Odd does not begin to describe Neo Yokio. What this exorcism/high fashion/pseudo-Marxist parody (?) anime lacks in quality, it makes up for in sheer number of ideas half-baked into six twenty-two minute episodes. Throw in a dash of Jaden Smith, Susan Sarandon, Jude Law and Desus & Mero, and you have a recipe for easily the weirdest animation project I’ve seen this year.
Rather than begin at the beginning, I have to start at the end. The last thing I realized watching Netflix’s latest original was that it had no idea what it was doing. Don’t ask me why, but even if I didn’t love everything Neo Yokio was doing from moment to moment, I truly believed it would at least wrap up sensibly, if not satisfyingly. That is simply not the case. This anime– starring Jaden Smith as the scion of a family of magicians employed in a near-future, New York-like metropolis– starts with a decent premise. The magicians are a metaphor for the nouveau riche, (the anime even says as much) in the vein of a family of immigrants or minorities who made the American Dream come true, and Smith’s Kaz becomes obsessed with all of the trappings of wealth, and loses sight of what really matters. Not groundbreaking, but it could work.
The problem is that all of this gets lost between send-up after send-up of various anime, and an obvious misunderstanding, by creator and Vampire Weekend singer Ezra Koenig, of the politics he’s trying to convey. It’s possible that Koenig wanted the magic users to stand in for Jews at the turn of the 20th century, but this too gets lost among a myriad of subplots that make it impossible to do more than guess at what he was going for. Each episode has Kaz working in a different capacity (as an exorcist, a security guard, a mole in the guise of a teacher, a house-sitter, a bodyguard, and finally a racecar driver). All of these differing jobs showcase the diversity of Neo Yokio, (though we do spend a lot of time in the sea underneath 14th street, a possible global warming point that goes unexplored) but never really amount to anything.
The relationship the show seems to care about is the one between Kaz and Helena St. Tessero (Tavi Gevinson) which starts in the first episode, but it has next to nothing to do with demons. The places where the class critique and the demon-hunter’s place in Neo Yokio intersect are almost there, but never quite come together in a comprehensible way. The two themes work more like poles, oscillated between, but forever separated. The closest the show gets to cohesion is in the first episode when Helena’s demon possession causes her to reject capitalism, but we are never told why. Maybe it would be made clear in later episodes, but for a show with so many other problems, I wouldn’t count on it getting renewed.
On the point of politics alone, it would be hard to see this show getting six more episodes. I complained above about when political points were not made clear, but honestly I prefer it that way. In addition to some simply egregious misogyny and transphobia in the fourth episode, the show bungles issues like hikikomori, terrorism and income inequality so badly that I hoped that the show was joking, but it was all played woefully straight. This is the kind of show that wraps itself in the garb of revolutionary politics without finding something meaningful to say. In fact, it often says the opposite.
Koenig has gone on record saying he is serious about these characters and that “[o]utside of maybe free-market capitalism, [he’s] not trying to drag anything,” but he comes off in favor of capitalism more than anything else in the show. Helena serves mainly as a mouthpiece for revolutionary ideas that Koenig hasn’t fully worked through. He, unfortunately, makes her sound like a 4chan parody of a liberal. She does, however, remain the most tolerable main character only because she’s the only one who isn’t cripplingly vapid and hyper-materialistic.
Smith’s Kaz as well as every other character his age is obsessed with high fashion and other signs of status, to the point where entire arcs, plot points and digressions are based around it. There was even a chibi explainer about the different sizes of champagne bottles, but not one for even the central tenants of anti-capitalism that the show purports to be based on. This is what belies this shows ability to call itself a satire of capitalism. The shows failure to illustrate the correctness of its moral center makes the message of the show muddled and indistinguishable. Helena does win Kaz to her side by the end of the season, but only because of his romantic feelings and dislike for Steve Buscemi’s Remembrancer character, rather than any ideological argument.
Compare this to Adult Swim’s The Boondocks, who achieve just the opposite, and meaningfully affect satire. In the episode “Return of the King,” a living Dr. Martin Luther King gives a speech to a congregation of 21st century blacks who have lost their way. Despite the fact that he is ultimately ignored at the end of the episode, the time and focus which his speech is given and Huey’s narration make it clear what side the author believes is correct.
Neo Yokio, in addition to being a hundred other things, is a classic example of Poe’s Law. The authorial intent is made to look like parody, and the object of ridicule is elevated to the level of sacred within the text and metatext. Thus, even though the work’s ending comes down against capitalism; it is too little too late. Ezra Koenig has made a show that would likely glorify avarice to an unsuspecting audience.
This idea is explained in further detail with regards to white supremacy and American History X in Lindsay Ellis’ Mel Brooks, The Producers and the Ethics of Satire about N@zis, which I recommend for further education on the topic.
[Brief Postscript: Jaden Smith seemed to be doing a Jason Schwartzman impression in about half of the scenes. I know he’s not a great actor, but did someone tell him that’s how rich people talk? Listening to Smith-Schwartzman scenes was like hearing whine in stereo.]
Image: Studio Deen