Retsuko vs. The “Woke” Billionaire Philanthropist

The Red Panda’s Fight Against “Well-Intentioned” Entrepreneurs.

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There is something oddly refreshing about the red panda Retsuko (voiced by Kaolip in Japanese, and Erica Mendez in the English dub) in the Netflix-syndicated anime Aggretsuko. The Sanrio mascot of Hello Kitty fame is as far from the perpetual 3rd grader in London as you can imagine. Retsuko is a disgruntled, entry-level accountant who channels her work-related frustrations into death metal karaoke after office hours. This premise manages to tap into the existential dread that a lot of Millenial workers feel throughout the world — the feeling of being lost. Retsuko’s ultimate goal is not to find a boy or defeat a melodramatic supervillain, but to carve out a meaningful existence while navigating the often demoralizing world of business.

While the first season had our karaoke avenger overcome comically abusive bosses and inattentive romantic partners, the second season has her face figures that are more morally ambiguous. These shades of gray include an intern named Anai (Billy Kametz) who cannot handle confrontation, an overly communicative coworker named Kabae (Misty Lee), and a super-rich boyfriend named Tadano (Griffin Burns) who wants to dismantle late-stage capitalism.

One of these is not like the others.

Retsuko’s relationship with Tadano, while not as outwardly antagonistic as with Anai and Kabae, is the emotional climax of the second season. He is a character with great intentions who also happens to be neglectful and distant — character flaws that admittedly allow the show to sidestep the philosophical concerns he represents. He is “woke,” but also emotionally abusive, which highlights the show’s theme. Like with Anai and Kabae, Tadano cannot be so quickly filed away under “good” or “bad.”

He is both.

With this characterization, Aggretsuko asks its viewer a question they should be quite familiar with: how should they deal with “woke,” privileged men with good intentions who also happen to be very shitty.

Expectations Can Be Deceiving

The central concept of the second season is that people act differently in different situations. Someone who might be your best friend in one context could be a total asshole to someone else. You might be warm and accommodating to your group of friends, but utterly dismissive to the slacker at your local DMV.

The most visceral example of this is the intern Anai, who is Retsuko’s first subordinate. He has such high anxiety that he refuses to resolve situations in person and instead opts to hash things out exclusively online. The phrase “I await your reply in written form” becomes his signature response, and this generates a fair amount of dread around the office.

Anai is an old person’s construction of a millennial — indirect, passive-aggressive, as well as unable to handle the challenges of “the real world.” He isn’t without his strengths, though. He is an excellent cook, and that skillset allows him to save the accounting department’s booth at the company family appreciation day.

He also can connect with people that Retsuko, for a myriad of valid reasons, has written off. One such person is fellow accountant Kabae. Retsuko hates Kabae who compulsively overshares with Retsuko to the point where she prevents the young panda from doing actual work. Kabae is not without her skills. As one coworker puts it in episode four of season two (Unavoidable Impact):

COWORKER: Even if she seems like a blabbermouth, in reality, she’s a very disciplined employee. She picks all of her kids from school and then feeds them. She’ll be in ‘mom mode’ until she goes to sleep. I really respect her.

Likewise, Tadano appears to Retsuko in a context that makes her initially dismiss him. She is taking night classes at the Japanese equivalent of the DMV and meets Tadano in the waiting room. He presents as an immature slacker who cannot pass his driver’s course. He doesn’t appear to take the course seriously, and Retsuko categorizes him as a burnout. It doesn’t occur to the red panda until much later that Tadano’s ability to waste all of his time trying to get his driver’s license is a product of extreme privilege.

Tadano is the CEO of a major tech company called Freeride Inc., and he has developed AI software that can drive cars. He doesn’t know how to drive because he doesn’t have to. He is a member of the elite who travels hundreds of miles via a private jet for ramen on a whim. Tadano has big plans for this software, which is called ENI-O. He wants to use AI to eliminate jobs and free up people from the drudgery of pointless office work.

TADANO: I want to set everyone free from manual labor…Technology shouldn’t be used to replace people. Their skills should be redirected elsewhere. If we achieve that, we’ll improve as a civilization.

This idealism is his core drive. This objective runs into some problems: mainly that Tadano is trying to save the world without having the emotional intelligence to gauge what people actually want. This flaw represents a problem that is all too real among the rich and powerful.

“Nice Guys” Saving The World

Retsuko and Tadano enter into a relationship in the second half of the season. Retsuko appears to be initially happy with this arrangement — the two even break into song about the magicalness of their love. Everything quickly sours, however, when the world learns about the relationship as well.

Retsuko is not used to the attention that comes with dating one of the world’s richest men. She stops going to work and enters a deep depression as she fixates on the public’s comments about her. She spends her time in Tadano’s self-driving limo unable to find the strength to face the world.

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Source: S2 E9 She’s Dreaming

Despite being Retsuko’s partner at this point in the season, Tadano isn’t receptive to her concerns. He tells her to ignore the public’s comments — a huge red flag for someone allegedly concerned for humanity. He then instructs Retsuko to move past her previous life.

TADANO: How about quitting?…You don’t even really like your current job, right?…‘Responsibility’ is often just a form of delusion. In this country, it’s often misused as a way to give up what you want to do.

While this may be true about office work in general, it’s not validating her emotional reality. Her depression is what needs to be addressed at this moment, not the existential nature of work and productivity, but Tadano lacks the emotional tools to do anything about that prior concern. He has an idea about what is right and has given her his advice.

Conversation over.

In our world, there is a strong belief among the powerful that once they succeed in the world of the business, then they should give back to the public. We see this impulse in the myriad of foundations and charities that have been established by the likes of Zuckerberg and the Walden’s. The goal becomes using the capital they have acquired for the “greater good,” and it has deep historical roots. When John Rockefeller chartered one of the largest foundations at the time in New York State in 1912, it was with the explicit purpose to:

“…promote the well-being of mankind throughout the world.”

In recent years, rich people have taken this one step further and conflated the work they achieve in the world of business with a social good itself. It was Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who infamously said his company’s philosophy is to “move fast and break things.” Under this view, CEOs like Zuckerberg and Tadano believe themselves to be breaking ground and creating the necessary disruption to allow for societal growth and progress.

Whether an advocate of the Rockerfellian model of philanthropy or the Zuckerbergian concept of disruption, both mindsets are intimately tied together.

They are both about powerful people doing as they please.

We can find many examples of rich people that “do good” — the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation often cited as a chief example. These billionaires, however, never ask if the mechanisms that have allowed them to do that “good” need to be questioned. As the author of the book Winners Take All, Anand Giridharadas, stated in an interview with The Guardian:

“The problem with philanthropy is that it depends on and trusts the voluntarism of the people with the most to lose from change to be our changemakers. I don’t think philanthropists are all horrible people. This is not about individual morality. That is hardly the point. This is about whom you trust to play a leadership role in deciding what the common good is, what our policy priorities should be, and how we make the world better.”

Why should the powerful be given the right to meddle in the affairs of everyone else?

More importantly, what happens when they are wrong?

If Facebook has demonstrated anything, its that disruptive practices can many times have cataclysmic results. Facebook’s refusal to hold its users accountable for the information they posted on the platform, led to the proliferation of false information across the globe. The company’s inability to act has disrupted the outcome of elections, protests, and has even inspired ethnic cleaning.

Tadano may have good intentions with his goal of ending late-stage capitalism (and it is a noble goal), but he doesn’t interrogate himself to see if he should be making this call alone. His desire to undo drudgery by eliminating everyone’s jobs is painfully naive for many reasons. It’s doubtful that market forces alone would naturally bring society towards a workless utopia. Retsuko brings up this case in Season Two Episode Eight (He Lives Above The Clouds), and he responds simply that systemic changes need to be made to society.

Changes he will make.

That way of thinking can lead to dangerous blind spots. Even assuming he’s right, (and that’s a HUGE if), Tadano fails to provide a path forward for what happens after people no longer have a job. He fails to mitigate the fallout such a seismic shift would have to a person’s identity. He is “moving fast and breaking things” without giving people the emotional or social tools to handle that change.

Unsurprisingly, this emotional failure causes Retsuko to reject his offer of a workless world.

Cutting The Cord

Retsuko doesn’t head off into the sunset with Tadano towards a future of fully automated gay space communism. She can’t accept his offer because the world of work is all she has known. As she says in the final episode:

RETSUKO: I’m not quitting. There’s nothing else I want to do. None.

She lacks the psychological space to accept the world that Tadano is trying to give her: a world she never asked for. This decision is because: 1.) there has to be an Aggretsuko Season three; and 2.), on a philosophical level, he didn’t bother to frame his solution as something she would want. He prescribed a solution and then forced her to handle the fallout of imagining a world free of limitations on her own. She naturally, then, fell back on the default societal role of working.

Retsuko serves as a lesson for the backlash that can happen when you don’t include stakeholders in the process of making solutions. You could make the best plan in the world in isolation (and again, that’s a HUGE if), but if you fail to include people in that plan, then they will reject it.

In the final episode, Retsuko cuts the cord with Tadano and ends their relationship because he wasn’t providing her the emotional support she needed. She wanted to get married, and he had routinely dismissed her desires as trivial and outdated. He might have had good arguments for that justification, but from an emotional perspective, they didn’t matter. Despite what some corners of the Internet might believe, when it comes to forming social relationships, emotions do trump arguments.

Tadano wanted to save the world, but he couldn’t even save his relationship. He was so focused on “freeing” people that he didn’t bother to figure out how to listen to them. Whether we are talking about a romantic partnership or rewriting your contract with society, we need to ask people what they want. The inclination to create solutions without asking people their preferences can create detrimental blind spots that can ruin the implementation of even the most “perfect” plans.

Good work, Retsuko. You made the right call.

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I write about pop culture, politics, and every in between.

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