Liam doesn’t know which he enjoyed more – watching Aggretsuko, or learning about all the things Aggretsuko reveals about Japanese culture.
Aggretsuko is an adorable anime series available on Netflix about an alcoholic red panda named Retsuko. She works in an office and uses death metal as a coping mechanism to deal with her life.
Sometimes she performs death metal in a karaoke bar. Sometimes she goes to a secluded place and does it, such as a storeroom or toilet cubicle. Sometimes it only happens in her head. But it usually happens at least once an episode.
This is one of those cartoon universes (cartooniverses?) where everyone is an animal of some sort, and all of her co-workers are also animals who tend to display the personality traits often associated with those animals. For instance, the office boss is literally a male chauvinist pig, the timid co-worker is a deer, and the over-emotive goofball co-worker is a hyena. And so on.
I mainly watched Aggretsuko because I wanted to know how death metal could possibly be socially acceptable in a karaoke bar. Watching it raised even more questions, such as why Retsuko’s blood type is mentioned in the above trailer.
These questions, and more, were answered.
Here are some interesting things Aggretsuko taught me – and probably many of its Western viewers – about Japanese culture.
1. A Japanese karaoke bar is nothing like I imagined.
I should point out that this isn’t only the case in Japan, and that most major cities have Japanese-style karaoke bars too. But I’m not from a major city, so I didn’t know that these things existed.
Until I saw Aggretsuko I assumed that a karaoke bar was a normal everyday public bar where the stage was set up for karaoke.
Turns out, that’s what a Western karaoke bar is.
When I first saw the hallway of the karaoke bar in Aggretsuko, I wondered if they were about to make some sort of non-sequitor Scooby Doo reference because both walls had doors, all in a row – all that was missing was a bunch of teen sleuths chasing a ghost in and out of random doors, only to find out when they finally catch it that it was actually a land developer wearing a disguise.
As you’ve no doubt guessed by now, a Japanese-style karaoke bar is actually a place with many private sound-padded rooms (i.e. sound booths). The rooms are usually hired by the hour and/or per person, and many also offer food as well.
You choose the song you want with the karaoke control device and belt away to your heart’s content, safe in the knowledge that nobody will hear you being a middle-aged man singing Taylor Swift songs or whatever.
2. Japanese weddings are expensive.
Not for the bride and groom – for the guests.
It’s normal for the guests to give the happy couple 30,000 yen, which is about $360 in Aussie dollars. The price may go up to 100,000 yen (approx. $AUD 1200) depending on your relationship to the bride and/or groom.
Mate, I already had to fork out for the microwaved ‘meat’ that your ‘cook’ poured ‘gravy’ on, and now you want enough money to buy six or seven cartons of beer?
Maybe Japanese weddings are different, and the food isn’t garbage.
Or maybe you don’t have to pay for the food and drinks yourself, because that’s covered by your ‘donation’ (so I love air quotes, sue me).
Point is, Retsuko says that this was her food money for the month.
I originally thought that the fact that she gave them any money at all was because she doesn’t assert herself in general, but according to the web pages I read about this topic (such as this one), it’s not optional – it’s customary.
3. Japanese culture has different cultural guidelines than the West does.
Right now, you’re probably thinking ‘well, duh’.
I’m not talking about stuff like ‘take your shoes off when indoors’, I mean that Japanese culture has values regarding other cultures that could be considered problematic in the West.
For instance, there’s a gorilla named Gori in Aggretsuko who’s very clearly meant to portray the ‘powerful black woman’ trope.
That’d be a big no-no in Western culture. For instance, most Australians will remember in 2013 when Adam Goodes, an Indigenous football player, took a fan to task for calling him an ape.
I think that Nicole Adlman does an excellent job of describing why the Gori character might be frowned upon in Western media, so here’s a direct quote from her article on Gori:
“Black women and men have long been subject to a crass gorilla stereotype, one that has centuries-old roots in the transatlantic slave trade, and one that continues to leer at us, all pointy teeth and supine white privilege, from sidewalks to the white house, in 2018. ”
If you’re not a word geek: The word ‘supine’, in this context, means ‘complacent’.
Also, as Nicole mentions, Gori is played by a woman of colour. This makes me wonder if the character would be less problematic if a white voice actor had played the role? Or would that be worse?
To paraphrase Mr Spock: “I won’t say it’s problematic – but it is…interesting.”
4. Why Japanese media often includes blood types in character profiles.
As a child in the ’90s, I always wondered why Japanese video games included the blood type of the characters but I never got around to looking it up on the internet until I’d watched Aggretsuko.
It’s quite simple, really.
In Japanese culture, there’s a casual belief that your blood type determines your personality to a large degree – similar to the casual belief of how your personality is allegedly tied to your astrological star sign in Western culture.
Fortunately for me, I’m a Sagittarius which means that I don’t believe in superstitious nonsense like horoscopes.
Retsuko tells us in the Netflix trailer that her blood type is A, which means that although she’s likely to be timid, she’s also very responsible and likely to get stressed out easily – even if she doesn’t show others how upset she is.
Hence the whole ‘singing Death Metal in secluded places’ thing.
5. Aggretsuko is literally Hello Kitty for grownups.
Okay, so this entry isn’t about Japanese culture so much, but it blew my mind when I found out that Retsuko was created by Sanrio, the company who are probably best known as the creators of (you guessed it) Hello Kitty.
Can you imagine something like this happening here in the West?
That would be like if Barbie‘s youngest sister said she preferred listening to speed metal then started playing air guitar with her tongue poking out.
I mean, not that – because that actually happened in Barbie: Life In The Dreamhouse (also on Netflix!) – but you see my point, I’m sure.
Also, stop judging me – I have daughters. And Barbie: Life In The Dreamhouse is frickin’ hilarious.
Aggretsuko‘s pretty funny too but in a more grown up and less sitcom way. Aggretsuko is like Zootopia meets The Office meets Metalocalypse, and I found it fascinating the whole way through.
I should probably mention that it’s probably not appropriate for young kids. Not because anything overly dark happens, but because they’ll probably get bored watching cute animals talk about adult issues.
But I think you should watch Aggretsuko and see if it raises any cultural questions like it did for me.
But hey – I’m not your dad.
I mean, unless you’re one of my daughters of course.