Netflix’s new anime parody series boasts a mostly talented voice cast, but flat animation and an excess of thematic focuses leave it drifting short of the stars.
Neo Yokio, an “agglomeration” of two of the world’s greatest cities, may be the best metropolis in the world – but not all of its residents are happy. Kaz Kaan, a pink-haired demon slayer at the height of Neo Yokian society, is found drifting aimlessly after a failed relationship at the start of the series. His romantic predicament has left him in a state, and each and every action of his makes out like a second-rate re-enactment of Romeo and Juliet’s first scene, but with plenty of ridiculous quips thrown in. “Who cares what time it is when the future is an interminable abyss of whack-ness?” he poses to his Aunt Agatha (a snide-beyond-belief Susan Sarandon), a street-savvy woman who hires out Kaz’s demon-slaying talents to those whose oodles of money compare to Kaz’s own fortune.
a series otherwise brimming with the potential to bring razor-sharp social commentary to the table
If the above quote hadn’t let you on, Kaz is not instantly likeable. Besides his character design bearing a strange resemblance to mediocre rapper Lil Uzi Vert, Kaz is initially arrogant, shallow, and pretentious to the point where he even made a grave for himself prematurely, to pay his respects to when he feels embarrassed. He and his friends frequent polo clubs, drink caprese martinis, and obsess over whether tuxedos are actually black or a much less classy midnight blue. When embracing a brief post at a posh prep school to teach other rich kids the importance of elegance, he assigns his students thousand-word essays on the graceful geometry of cable-knit sweaters. None of this is helped by Jaden Smith’s horrific voice acting in Kaz’s role – flat, monotone, and consistently lacking in emotion, Smith is perhaps the weakest link in the otherwise stellar voice-acting cast that Neo Yokio had assembled. His robot butler, Charles (played by the ever-excellent Jude Law), acts as the voice of reason, and is the only reason that viewers would put up with the show’s otherwise bland first arc.
But thankfully, Neo Yokio does grow past its initial shortcomings, although not much farther. Although initially vapid and self-insistent, the series eventually begins to exhibit a glimmer of self-awareness behind its impenetrably snotty façade, although that glimmer does not grow as much as mature audiences would like. The city’s infrastructure and socio-political hierarchies beyond Kaz’s excessive nouveau riche bracket is barely explored, and at most given brief allusions. A glimpse at the Long Island Walled Slums, home to the city’s poorest residents, briefly sparks a moment of introspection in Kaz as to whether or not Neo Yokio truly is the best city in the world, but that sliver of self-awareness is completely bypassed a moment later and never revisited. Multiple hints at tackling the tricky issues of class struggles in America and the hypocrisy of the wealthy surface occasionally, but are quickly drowned out once more in favour of arguments about Big Toblerones and haute couture brands. In the same manner, the entire plot line about demons in the city, as well as Kaz’s powers and heritage, are explained at length in the beginning only to be mostly abandoned halfway through the series, at which point the entire premise of his fortuitous upbringing is rendered completely obsolete, and feels like a silly excuse for the writer’s obvious fetish for lavish excess. This trend is repeated with disturbing frequency over the entirety of Neo Yokio’s brief six-episode run; an unfortunate disappointment for a series otherwise brimming with the potential to bring razor-sharp social commentary to the table.
It is this high-school level pretension that prevents Neo Yokio from not appearing anything more than immature at best, and wholly contrived at worst.
Its characters, too, are not entirely beyond redemption. Sailor Pellegrino, a pop singer with the singing voice of an angel and the speaking voice of a yokel, is gut-bustingly hilarious, and so is Arcangelo, Kaz’s arrogant rival for the top spot of the Neo Yokio bachelor board. But these side characters that perhaps bring the most life to the show are relegated to the extreme sidelines, leaving Kaz and the equally capricious (and annoying) fashion blogger Helena St. Tessero at the forefront. Kaz admittedly does improve slightly over the course of the series, but only because the series’ meandering plot affords him far less opportunities to exhibit just how self-absorbed he can truly be. And while the emulation of Helena’s every whim and fancy by her blindly loyal followers serves as a great comment on the vapid nature of social media’s influentialism, Helena herself is nothing more than a mouthpiece for every pretentious notion to have ever crossed the mind of a philosophy student. “I don’t hate you,” she tells Kaz halfway through the series, “I just wish you weren’t such a lapdog of the bourgeoisie.” It is this high-school level pretension that prevents Neo Yokio from not appearing anything more than immature at best, and wholly contrived at worst.
Neo Yokio’s “agglomeration” itself is more New York than Tokyo – the East Village/West Side divide is an element of the show that is paraded in its script countless times (as if viewers have to be reminded that the city takes part of its name from New York), and the city’s yellow cabs and landmarks (Bergdorf’s, the Guggenheim, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to name a few) have no trace of the Japanese capital whatsoever save for a few fleeting moments. In fact, the only thing Japanese about the series is its animation style. But even then, stilted and flat, much like the badly-animated episodes from the early days of Naruto and Fairy Tail. As much as it is marketed as a “parody” of anime, there is nothing amusing to be found in bad animation – even the anime greats from the 90s like Neon Genesis Evangelion (an element of which weasels its way into the series as a tongue-in-cheek parody teetering on the verge of plagiarism) manage to be more visually compelling than Neo Yokio, and this sacrifice of artistic merit is not a risk that pays off for the show.
a show that can’t seem to decide what it’s about, nor where it truly stands on the issues that it does present
The show’s creator, Ezra Koenig, is much better known for his work in Vampire Weekend, a New York indie rock band that has garnered a huge following over the past decade. Koenig’s status as New York high society, at least in the eyes of the arts, is perhaps why Neo Yokio is a show that can’t seem to decide what it’s about, nor where it truly stands on the issues that it does present. Is it about class struggle (but a relative one, seeing as everyone in the anime appears to be stinking rich)? Or perhaps materialism in the 21st century? High fashion? Millennialism? First world problems? A simple coming-of-age anime about a demon-slayer and his robot butler? Unfortunately, neither the viewers, nor the show’s characters, can truly tell.