Minor spoilers for the third season of “Aggretsuko” follow.
The Netflix animated series “Aggretsuko” has always positioned music as an escape from everyday drudgery. The titular Retsuko, a red panda in her mid-20s with a soul-crushing office job, blows off steam by screaming out death metal at karaoke.
The series’ third season, released on Aug. 27, puts the music industry — specifically, the world of idol pop — in the spotlight. It’s a departure from the anime’s usual focus on the ups and (mostly) downs of being a woman in the workforce, a theme that has helped it connect with viewers worldwide since it was first released in 2018. This shift makes for a choppier plot overall, but also results in an honest take on music or, really, any hobby these days.
This time around, Retsuko finds herself working as an accountant for an underground idol group called OTMGirls to pay off a debt she incurred after accidentally crashing her car into the van of the pop project’s manager, a leopard named Hyodo. He later stumbles across one of her rage-fueled karaoke sessions and nudges Retsuko to join the group proper so her “death voice” can help them stand out in the crowded world of idol pop. From there, she has to juggle her day job with her newfound role, all while contending with the darker sides of fandom.
It’s a risky industry to tackle. Few elements of Japanese pop culture are as full of pitfalls as idol music, a term most commonly rolled out to describe groups of young women singing upbeat songs while performing synchronized dances. “Polarizing” doesn’t sum it up: AKB48 fans devote themselves entirely to that group while others see them as the Antichrist of Japanese entertainment.
“Aggrestusko” refuses to play nice with fan armies, delving into the downsides and harsh realities of idol-dom. “We’re not selling our customers music, but an experience from the past,” Hyodo explains in one episode that outlines the standard operating model for idol music: develop a fervent fanbase, get them to buy as much merchandise as possible.
The show also looks at how the bond between fan and performer can take disturbing turns with a storyline about an aggrieved supporter who instigates an attack, a plot point drawn from an incident in 2016 when idol Mayu Tomita was stabbed by a stalker.
The show, though critical, never goes as far as to be an expose. That’s probably because idols have already been poking at these concepts for years, from Rino Sashihara’s outspoken takes on the industry to groups such as Negicco lambasting the idea of intense fandom in songs such as “Idol Bakari Kikinaide” (“Don’t Just Listen To Idols”). “Aggretsuko” doesn’t need to dig too deep into any of this because people actually in the know are doing a great job.
Instead, it offers a nuanced take on the fans and participants in this world, poking fun but never belittling their passions. Rather, if there’s an overriding villain it’s capitalism — which the English version makes clear — and how this system mutates our passions into potential income streams.
The best moments in “Aggretsuko” position music as a worthy pursuit, though, even if the ecosystem around it habitually distorts it into something else. As the lyrics to OTMGirls’ bouncy track “Viral Star” go: “It may be sad / but I still dream / in the darkness of my mind.” It’s this underlying refusal to give in to cynicism that makes the show’s read on music really connect.
The third season of “Aggretsuko” is streaming now on Netflix.