The primary appeal of the anime series Aggretsuko, directed and written by Rarecho, has always been its relatability. The show, based on a character created for the mascot company Sanrio, centers on a 25-year-old red panda named Retsuko. During the day, she has an office job in a company’s accounting department. At night, she vents her frustrations by performing death-metal karaoke. The gimmick is funny, but the show is less about loving death metal, and more about capturing the intense frustrations of the white-collar workforce. The first couple of seasons have tackled topics like dating, dealing with bad bosses, finding a professional mentor, and making friends as an adult. The third, now streaming on Netflix, takes on more specific and modern issues, but strays a little too far away from the run-of-the-mill subjects where the show excels.
The season begins with Retsuko, newly single, obsessing over a virtual boyfriend in a VR game as a way of escaping her real-life funk. Even though it’s not a real relationship, she keeps spending money at the game’s prompting, buying her virtual beau different outfits and cosmetic upgrades. Soon, however, she’s having to deal with a different kind of one-sided relationship.
[Ed. note: Spoilers for the third season of Aggretsuko follow.]
Aggretsuko’s third season doesn’t totally abandon the more universal problems that initially made the show so great. The hyena Haida, who has long harbored a crush on Retsuko, might finally have a shot at love with Inui, who clearly likes him, but he can’t let his feelings for Retsuko go. Meanwhile, two of Retsuko’s coworkers are having varying experiences with their respective side-hustles, and figuring out how to balance their personal passions with their work obligations.
Retsuko’s story, however, takes her far from the workplace — and consequently far from territory that’s as relatable as the show’s first and second seasons. After getting into a car accident, she’s forced to work off the incurred debt by working as an accountant for an underground idol group, the OTMGirls. However, when the group’s producer, the leopard Hyodo, discovers Retsuko’s talent for death-metal singing, he turns her into the group’s new lead vocalist.
The twist offers a look into dynamics that aren’t present in an office setting, and the first few episodes following Retsuko’s debut as part of OTMGirls are promising. OTMGirls’ burgeoning fame means they have to deal with rabid fans and parasocial relationships, especially as fans are able to purchase face-to-face time with the members of the group. The dark side of fame rears its head when fans figure out Retsuko’s home address from pictures posted online, and one fan uses the time he’s bought with Retsuko specifically to insult and troll her. Though becoming an idol isn’t a common experience, fan culture and social-media interactions are hard to avoid in modern life, which does give even this unlikely plotline some metaphorical resonance.
As the storyline escalates, however, the realistic aspects drop away. Rarecho addresses parasocial relationships thoughtfully, and the approach is compelling — the topic isn’t common in mainstream media, even though such dynamics are increasingly prevalent in contemporary society, as podcast personalities, streamers, YouTubers, and so forth become increasingly popular. But those sharp observations get lost in the shuffle, as Retsuko’s experience with being an idol is winnowed down to dealing with one rankled stalker.
Like Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue, the third season of Aggretsuko uses Retsuko’s idol-hood as an inroad to addressing the pressures of fame and dealing with fans who resent change. Aggretsuko’s approach, however, is less cerebral and more straight thriller, complete with menacing shots of a box-cutter as Retsuko’s stalker becomes more and more aggressive, and even attempts to assault her. But the more out-of-control Retsuko’s story becomes, the less compelling it is.
In Perfect Blue, former pop idol Mima Kirigoe begins to lose her grip on reality as she attempts to pursue a serious acting career and change her good-girl public image. When a violent stalker starts focusing on her, he claims to be working at the behest of the “real” Mima, referring to Mima’s prior persona. The film is a heady psychological thriller, but Aggretsuko isn’t ready for such serious territory — it hasn’t built a sufficient foundation for this kind of drama. It’s established itself as a series about office life and the difficulties of being a young person in the workforce. Though it’s silly enough that it can make a spontaneous singing idol career feel like it’s par for the workday course, Aggretsuko isn’t equipped to carry out a thriller’s dramatic weight.
The show’s appeal has everything to do with how easy it is to connect with the red panda. Her problems are usually quotidian, made more dynamic by the characters’ exaggerated expressions, and there’s nothing more relatable than when she screams, “SCREW YOU, CAPITALISM!” into a microphone as she laments how her paychecks instantly disappear in a mountain of bills. Her initial ascent as part of OTMGirls, while not a common experience, remains in the realm of relatability because of Rarecho’s careful addressing of fan culture. The stalker just takes things too far, both within the show and in terms of the show’s direction.
Ultimately, Retsuko’s turn as an idol is about her figuring out what she wants, but the season’s finale, which sees her deciding to give up the idol life and return to her office job while telling herself she can do anything she sets her mind to, feels like too easy an ending, given how heavy the subject matter becomes. By contrast, the first season of the show, which focused on Retsuko attempting to deal with an abusive boss and exploitative coworkers, ended with her simply deciding to try to do her best to not let her office job affect her outside life and growth. Unlike the finale of the third season, it isn’t a perfect ending where all of her problems are miraculously solved.
That isn’t a neat ending, but it’s a realistic one, an impressive feat given that the show is about anthropomorphic cartoon animals. Even the second season, which sees Retsuko embark on a whirlwind romance, has some grounding in reality, as she realizes that what she wants out of the relationship was different from what her partner wants. The string keeping the new season tethered to reality is fragile. The story is fun, but its digression into grim territory keeps it from hitting as close to home as its predecessors.
The third season of Aggretsuko is streaming on Netflix now.