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Arts & Culture Opinion

Review: Aggretsuko Christmas

Sanrio Inc., the company behind Hello Kitty and numerous other cartoon characters, is both an embodiment of a Japanese style of “kawaii” (cuteness) and a corporation ruthlessly dedicated to expanding its brand. Hello Kitty airplanes fly around the world; merchandise for characters like My Melody and Gudetama piles up endlessly in Hot Topic; some characters even have their own social media accounts. Hello Kitty hangs on my mom’s Christmas tree and covers the seats in her car. Sanrio is everywhere.

Given this extreme focus on merchandise as a money-making strategy, it would makes sense if the company’s tie-in Christmas specials to be commercial and uninspired. Certainly most Christmas specials feel that way: cheaply made, weakly written, and mostly an excuse to add an episode to a box set of DVDs. But the surprise behind “Aggretsuko: We Wish You A Metal Christmas,” Sanrio’s latest Christmas special, is that it feels like the exact opposite of a corporate product.

The special, an extension of the Aggretsuko anime on Netflix, is targeted at a Millennial and Generation Z audience, so its focus on social media is unsurprising. The main character is Retsuko, a red panda who represses her frustrations about her job until she can release them through death metal karaoke performances. Her current method of keeping her emotions in check is filling her Instagram profile with food pictures and selfies to earn likes from strangers.

Covering up inner sadness with fake happiness online is not a new phenomenon, and neither is criticism of it, which the episode communicates through Retsuko’s friend, Fenneko. The fox stalks people’s social media profiles to collect dirt on them, with all the ferocity one would expect from people who despise social media. Her attacks feel especially pointed because they’re specifically directed towards Instagram, which is called out by name throughout the special. One wonders if Sanrio paid Instagram for the right to attack them—or if Instagram appreciates the free marketing.

This clash between Retsuko’s and Fenneko’s ideas drives most of the episode, and in many ways it mirrors society’s conversation around social media. Research suggests that social media can be addictive and have a negative effect on self-esteem, and newspaper op-ed columns consistently decry its effects on our generation. But social media platforms like Instagram are entrenched in our lives as an outlet for personal expression. “We Wish You A Metal Christmas” combines all these issues into the simple problem of Retsuko faking pictures of a dinner date so nobody knows she’s alone on Christmas Evespiced up with a heavy metal screaming sequence, of course.

The plot sounds overbearing when explained this way, especially because my generation is sick of being told how addicted we are to social media. Baby Boomers complaining about young people ruining everything is literally a meme, after all. But the show never once feels preachy, in part because of a decision to focus the episode’s emotional core around Haida, a hyena with an unrequited crush on Retsuko.

While Fenneko is borderline obsessed with Retsuko’s Instagram use, Haida is mostly apathetic to it. His concern with Retsuko revolves around him lacking the courage to invite her to a Christmas party. His anxieties cut through the obsessions and façades driving the other characters, allowing the show to focus on the real consequence of Retsuko’s Instagram use: a lack of human connection in our increasingly prestige-driven world.

Even with its relatively simple conclusion, “We Wish You A Metal Christmas” never feels like an old person bagging on Millennials or a corporation trying to pander to a younger crowd. Instead, it has that rare currency that even social media accounts can’t create: authenticity. Despite its place in a global marketing campaign for a cartoon animal, Sanrio’s Christmas special is both earnest and human, a rare example of corporations getting it right.