[Editor’s note: The following article includes spoilers for season four of “Aggretsuko”]
Sorry, fans of love stories! In the lead-up to the latest season of Netflix’s “Aggretsuko,” trailers teased a will-they-won’t-they relationship between main character Retsuko and her doofy but well-meaning co-worker Haida. Instead, the newest 10 episodes from the Sanrio-born property explore the crushing truths of the modern workplace and the angst of being a cog in the capitalist machine.
What has made “Aggretsuko” so popular since its debut in 2018 is how it offers a relatable and reflective take on contemporary life. The show revolves around a 20-something red panda named Retsuko who’s employed in the accounting division at a trading firm. She deals with tyrannical bosses, unreasonable amounts of overtime and a slew of other problems that are recognizable to young people currently trying to navigate Japanese corporate culture. After work she lets off steam by indulging in some death metal at karaoke.
It’s a simple premise that’s exceptionally entertaining, featuring compelling story arcs and characters you can empathize with. The third season saw Retsuko dabbling in the world of pop music, and wound up being a pretty engaging commentary on Japan’s idol-pop system. However, the fourth season, released on Dec. 16, ventures into some truly bleak storylines about how work influences our self-worth.
The CEO of Retsuko’s company — an old-school elephant out of step and obsessed with building a theme park while profits tumble — suffers a medical emergency, forcing him to step away from his position. A suave young director named Saluki Himuro is then brought in to guide the company forward.
His bold new approaches involve downsizing by implementing layoffs, especially of longstanding employees who have been with the company since the good ol’ days of the freewheeling 1980s bubble era. Retsuko’s oftentimes commanding supervisor, a pig named Ton, and a gossipy middle-aged hippo named Kabae both get the axe, and what follows are the grim realities of corporate life — forced resignations of workers over age 45, workplace bullying and the slow rot of office morale.
“Aggretsuko” does get around to the relationship drama between Retsuko and Haida, but even that developing romance hits a snag thanks to work woes.
Fortunately, the show’s compassion toward all its characters keeps things chugging along. “Aggretsuko” has always humanized even its most unlikeable characters, and the slow reveal of their redeeming qualities becomes a central theme over the course of season four. Saluki, who could have been written off as a heartless executive, is presented as doing whatever he can to save the company — it just happens to push him to dark and illegal places.
The show isn’t about bad behavior, it’s about toxic work environments grinding up employees and forcing them to extremes. That feeling is what makes the season hit hard, and when the final three episodes pivot to lightness, it’s comforting. (After watching Retsuko and her colleagues question their value and burn out on work, it’s a delight when we see Kabae wearing night vision goggles and shimmying through air ducts!)
“Aggretsuko” season four is a notable addition to television shows offering dramatized insights into capitalism and how it affects the individual — an animated “Squid Game,” of sorts.
Come for the death-metal shrieks of a sweet-looking red panda, stay for the all-too-relatable sense of doing whatever it takes to stay afloat in the modern world.
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