“Netflix” and “anime” are two words that have been at odds with each other lately, and what is more questionable than an anime produced by Netflix themselves? Enter Neo Yokio, the Netflix original animated show starring the voice acting talents of this generation’s greatest philosopher Jaden Smith and all the absurdity you’d expect of such a venture. The show raised more than a few eyebrows upon its announcement, and the chintzy trailer did nothing to lower them. But now, in the two weeks after the first season aired, an unanticipated question has arisen. What if Neo Yokio is… actually good?
Genre: Some bizarre mix of mecha-anime, occult, and Jaden Smith’s twitter feed
Release Date: September 22, 2017
Number of Episodes: 6 episodes
Episode Length: 22 minutes
Recommended For: Fans of the absurd, or someone who wants to see a distant relative of anime
NOT Recommended For: Someone looking for a serious anime, or a serious anything really
Jaden Smith as Kaz Kaan
Jude Law as Charles
Susan Sarandon as Aunt Agatha
Tavi Gevinson as Helena St. Tessero
Jason Schwartzman as Arcangelo
The sprawling metropolis of Neo Yokio is the “greatest” city in the world, and Kaz Kaan is a young man fortunate enough to be part of its extraordinarily wealthy elite. He is from a family of new money, derisively dubbed “Neo-riche” by his arch-nemesis Arcangelo, after his ancestors rose to prestige as exorcists that helped rid the city of demons. Kaz himself is an exorcist that doesn’t spend a lot of time actually exorcising anything, and likely wouldn’t use his powers at all if he didn’t have his demanding Aunt Agatha sending him on missions. Instead, he is much more interested in elevating his social presence to stay at the top of the Bachelor Board after his split from his girlfriend Cathy. But when he is sent to exorcise esteemed fashion blogger Helen St. Tessero from a possession, his beliefs about the great city of Neo Yokio may eventually be thrown into question.
The characters are higher than the stakes, but that won’t stop Kaz from fretting over the social faux pas of wearing a midnight blue tux to the Black and White Ball or bumping into his ex-girlfriend in the Hamptons.
Neo Yokio doesn’t take itself seriously in the least, so I’m going to treat my review the same way. I do have a tendency to overanalyze things, and this show admittedly has a lot to pick apart even in all its silliness, but I’ll do my best to reign it in.
I think the first point to address when speaking about this anime is the question of “Is it an anime at all?” The answer seems to be yes, and no, if the following tweets by the Ezra Koenig (member of the rock band Vampire Weekend and the show’s creator) are any indication.
is neo yokio anime? I generally just call it a cartoon. obviously it’s not in Japanese (although there is a dubbed japanese version🤷🏻♂️)
— Ezra Koenig (@arzE) September 13, 2017
but ultimately it’s its own thing: a hybrid collab between people in the US, Japan and Korea
— Ezra Koenig (@arzE) September 13, 2017
There are some obvious anime influences to the art and even world-building of the show and Japanese creators did participate in the direction of this project. So I think it’s fair to at least call anime more than just an inspiration for Neo Yokio. And the Japanese dub of the English version of Neo Yokio does exist, though the show is not nearly as ridiculous without the talents of Jaden Smith voicing the main character. And, consequently, it loses some its sparkle. The story needs the absolute deadpan of Jaden’s voice acting, and the image of him behind the character, to really work. And call that poor storytelling or brilliant casting, but it’s just not quite as fun without him there reading the whiny millennial lines coming from Kaz’s mouth.
I see this show almost as this generation’s answer to the infamous English dub of Ghost Stories, except Neo Yokio doesn’t embellish on an existing boring anime to make it entertaining. Instead, this cartoon-anime hybrid provides its own organic, unique world with an entirely new cast of characters. And right from the gate it’s a beautiful disaster – the kind of benign violation that makes you want to keep watching even as you realize you should look away. In all honesty, I totally understand why some people hate the show. And I completely get why some people would be offended by it. I just happen to fall under neither of those categories.
Plot? What plot? I think one of the best things about Neo Yokio, and simultaneously one of the worst, is how there is no conceivable end game to where the story is heading. It makes the progression of the plot rather unexpected as a result, and it gives the writers ample opportunities to throw in as much random hijinks as they want. To put this in perspective, in a matter of three scenes Kaz blows up the dressing room of Bergdorfs, goes to an underwater mansion and attempts to flirt his way through an exorcism, and visits his own grave in a penthouse graveyard. And that’s only in the first episode.
The character that ends up becoming the primary antagonist of the show’s finale doesn’t actually appear until the fifth episode… out of six episodes. Up until that point we’re really only seeing what kind of pointless shenanigans Kaz and his friends get up to, with very little demon exorcism happening between. I think the setting of Neo Yokio was fresh enough and the odd mix of demons thrown into it set up a really unique world. But some of its potential slips through the cracks and that mostly comes from Kaz’s lack of interest in using his powers. It doesn’t make the show any less entertaining however, and what the creators lost in world building they made up for with theatrics.
One notable facet of this show that’s really blown up amongst its viewers is how blatant the product placement is, and for such a weirdly niche product to boot. I’m speaking, of course, about Kaz’s obsession with the luxury chocolate brand Toblerone and his penchant for toting around one of their giant chocolate bars. But be warned: he’s just as apt to give them as a gift as he is to take them away, leading to easily the most iconic moment of the show’s entire run.
Never heard of the chocolate brand before? Me neither, until this heavy-handed bit of marketing came to my attention. But it’s worked brilliantly for the company with the brand’s stocks rising since the début of this show, a little blurb of news that is nothing short of hilarious to me. Toblerone themselves even cashed in on the memes, as seen by this photo of a Kaz-like piece of chocolate they tweeted at the show’s creator.
I think the absolute bizarreness of Neo Yokio is something everyone needs to experience firsthand without too much context of where the plot is headed, so I won’t speak much more on it. It’s zany and unpredictable, but that’s about what you’d expect from a show with an episode titled: “The Russians? Exactly, the Soviets.”
Let’s talk for a bit about or main character, Kaz Kaan. Kaz is an immediately set up as unsympathetic character, and I think that’s what makes him so paradoxically likable. He acts like the characteristically reluctant hero who has the ability to do great things, but just doesn’t want to. Except in actuality he’s a bit of a pushover and always ends up doing what his aunt tells him to do regardless. It’s a bit of a silly setup for such a narcissistic character, and the way Jaden Smith deadpans all his lines only makes the scenario more funny. Because despite all his talk, Kaz is oddly apathetic to much of what happens around him.
For instance, Kaz describes himself as someone with a “generally cheerful disposition” but spends much of his time being morose or lamenting about how he doesn’t want to get out of bed. He tends to wax poetic because of this, dropping quips I’m fairly certain were inspired by his voice actor’s twitter account, and seems to have a very pessimistic view of the world. He also has a very skewed list of priorities. One alarming example of this is when he calls his run-in with his ex-girlfriend Cathy to be “far sadder” than attending his own uncle’s funeral. That’s the level of indifference we’re talking here.
Fashion blogger Helen St. Tessero (post-exorcism) is the almost voice of reason in this show, or at least the very adamant voice against capitalism. She seems to be able to recognize the flaws in Kaz he so blatantly overlooks and isn’t afraid to call him on it. However, Helena is more the archetype of the troubled young adult and even claims that she is “hikikomori.” This term was coined in Japan to describe the phenomenon of increasing numbers of young adults isolating themselves from society to live as loners. Her wisdom throughout the show is somewhat lessened by the way she likes to preach to anyone who will listen… which is basically only Kaz. She declares outright “I sound enlightened!” when arguing with him over the true lack of value of materialistic goods. It’s hard to tell if she’s actually level-headed, or just seems that way in comparison to everyone else in Neo Yokio.
In easily her best diatribe in the entire show (and trust me, she gets a lot of great one-liners) Helena boldly tells Kaz:
“You’re the epitome of everything that’s wrong with this wicked city. You are vain. You are foolish. And quite frankly you aren’t even that elegant. In fact, the only worthwhile thing about you is your taste in luxury chocolate.”
She then proceeds to knock one of her fans unconscious with an oversized Toblerone bar. And that’s one story arc complete.
Moving on to the other most significant female character in the story is Kaz’s Aunt Agatha. Aunt Agatha’s sole purpose seems to be to pop up and give Kaz his next mission. Though fleeting, she leaves a strong impression when she does appear, dropping one-liners like “We’ll care when they pay us to care.” Agatha’s main mission is money – she’s always looking for the next opportunity to use Kaz’s skills as an exorcist to make some cash and is the most dedicated member of his family to the family business. She’s no less money-hungry than the rest of the Neo Tokio elite, but her greed seems to be coming from a different place than the entitled bourgeois that don’t work for their money, like Arcangelo.
Arcangelo spends half the drama as Kaz’s rival only to suddenly have an inexplicable change of heart to become his self-declared best friend when the Bachelor Board is bombed. I have to say that I particularly enjoy Arcangelo as a character. He’s just pointless enough that you know whenever he shows up on screen its only to banter with our reluctant protagonist. And in the meantime he drops lines like this out of left field:
I think a special mention is in order for the character known as the Remebrancer, as depicted below. This conniving, blue-eyebrowed, 18th century-English-wig-wearing man is introduced in episode five just in time for the Grand Prix arc to begin. He’s quite the character, in more ways than one. The Remembrancer is probably the most campy thing about the entire show in that he’s so stereotypically “villain” in a way that’s almost too over-the-top to even be cliche. There’s a particularly poignant scene where the Remembrancer makes a dramatic exit in a cloud of his own vape smoke like some kind of diabolical genie. When I say this show made me laugh out loud, I mean it.
And I’ll give one final shoutout to Kaz’s mecha butler Charles, who may be the best character in the entire show. He spends most of the season being ordered around by Kaz, which is a lot sadder then it seems given a slight twist to his character. I won’t spoil anything further, but just know Charles becomes a lot more sympathetic as a character after the halfway point of Neo Yokio, in spite of his mostly nondescript presence in the earlier episodes.
The fact that the same small circle of characters keep running into each other in a city as large as Neo Yokio is either supremely stupid or played to emphasize the exclusivity of the wealthy elite. But I kind of love how inconsistent the world building is. Neo Yokio appears to be a hybrid between New York and Tokyo, with the majority of its inspiration being derived from New York. There is mecha technology that seems futuristic, yet Kaz is the only person in the entire city seen owning anything of the sort. And somehow all the current luxury brands of the real world are being used by the bourgeoisie of Neo Yokio. I would have expected the writers to try and twist this somehow, but they didn’t, and that makes the shoddy and confusing world of Neo Yokio all the more baffling.
The animation is admittedly bad. As in, Soul Eater NOT! bad. But the overly simplistic approach oddly suits the tone of the show, and also manages to be the most generically “anime” style animation imaginable. For a show that hearkens back to anime as much as possible without actually being one, it’s a fun little detail, no matter how unintentional. I’ve actually seen some people grumble at how much the art style seems to be a rip off popular pre-existing ones, and a poor recreation, but I think that’s part of its charm. Then again, I may an apologist for the show given my extreme love for all of its glaring faults. And while the execution may fall flat, at least the character design is interesting. As far as anime protagonists go, Kaz is certainly distinctive, and there was a very diverse cast of characters comprising the high society of Neo Yokio.
The opening sequence, arguably one of the most memorable and noteworthy things about any anime, is laughably bad for Neo Yokio. It’s obviously made to mimic or at least call back to the OPs of a typical anime but fails to capture any of the eye-catching animation or dramatic music associated with them. Instead we as the audience are treated to the main characters posing over a static pink background as classical music plays. The ending credits are equally as uninspired and much of the Neo Yokio‘s soundtrack otherwise consists of preexisting classical pieces from the masters of the 20th century. It’s probably the most forgettable aspect of the show, though it does add to the faux pretentiousness of it all.
The English version of Neo Yokio has a star-studded cast of some well known Hollywood actors and actresses voicing the main characters and featuring as cameos. Jaden Smith as Kaz is nothing short of a miracle because he so unenthusiastically delivers his lines in a way I don’t think anyone else ever could. The show is such a weird mix of perfectly respectable performances by actors such as Jude Law and then completely lifeless voice acting by individuals with large and small roles alike. This strange imbalance only makes Neo Yokio more absurd, and more lovable for me personally. I think the casting was perfect. The performances, not so much. Take that as you will.
Now, I said I wasn’t going to get too deep but I want to briefly touch on why I think this show is striking such a strong chord amongst its viewers. The running gag associated with Helena’s sudden and self-proclaimed case of hikikomori and her goal to remove herself from all social interactions is something I think relates to the internet-dwelling generation that holes up behind their phones and laptops. Kaz’s own rather gloomy view of the world is played for dark comedy in the show, but isn’t too far from the disillusioned mindset of too many 21st century young adults. It’s not exactly clever, but it’s innovative in that this type of approach to anime or American cartoons hasn’t been taken. And the show tackles some of the biggest flaws in the mindset of the 20-somethings of this generation in such away that makes it seem self-aware, even if it isn’t.
There’s been some contention about the message behind Neo Yokio and whether it is a parody or a critique of the materialistic lifestyle of the exorbitantly wealthy. The shows creator Ezra has denied that it is a parody, but it’s hard for me to see the show hard as anything but a mockery of the privileged, superficial lives of the upper echelon of New York society. In any case, I can’t imagine someone sitting down and writing any of the events of Neo Yokio and then casting Jaden Smith as the main character without at least some perspicaciousness.
I can’t view Helena’s character as anything but a criticism of American capitalism, and no matter how exaggerated, she is probably the biggest reason why Kaz ends Season 1 as a marginally less narcissistic, materialistic person as he was in the first episode. Regardless of whether you think this show takes itself too seriously or not seriously enough, I think Neo Yokio more than just a badly produced train wreck that pays homage to anime. I began watching it simply wanting to laugh, and came away writing a needlessly long review, in any case.
Against all of my good senses, I think I’m looking forward to the next season of Neo Yokio. If there is a next season, as nothing has been announced at this point given that the anime aired a little over two weeks ago. My only fear is that the greatness of the first season was a happy accident and the writers might stumble as the try to create the same type of absurdity for a second season. That, as Kaz would say, would be “cuckoo bananas.”