Regardless of how Jimmy Fallon, James Corden, Lip Sync Battle, and Carpool Karaoke have bastardized and commodified karaoke as yet another cutesy part of celebrity idol culture, the art form still finds potency on TV. Thankfully, for as soft, safe, and saccharine as those examples are, karaoke’s televised savior, Aggretsuko, is as hard, raw, and nuanced—even if it’s about an animated red panda from the same people who brought you Hello Kitty. That combination of adorableness and stifled emotion—something common to karaokers, who rarely get opportunities to perform or otherwise outwardly express themselves in their daily lives—gives Retsuko authenticity in her guttural death metal and her karaoke authenticity in its purpose.
Me? I love karaoke. All the different types of karaoke: live band pizza place karaoke, rowdy standing-in-the-middle-of-the-bar karaoke, 4 a.m. taco-truck-across-the-street karaoke, Chinatown room rental karaoke, friend’s basement karaoke, and Korean fried chicken karaoke. Aggretsuko loves them too, and it understands and neatly displays all of the psychological drives behind these different formats. It neatly links singing alone into a USB microphone in the bathroom (the expressive equivalent of crying in a stall at work) to renting a private room for a daily hour of scream-therapy. It helps that Retsuko, the 25-year-old office worker, is one of the best depictions of a young working girl’s ennui to come out of TV in years. It also helps that the death metal she howls at karaoke never pulls its punches.
It’s not dreamy, ethereal thrash built on its big riffs: This is the crushing, heavy devil roar of revolting women in the workplace. It kicks ass. And the best way to deliver this rebellion—this boiling-over of repressed emotion—so it won’t get her fired or arrested is rage-singing. That’s where the USB mic comes in, which is a seemingly eccentric prop Retsuko drops into her purse every day, but becomes a personal security blanket for when she just can’t wait to get to her private room at her after-work karaoke joint. Both of these are similar outlets with differing degrees of privacy and mobility, but they both make her life a bit more worth living.
The room, especially, is where Retsuko can unwind and be herself, which becomes all the more necessary as her (literally) piggish boss’ continued sexism drives her out of the job. It’s privacy—carefully maintained by the baboon at the front desk, who also cheers on and headbangs Retsuko’s performances from the hallway—that doubles as performance. That’s something you can’t really get from songwriting or open mic nights. It’s relaxation, not creation. The words on the screen (either on the diegetic karaoke machine or whatever device you use to watch the Netflix show) implore her boss and co-workers to die (“Lightning, lend me your strength!” “Strike them down!”) or curse their names (“You’re a shitty boss!”)—it’s adaptable, but it’s not like we see Retsuko balling up lyrics and tossing them away. This is from the gut. This isn’t extra work.
It only becomes work when Retsuko is pushed into it, like when she attempts to befriend the two intimidating yet amazing office women she idolizes: marketing president Gori the gorilla, and secretary to the CEO Miss Washimi. They’re there to provide healthy female friendships for Retsuko and serve as examples of imperfect success stories in the office environment. They’re also trying to mentor Retsuko, but having a hell of time doing it until they push her into taking them to karaoke. This goes down with a little help from a mystical yoga instructor who can only say “Protein.” (Please watch this show.) Gori sings traditional tunes, which Washimi accompanies out of friendship more than anything else. But when Retsuko is finally pushed into doing her song—which she belts—her new friends are elated to discover the real girl underneath the workplace etiquette. Karaoke isn’t just for personal expression. It’s for showing people your unembarassed, unironic joy and letting them show you theirs. That’s a rare chance for real bonding, especially for women in a workplace as conservative as Retsuko’s.
The only place that kind of realness is replicated is at a very drunk team outing. This is where grievances come to the forefront after inhibitions are lowered. Retsuko’s boss does a karaoke rap (of course, what an asshole) which Retsuko suffers quietly… the first time. After she’s bullied again, in front of all her co-workers, she responds with a slight shift in genre. “Your beats are wack and your rap sucks,” she growls in her boss’s face. Insubordination is unheard of in this office culture, where sexism is a way of life and seniority means everything. But when you throw in some booze and tunes, you can find truth—even if everyone’s too drunk to remember what exactly went down.
Retsuko needs this art as an escape when every other aspect of her life is highly organized and responsible (though not overly so, which she determines for herself during one episode). It also affects her one romantic relationship over the course of the first season, with a guy from the sales department nicknamed either the “Out-of-Pocket Prince” or “Space Cadet” depending on if you favor subtitles or dubbed dialogue. (This choice also changes some of the jokes and lyrics of the series, which continues an anime debate that’s been raging since anime hit the U.S.) This relationship consists of Retsuko putting all of her hopes and dreams into this boring dope, clinging onto the fantasy of a happy relationship as something that could save her from her terrible job and external fears. But without karaoke to help her blow off some steam and her bland boyfriend bearing the brunt of her emotional projection, the relationship wears on her as incessantly as her shoes rub away at her heels.
By taking him to karaoke (he doesn’t sing), she’s allowed to express her true self without expectations of the office, the relationship, or her culture at large suppressing anything behind meekness and agreeability. “Underneath the smile, I’m metal ‘til I die!” Retsuko shouts in the Space Cadet’s face, freeing herself from her bad relationship and finding the self-respect that karaoke can grant to those who need it. Rather than being a masturbatory exercise for famous people marketing their upcoming projects, karaoke has the ability to do the best things American Idol has ever done, which is inspire hope and encourage expression from those who are constantly discouraged in the other aspects of their life, without the implicit judgment. It wouldn’t matter if Retsuko were terrible at screaming death metal. What matters is that she doesn’t give a shit. It’s for her.
Aggretsuko is now streaming on Netflix.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.