Netflix’s colourful new anime series Neo Yokio transports viewers to a highly stratified aristocratic utopia under constant threat from both demonic forces and the possibility of revolution from the masses.
This action-comedy series is the vision of Vampire Weekend’s lead singer, Ezra Koenig, and is brought to life by Japanese animators Studio Deen and Production I.G. and the South Korean studio MOI Animation. The series was originally commissioned for Fox’s short-lived and unfortunately named Animation Domination High-Def — or ADHD — before it was acquired by Netflix.
Off the bat, Neo Yokio features an all-star cast of voice actors that includes Jaden Smith, Jude Law, Susan Sarandon, Steve Buscemi, Jason Schwartzman and Viceland’s Desus Nice and the Kid Mero.
The show follows Smith’s character, Kaz Kaan, as he balances demon-hunting and the materialist excess that are rampant within the city of Neo Yokio. Kaz is a member of a nouveau-riche family of mages who joined Neo Yokio’s upper crust after a spree of demonic attacks.
The shadow of indie-film auteur Wes Anderson looms large over the stylistic choices behind the series. The city of Neo Yokio itself is a love letter to ’60s-era New York, but the futurist touches — spread throughout the classic architecture and the commodities exported to Neo Yokio — are the real focal points for Koenig. Clothing, food, art and various other idiosyncratic accoutrements are all rendered with loving detail by the animators.
Smith is surprisingly enjoyable as Kaz, affecting an ironically melancholic, monotone voice that makes even the simplest of lines into an absurd delight. Kaz’s proclamation that squid-ink fettucine ranks as “the most melancholy of pastas” is hilariously strange when Smith delivers the line, as is his self-absorbed preoccupation with visiting his own custom-made tomb in the Neo Yokio cemetery.
Jude Law portrays Kaz’s robotic butler Charles, while Susan Sarandon’s Aunt Agatha serves as a constant reminder of Kaz’s demon-hunting responsibilities. Desus and Mero do a great job as Kaz’s friends Gottlieb and Lexy, channelling some of the improvisational magic that made them podcast and late-night-TV stars.
The show is at it’s best when it mixes absurd world-building with situational humour. In one episode, Kaz fights a demonically possessed Damien Hirst installation in the Museum of Modern Art, while a later episode revolves around a city-wide Formula One race with drivers from a rebuilt USSR and an independent Québec. The jokes land more than they miss, but the sheer insanity of the plot lines alone is enough to crack a smile.
However, Koenig’s series isn’t just pretentious silliness. Koenig — a vocal Bernie Sanders supporter in the 2016 democratic primary — mounts his critique of Neo Yokio’s neo-liberal utopia in a season-wide subplot centred around Helena St. Tessero, a radical socialist and former fashion blogger voiced by Tavi Gevinson. Much of Neo Yokio focuses on how Kaz deals with Helena’s criticisms of esthetic-based lifestyles.
Neo Yokio captures the essence of what it is like to live in a world filled with everything you could ever want only to find it paradoxically empty and boring — it’s a world that’s not entirely unlike our own. While the anti-capitalist rhetoric is mostly ironic, the larger theme of existential ennui in the face of economic prosperity is one that is bound to resonate with millennials.
Neo Yokio is a flawed, funny and strange work propelled by a visionary creative individual operating in an unusual media form. With time, Neo Yokio will be sure to find an audience that embraces it’s off-kilter style and eclectic world view.
Graphic: Lesia Karalash / Graphics Editor