of his longing for Retsuko. Sadly, many of us have had a deep-rooted crush on someone who does not return our romantic affection, and it hurts. We sometimes, just like Haida, go against our better judgment and continue to pursue that infatuation rather than embark on a fresh relationship. Haida’s plight is a reminder of what made Aggretsuko so perceptively entertaining in the first place.
Don’t get me wrong. There are still hilarious moments in season three. At one point Retsuko scream-sings “Screw you Capitalism!” at her debts. But the show works better when, as in Aesop’s Fables, the trials and tribulations of its humanized animals are grounded in realism. Aggretsuko should focus on the struggles we all face, rather than meander into cultural critiques.
Sarah Mina Osman is a writer living in Los Angeles. She has written for Young Hollywood and High Voltage Magazine. She will be featured in the upcoming anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences under the Trump Era.