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How Aggretsuko Tackles Multiple Important Subjects

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

As you may guess, I’ve been analyzing  Aggretsuko lately.  I just ran a marathon of the series for a different group of friends.  This dark office comedy from Sanrio bears multiple viewings because it’s a well-crafted show.  It just happens to look cute until you realize what’s going on.

Having seen it again with another group of people, many more insights came to mind.  These provide good advice to writers, but also are an example of another point – good media is worthy of a repeat performance so you can learn from it.

As the rewatch progressed, several major traits of the show became apparent. Let’s discuss them first.

By the way SPOILERS.

Let’s talk the women of Aggretsuko.

  • First, it’s about the rage and anger women feel – and often sit on.  Though the main character is clearly filled with rage, other women in her sphere have dealt with problems as well.  They all coped with it their own way – while admitting it’s awful.
  • The show is also about strong and positive female friendships and mentorships.  The women help each other out, and there’s little of the stereotypical catty infighting female characters are often saddled with.  The relationships among everyone aren’t always healthy (indeed that’s true of the entire show), but there’s a lot of positive female-female interactions.  It was delightful.
  • Retsuko is a great and flawed main character.  Totally understandable, obviously making mistakes, forging ahead.  We’ve all known people like her and probably been her.
  • Many ways to be female.  Aggretsuko, in the character of Gori (one of my favorite characters), takes on common tropes about women.  Gori is portrayed as a large and strong gorilla – in fact she tries to increase her strength.  However, though there’s humor in how she shows off her muscles, she’s not portrayed as un-femminine but actually very feminine.  Gori in fact seems to delight in being “girly,” fashionable, talking relationships and more – and of course perfecting her perfect walk so she and her friend Washimi appear utterly badass.
  • Washimi, Gori’s partner in adventure, is a supportive mentor figure.  She’s honest about the problems of the world, but is also supportive of her fellow women.  Strong and capable, she’s also very caring – strength does not mean cruelty or ego to her.  Washimi is another character we need more about.
  • Finally, consummate butt-kisser Tsunoda turns out to know exactly what she’s doing, manipulating the ego of her manager.  It may not be admirable, but she knows what she’s doing, she has the power, and she’s making people’s lives easier.

I can’t explain how much of the show is a delight because of these female characters.  This weekend I and my co-author spoke on our book on Sailor Moon, Her Eternal Moonlight – and much like that series, it has a diverse cast of great female characters.  There’s no “designated girl” – there’s just women.

Now let’s talk the male characters.

  • Haida, the Internet’s New Boyfriend, is a great example of a nice guy who doesn’t become a Nice Guy.  He’s a decent person, not perfect, but a reliable person.  He screws up by not being able to express his feelings – and everyone pays for it, as often happens in real life.
  • Retsuke, Retsuko’s love interest is fascinating.  He honestly comes off as autistic or otherwise not neurotypical, and considering the work that went into the show, I assume this is intentional.  He’s clearly kind but also terribly unaware of what he’s doing.  I actually hope we get to understand him more – because as noted, I think his portrayal is more than “spacey” and a lot could be done here to understand people.
  • The Yoga Instructor, a big stereotypical monosyllabic jock – actually cares about his charges and helps advance relationships.  Sure he’s kind of a plot device but he’s a well-meaning one.
  • Manumaru the big, feline bro-buddy to Retsuke is a great example of someone a mix of both good traits and toxic masculinity.  He’s clearly fun to be with, boisterous, likeable, and cares about Retsuke.  He’s also pushy, doesn’t help Retsuke understand emotional issues, and can ignore the feelings of others.  He’s another one I’d like to see more of because such a character with good or bad traits could be fascinating to explore – and clearly hit it off with Fenneko.
  • Mister Ton.  The literal sexist pig of the series could have been a one-shot no personality villain; he’s a stew of toxic masculinity.  As it goes on we find there are different sides to him – and while many of those sides are still “jerk” not all of them are.  Most importantly he does seem to have some respect for Aggretsuko – he thinks SHE will be the boss one day, and its clear he remembers their musical battle when he councils her on her relationship.  Most interesting to me is how he rallies his team to help with a deadline and becomes a different person – I’ve met people like this who’s best sides come out in a crisis and fade when the crisis is gone.

Aggretsuko shows us plenty of positive women, exploring character types and ideas we just don’t get enough of.  On top of that, it even gives us some look at the different men in the character’s lives and their own flaws.  Of course many of the flaws of the male characters make the lives of the women around them worse – and they don’t realize it – which is a good point to remember.

Once again on a second viewing, I found so much in this show.  I’m sure one day I’ll find even more.

– Steve

Aggretsuko, Style, And Experiences

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

I’ve just run a marathon of Aggretsuko for a bunch of friends.  If you haven’t seen or heard of this Sanrio cute-dark office comedy, it’s worth checking out.  It’s the story of a twenty-something office worker, her lousy job, her friends, and her attempts to do more in her life – and the tales of the people around her.

The obvious part of why you want to check it out is that it’s well-acted, surprisingly deep in its look at pathological office environments and people being supportive of each other, and more.  The fact it’s all done cute makes dealing with the horrific parts of life more palatable – until you realize what you just saw is something that should have depressed you.

But what stood out for me was not just the content – it was the style.  Aggretsuko has lots of brilliant stylistic choices, tricks, callbacks, and more.  Such as:

  • Using Avatar The Last Airbender like mystic visions (yes, in the middle of a dark office comedy).
  • Callbacks to anime/martial arts – for death metal karoke (and how music is like comedy).
  • Use of mask metaphors in animation for people’s interpretations of others.
  • Very effective use of character body languages – with simple and cutsey characters, how you use body language is both limited and enhanced.
  • Even the dub makes certain choices of translation to give context – it’s not word-for-word, but instead smartly thinks of the audience and makes appropriate pop culture callbacks.

Many of these stylistic choices, many derived from other media, work well in service of a story.  Music can be combat.  We do wear masks – but we put them on others.  Aggretskuo is clearly made by people who understand other forms of media and learned from them.

All in the service of a cute animal dark office comedy.

The show thus becomes a lesson that my friend Serdar has often repeated; to be good at any form of media you need to learn from many forms of media.  Each influence, no matter how unexpected, or odd, or not related to the media you make is a chance to grow, get insights, and get lessons to apply.

Aggretsuko could have just done cute animals and dark comedy.  It may have been amusing or insightful, but it wouldn’t have had the impact it had.  It used lessons from other media to tell its story to make it more impactful and more powerful – everyone I watched it with was relating to it and taken by it and we had fruitful discussions of what we took from it.

Always be sure to try and experience new media – and be open to learning from one form of media to use in another.  A few examples for myself:

  • Dave Barry, the comedic/commentary writer has influenced my fiction writing.  His style dovetails well with my Pratchett/Aspirin influences, but also he has a gift for commenting on the human condition.
  • I use comics as a way to visualize fiction, how things may appear or be described.  It also helps me determine what I might be missing.
  • Witty writing in a Dragon Quest game had some stylistic choices with alliteration I tried in my nonfiction.

You’ve probably learned more from other media than you realize – what more can you learn when you’re aware of it?

– Steve

Despite All Her Rage She’s Still Just A Panda In A Cage: Aggretsuko

(This column is posted at www.StevenSavage.com and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

Someone I knew had an awful day at work, and as part of the conversation they brought on Sanrio’s new series Aggretsuko.  If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a show based on one of their cutsey characters – who is an angry red fox in an awful job who takes out her rage with drinking and singing death metal.

So I had them watch it.  I also tuned in, because I’d not seen it and “rage-filled Sanrio character” is something I had to see.

It was kind of disturbing.  There’s a poison-blade edge beneath the cuteness, there’s things a bit too true, and if it had been done live action (or even with semi-realistic animated humans) it would have been even more painful and depressing.  My acquaintance, oddly, felt a bit better after the whole thing.

Now this is not a review, except I can say “damn that was better than expected and I will watch this.”  But it’s about impact, because I saw it affect someone.  And it was a show of cute animated characters (albeit in a bad situation).

There are some stories that just speak to us – not about what is good or great, but about what sucks.  These are important not as “misery porn” or anything else, but for us to reach out to, to relate to, and to laugh at.

And we have to laugh, because many of these things confront horrible issues that are hard to handle without humor.  If you were to take many of the truly relateable workplace dark comedies like “Clerks” or “Office Space” and do them realistically they’d at best be the equivalent of the moral black hole of “torture porn” horror.  They’d just be a parade of suffering.

However the comedy aspects, the irony, the dark laughter, is actually what makes things both tolerable but also relateable.  The humor lets us go from just the horror to truly see the ridiculousness of it all, while providing a buffer for us to internalize our lessons and maybe feel like we’re not just facing awful stuff on our own.  Humor both ads and buffers the empathy we need to feel to “get it.”

Some media and the like obviously would not work with humor – I think it’d be hard to do a funny Lovecraft/weird horror take.  Some of the dark things we explore are best explored without humor, with that immediate injection of empathy caused by being terrified or confronted.  We need that direct in-your-face connection.

But some forms of horror, only humor truly lets us process them.

– Steve