Japanese merch empire Sanrio is synonymous with Hello Kitty, the emblem of all things cute and innocent and sweet. This has been true for more than 40 years, and I hope it’s true for 40 more. But growing up a member of the Hello Kitty generation meant more than dropping a ton of money at the Sanrio store. It meant finding role models in the company’s roster of good-natured, cheery animal characters.
I grew up on Hello Kitty and still feel that twinge of love upon sight of her. Yet it’s harder to justify room for her in my life, now that my priorities lie with my job, my relationships and my body, among others. As my voice gets deeper and louder with age, Kitty’s remains locked behind her hidden mouth.
Aggretsuko, Sanrio’s 10-episode anime co-production with Netflix, doesn’t have this problem. Retsuko — “Aggressive Retsuko” is what the show title refers to — is one of the newest members of the Sanrio family, and she’s a bonafide adult. The big-headed, red panda is an accountant whose work bores her to tears. Her boss is a massive, misogynistic hog. She’s single and not super ready to mingle. And after surviving the daily workplace doldrums, she lets loose at karaoke with drunken death metal covers, cursing out everyone who slighted her. Hello Kitty never dealt with this heavy material, and god forbid she talked about someone being an asshole or a bastard, like Retsuko does.
But at my advanced age (OK, I know, save it), this is all relatable and important stuff, especially that karaoke part (which has won Retsuko fast fans across Twitter and Tumblr). On the most basic level, it’s charming to see a bunch of adorable animals in a nondescript workplace. Aggretsuko stands out for much more than that, as Sanrio infuses the anime with surprising realism and even genuine heartbreak. Retsuko’s journey through mundanity leads her into a brief, intense, one-sided relationship. In a drunken stupor at a singles mixer, she flirts with another red panda, Resasuke. Through her glazed-over eyes, he seems perfect: a deep thinker, a gentleman and a similarly bored coworker.
An epiphany elevates Aggretsuko from hilariously dissonant Hello-Kitty-But-Adult anime to something striking. Retsuko comes to realize that what she sees in Resasuke is what she wants to see, not the reality of him; she’s in love with her idea of a perfect boyfriend. This arc is a striking tonal turn from the series’ funny first-half, and it’s proof that Sanrio and co. has an awareness of the Netflix audience. (These episodes are all about 15 minutes long, too, which makes this emotional maturity even more impressive.) As many of us have done since our Hello Kitty backpack-wearing days, Aggretsuko ends with poignant realizations about the the lies we tell ourselves while we’re in love — the implausibility of a perfect relationship.
Aggretsuko, in just a short runtime, reintroduces and remixes the Sanrio formula that older viewers grew up with. Adorable as she is, it’s not just Retsuko’s cuteness that makes her appealing to the grown-up kids who loved her Sanrio fam growing up. It’s the stories that she stars in, the people she fills her life with (including a hyena who’s crushing on her, a wise eagle and a lovelorn gorilla) and the unflinching honesty of her struggles that make Aggretsuko such a gem for the adult Hello Kitty lover.
We can only hope that there’s a second season of this wonderfully weird, moving anime.