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'Neo Yokio': The Best Show You're Not Watching is a Satirical Netflix Anime, Starring Jaden Smith

by Jason St. Amand
National News Editor
Saturday Oct 7, 2017

Getting someone to watch "Neo Yokio" is a tough task; the show isn't an easy sell. On paper, the new Netflix show is way too niche for a general audience. It's an anime (strike one) created by Vampire Weekend front man Ezra Koenig (strike two) about a young demon hunter who is obsessed with fashion and often finds himself in an existential crisis (strike three, four and five).

Even if you're not an anime fan (or of animation in general) or have no interest in fantasy, there's still a lot to admire about "Neo Yokio" as it quickly blossoms into something completely unexpected that will surely surprise both anime fans and haters. Your enjoyment of the show, however, will depend on how plugged in you are to pop culture.

A Japanese-American co-production, produced by Americans and Europeans, "Neo Yokio" boasts an impressive cast, including Jaden Smith, who voices the show's lead -- demon slayer Kaz Kaan. Jude Law plays Kaz's robot butler Charles and Susan Sarandon voices Kaz's stern Aunt Agatha. Rounding out the cast is fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson, playing fashion blogger Helena St. Tessero, Jason Schwartzman as Kaz's arch nemesis Arcangelo and comedians The Kid Mero and Desus Nice as Kaz's pals, Lexy and Gottlieb, respectfully. The big names don't stop there, throughout the six episode first season, stars like Steve Buscemi, Alexa Chung, Willow Smith, Stephen Fry, Nico Muhly, Frank Vincent, Ray Wise and more pop up in various roles.

Koenig helped write every episode and explained in an interview with Rolling Stone that "Neo Yokio" is more of a nod to and a "loving parody" of anime than being an actual anime.

"Out of respect for true anime, I've always called 'Neo Yokio' 'anime-inspired'-- it's a hybrid," he said. "But I've always been a fan of anime, and I always wanted to do something that was kind of an homage to it."

A scene from "Neo Yokio." (Photo credit: Netflix)

Indeed, some anime fans will appreciate the winks and nods to classic anime in "Neo Yokio" -- the show's title is a reference the 1987 anime film "Neo Tokyo" and the iconic anime "Akira." (You can probably guess what "Yokio" is referencing.) There are also references to tent pole anime, like "Neon Genesis Evangelion," "Sailor Moon" and "Cowboy Bebop." Those Easter eggs shouldn't deter viewers from checking out "Neo Yokio," however. The show may honor the animation it's inspired by but it is ultimately a satirical and witty program, unlike anything else on TV today. Early reviews of the show were not kind and seemed to not get the tongue-and-cheek, snappy dialogue -- in the first episode, Kaz is seen quoting a blog post about the importance of the changing trends in perfume while laying flowers at his own grave. The bratty Kaz name drops fashion brands with pride, loves classical music and rolls his eyes at DJs who spin "Gregorian house" music.

Fans of Vampire Weekend can hear Koenig's voice in Kaz's lines of dialogue. Under a pop structure, the band often weaves together pop culture references, political and religious sentiments and winks to class and New York life, in their lyrics. Vampire Weekend's lyrical DNA is embedded in "Neo Yokio," which also critiques class in the Big Apple, capitalism and America's obsession with material things. (Fun fact: The working-title of Vampire Weekend's forthcoming album is "Mitsubishi Macchiato.")

Kaz is a dandy demon slayer (or, "magistocrat") who is looked down upon by Neo Yokio's elite socialist and labeled "Neo Riche" by frenemy, Arcangelo. He's ranked number two on the city's "Bachelor Board" -- a chart that tracks Neo Yokio's eligible bachelors. Stylish and culturally aware, Kaz is in many ways a typical millennial. Much to his Aunt Agatha's chagrin, he'd rather hang out at a tennis club sipping caprese martinis than exercising demons and making money.

The plot of "Neo Yokio" might be convoluted for some viewers but the storylines won't be what has audiences returning to the show, which can be consumed in under two hours as episodes clock in under 30 minutes. "Neo Yokio" examines a number of social issues, as well. In one episode, out composer Nico Muhly voices private music schoolteacher Professor Muhly, where he and Kaz bond over being different. In another episode, Kaz's friend Lexy is falls under a spell and is turned into a woman. Here, the show explores gender fluidity and objectifying women in a light but clever way.

A scene from "Neo Yokio." (Photo credit: Netflix)

"Neo Yokio" is incredibly diverse, too. Protagonist Kaz, voiced by Smith, is a person of color - as are his friends. Speaking with The Fader, Koenig elaborated on the show's diversity. When asked about the outrage by a vocal subset of anime enthusiasts over the show's cast, the singer said:

"I was familiar with the phrase 'anime Nazis' [a term referencing a segment of online white supremacists with anime avatars]. It's even partially why I like the idea of making a show that involves a lot of people from different backgrounds: Japanese people, black people, Jewish people. That's something that I liked about it."

Of course, "Neo Yokio" isn't for everyone. Though it uncannily has the aesthetic of an anime from the 80s or 90s, fans of anime may find the show disjointed when characters are interacting with each other: It's clear the A-listers who gave life to these characters recorded their lines separately. Even non-anime fans who give the program a chance may find its deadpan satire of the one percent pretentious. Those who are charmed by Koenig's show, however, will enjoy an embarrassment of riches. "Neo Yokio" is specific but you'll know relatively quickly if it's for you.

In the very first scene of the show, Kaz throws his Cartier watch -- a gift from his ex-girlfriend -- off a bridge, after the following inner monologue:

"It's been three weeks and I still cant believe she's really gone. My one true love is living the glamorous life of an investment banker in San Francisco, while I remain in Neo Yokio haunted by her memory."

If you find that funny, then binge "Neo Yokio" as soon as possible.


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