I have a confession to make: I’ve never really understood office life.
I am not knocking anyone who finds comfort in the ridged scheduling, enclosed spaces known as cubicles, and general comraderies forced in office hierarchy structures. If that is your type of thing, that’s fine – we all live differently.
But man, the toll it can take on one’s mental health.
What is most alarming is that I find office workers generally have little to no outlets for stress. If your boss is being a jerk and singling you out, who do you talk to about that? You can’t confide in a co-worker for fear of betrayal or retaliation. You can’t complain to relatives or friends, as often they will simply suggest you quit. Sometimes, it just isn’t that easy. Especially if the goal originally envisioned by the office worker has yet to see fruition.
I may not have mentioned this on the blog yet, but (most) Japanese dramas depress me. I enjoy the stories, but the bittersweet quality of the character’s relationships and world view often…worries me. This is no slander against a show’s writing, actor portrayals, or production.
The core of the story is usually based around loneliness and isolation. Even in the happiest moments, it feels like a looming sadness could overtake our protagonists at any time.
Rilakkuma and Kaoru [リラックマとカオルさん] , or Rilakkuma to Kaoru-san is one such tale. It tells the story of Kaoru, an office lady whom in the first few episodes is slowly abandoned by her college friends. They have moved on with their lives, no longer wanting to associate with such a “timid”, diligent and “old-fashioned” woman.
Kaoru packs a picnic lunch to share with friends during hanami, only to be left sitting alone in the park awkwardly.
As the series progresses, we (the audience) are allowed glimpses into Kaoru’s life. She lives with two bears and one little duck. At first, I thought this was a Polar Bear Café situation where the animals lived in harmony with humans and could communicate with them through a common language. Clearly, that turned out to not be the case.
Korilakkuma is a small bear that seems useful enough. When Kaoru ran into financial problems, she was able to successfully get a job along with Kiiroitori – despite both not speaking Japanese. Rilakkuma however, is a different story. The bear isn’t able to do anything right. He can’t cook pancakes without burning them, he cannot survive in a job setting, and rarely manages to complete activities without confusion.
I assumed Rilakkuma was just a dim-witted bear, until an episode where Kaoru demands he take off his bear suit due to a fungus growing on it. Yes, it turns out there is a person in the Rilakkuma suit. Which troubles me even more than when I found out Hello Kitty is just a little girl playing dress up in a cat outfit.
I still don’t believe it to this day. I could go put on one of my old kigurumi right now and it would not cover my entire face or distort my body shape. I would still appear to be a human wearing a costume. Hello Kitty totally looks like an animal. Especially if she only weighs “around 3 apples”. If she were a human child, she would be severely malnourished. Not to mention the psychological effects of dressing up and pretending to be an anthropomorphic cat all day.
But I digress. I was going to link a few of the articles I referenced on the Hello Kitty being a human revelation, but it seems the original sources have disappeared. The articles are riddled with dead links and conflicting information so…take that as you will.
Returning back to our initial subject, I have no idea who is in the Rilakkuma bear suit, or why they cannot function in society. Kaoru also seems to share this dysfunction, befriending a neglected neighbor boy and even a ghost one night. Although seemingly random at first, given Kaoru’s financial situation (frivolously spending money, a company-wide budget cut) I believe she is living in a Jiko bukken.
A Jiko bukken [事故物件] is a property where the original owner died of unnatural causes. In japan this information has to be disclosed, leading to a stigma around a seemingly haunted living space. Those who agree to live in these spaces would receive a discount on rent and also serve to ‘destigmatize’ the property for the next tenant.
Given the seemingly deserted apartment building, along with the fact that it is being bulldozed later in the series – it may have a reputation. I should note that I haven’t finished this series, I’m on episode eleven of thirteen. I usually finish each series I talk about on the site, but since I am exploring casual (creepy) topics during the 31 Days of October series, I thought this would be okay. ☺
Later in the series, OL Kaoru falls for a delivery man named Hayate. In an effort to continually see him, she purchases expensive work out equipment that later puts her in debt. It is never stated why she makes no attempt to return the items, or if there is a no-return policy.
Kaoru simply works each day to pay the deficit while borderline starving herself, envies her younger, carefree kohai Sayu, and comes home to put up with the bears’ shenanigans.
With this in mind, I would like to move on to Aggretsuko. I just finished season one last night after struggling to get through it.
Aggretsuko [アグレッシブ烈子 ] tells the story of Retsuko, a twenty-five year old red panda working at a prominent trading company. With no close friends or social life outside of her overbearing job, she resorts to singing death metal at a karaoke bar a few times a week.
As the show progresses, she (thankfully) makes friends with her superiors in another department who give her courage, encouragement and much needed life advice. Retsuko also begins to hang out with two people from her accounting department, her male friend Haida harboring a secret crush.
Retsuko’s boss is a literal chauvinist pig. Director Ton invokes feelings that I usually only reserve for the absolute vilest of characters amongst a kdrama cast. Like Ki-seok from One Spring Night.
Simply whenever the director was on screen, I got angry and wanted him to just leave. He didn’t even have to leave the office, but rather just go somewhere off screen where I couldn’t see him playing golf and stressing our little red panda out.
Between the director and her department senior Tsubone’s nonsense, it becomes painful to watch Retsuko work. So painful that Retsuko decides it would be best to get in shape, snag a man and quit working to become a housewife. The reasons are different, but both Kaoru and Retsuko attempt to use work out equipment to attract a man.
There is nothing wrong with that, but their results differ. While I have yet to get to the episode where Hayate presumably notices Kaoru’s affections, Retsuko forms a crush on a co-worker. Dubbed the “Out-of-Pocket-Prince”, fellow red panda Resasuke is kind of a dunce. He is forgetful, does not heed social cues, and only dates Retsuko on the urge of his buddy.
He is truly unremarkable and their relationship baffles those around her. It takes the physical pain of bloody open wounds from wearing heels to impress Resasuke (who didn’t even seem to notice) to snap her out of the rose-tinted glasses she was wearing. Experiencing a setback in her goal to find a husband, Retsuko is back to moping and singing death metal at the karaoke bar.
There is also a kohai, or junior worker named Tsunoda who appears like Kaoru’s Sayu. However thankfully after a meeting with Tsunoda for dinner, Retsuko realize that she is not a bad person. Although sucking up to the boss seems ‘shameful’, Tsunoda is just doing what she must to survive. This is unlike Sayu, who seems oblivious to the problems she causes other employees by her general disinterested and disingenuous attitude.
The two office ladies have more similarities, but I just found it odd that they experienced the same life. Both women are reserved, introverts who frequently get taken advantage of because of their diligence. They have good hearts and because of this, become door mats afraid to speak up for themselves.
But most of all, Kaoru and Retsuko are lonely. So lonely, that they refuse to reach out to people – instead favoring one-sided relationships or crushes. Engrossing themselves in a fantasy life they wish were possible, until reality sets in and the depression comes back.
Rilakkuma and Kaoru and Aggretsuko are almost the same show, in that respect. The works depict the harsh realities of office life for those with softer personalities. These shows depict how hierarchies are enabled and maintained. How people become unhappy in their place of work, despite starting out with the best of intentions.
Because of this, it depresses me to watch these shows. Under the cute facade is internal suffering that can only lead to lifelong unhappiness. And in Retsuko’s case, karoshi. I know that these are just characters, but maybe their depictions are a part of a bigger problem. Or maybe, it strikes a chord with me because I can understand that sadness.
The hopelessness of returning to a job you hate each and every day. The futility of finding an interest or hobby on the job to take the focus away from how terrible you feel at the establishment, and pretend you are somewhere else even though you are still completing the same menial tasks.
I’m not sure where Retsuko’s path will take her, nor am I sure I will find out Kaoru’s end, but I do know that there are always options for anyone out there stuck in a dead end job. Also that it’s nice to reach out every once in a while, who knows who might grab your hand and help you along? ☺
Since this is part of the 30 day challenge, I would like to note that office work is something that scares me. The feeling of being trapped, but prevented from moving on due to bills to pay, limited availability of opportunities or social expectations is terrifying. But I was there, once. And now I’m not – so in that way, things can always change. You never know what could be around the corner, waiting to start the next phase of your life.
Have you ever had a job you strongly disliked? How did you resolve your issues surrounding it? Do you know any office ladies like Kaoru and Retsuko? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below, I’d love to hear from you! Also be sure to follow us for more late night talks during the 31 day challenge!
(I’m totally aware that I keep changing the challenge from 30 to 31 days. Mainly…because I am winging it and still have no clue what to call whatever this has been the past eight days. But I am having fun doing it, and people are enjoying reading these posts, so that’s all that matters ☺.)
☆ In Asian Spaces