'Neo Yokio': TV Review

Europeanized anime without enough inspiration.

Netflix's anime takeoff has a strange pedigree from creator Ezra Koenig and star Jaden Smith, but why watch ersatz when there's plenty of the real thing?

We're living in a golden age (or golden month) for earnest genre homages speckled with comedy that feel like they could nearly be genre parodies, but aren't. I point you to the number of reviews calling Seth MacFarlane's The Orville and Netflix's American Vandal "spoofs."

American Vandal (surprisingly) effectively uses the aesthetic and rhythms of the ultra-serious true crime documentary genre on a case of penis-based high school vandalism and mines laughter from the absurdity of that application. It's not a spoof.

The Orville tries dosing a traditional Star Trek framework with MacFarlane's brand of snark and immature humor, but as anybody who watches the upcoming third episode will see, the show takes itself extremely seriously, to a fault. It's definitely not a spoof.

Up next to walk this odd razor's edge is Neo Yokio, a six-episode Netflix anime that definitely wants to wink at some anime conventions, while simultaneously showing warmth to the genre, but ends up not being as weird and loopy as one might hope for from the tease, "From the frontman of Vampire Weekend and starring Will Smith's son." After watching the full season, I think Neo Yokio is more successful being funny than serious, but it's not really all that funny, either.

Created by aforementioned Vampire Weekend singer Ezra Koenig and featuring acclaimed anime veteran Kazuhiro Furuhashi (Rurouni Kenshin) as storyboard artist, Neo Yokio is set in an alternate New York City in which much of the city is underwater and a history of demonic possessions have elevated certain families of magic-wielding exorcists to the ranks of upper-crust magistocrats. Jaden Smith voices Kaz Kaan, scion of an economically strapped magistocrat family. Still smarting from a recent breakup, Kaz just wants to bathe in nihilistic ennui and periodically hang out with his robot butler (Jude Law) and his boys Lexy (The Kid Mero) and Gottlieb (Desus Nice), but his nosey Aunt Agatha (Susan Sarandon) keeps pimping out his magical powers to the Gotham elite, including Kaz's recently possessed former flame Helena St. Tessero (Tavi Gevinson), a powerful fashion blogger.

Kaz is also obsessed with the Bachelor Ranking Board in Times Square, a constantly updated tally of eligible gentlemen, pitting Kaz against snooty rival Arcangelo Corelli (Jason Schwartzman). The Bachelor Ranking Board is probably the show's greatest inspiration, and that may tell you something.

Neo Yokio was originally developed for Fox's deceased ADHD late-night animation block, and those network roots remain. The series is adult animation only to the extent that characters swear a tiny bit and they obsess over style and the snooty urban social scene in ways that would probably bore kids to tears. In terms of violence, sexuality and intensity of subject matter, this is such tepid stuff I'm not even sure why they bothered including the occasional four-letter word.

In concept and animation, Neo Yokio is unremarkable stuff, bringing just enough creativity to keep the show consistently watchable, but never really achieving much inspiration.

The art itself is probably of a '90s vintage, without any of the flash that computers have helped bring to the genre. It's colorful but a bit rudimentary, and I'm not sure if that's because that's what the ADHD look usually was or if it's simply meant to reflect the specific anime it's honoring. Kaz's battles with demons are really low-key and deficient in flair, but if you stick around, later episodes include a nice shape-shifting subplot with cute nods to the Ranma series, which featured Kazuhiro Furuhashi as director, and an auto racing set piece that owes much to Speed Racer. I'd call my own anime background low- to mid-level, and it's probable that dedicated anime fans will notice citations aplenty, but those fans will probably yearn for the real thing, not a deadpan imitator.

I'm also not sure what to do with the appropriation and America-washing in Neo Yokio, even if Neo Yokio is basically about appropriation and white-washing on a textual level. The Westernization of anime tropes goes from character design to a soundtrack dominated by European classical music to characters whose ultimate personal innovation is the creation of a caprese martini. Japanese culture exists in terms of bits of accessible vocabulary like "ichiban" and "hikikomori," but it's all been assimilated into the culture of Neo Yokio. Those catchwords feel no more authentically integrated than references to Damien Hirst or various designers. There are genre traditions that this is playing off of, whether it's the manga or cyber-punk stories in which Chinese or Japanese cultures and populations have effectively conquered or consumed Western cultures — think Blade Runner or dozens upon dozens of others — or else something like Firefly, in which Chinese language and tidbits of pan-Asian traditions remain, but actual Asians are basically absent.

But if all you're going to do is make anime really Americanized, I'd love to see some sort of thought put into what it all means in an artistic context. Is it significant that the main character in Neo Yokio is African-American and that he has friends whose names maybe are Jewish and Latino and Italian, but that this is a city that has become so total a melting pot that those distinctions mean nothing? I feel like it ought to mean something, but it probably doesn't.

It also feels intentional that Smith and Gevinson have been cast as the show's vocal leads, despite their performances being almost completely affectless — but being certain something is intentional and understanding its intent are two different things. "Disinterest" is one of Kaz's defining characteristics and you can either hire a legitimate voiceover star and say, "Act disinterested," or you can hire somebody famous whose natural ability to read with inflection is questionable. Neo Yokio went the second way. I suppose it has something to do with Smith's flighty and philosophy-free existentialism on social media, but even then you have to wonder if he is capable of self-parody or recognizing if he's being asked to mock himself.

The supporting vocal talent is exceptional, especially Law, whose dulcet tones speak to a project of far higher quality and who really becomes a standout in later episodes as we learn more about the inner workings of mechas. The episode-to-episode guest cast is superb, featuring the likes of Steve Buscemi, Stephen Fry, Richard Ayoade, Katy Mixon and the late Frank Vincent. That the producers so clearly know what good voice work sounds like only added to my feeling that Kaz and Helena are intended to be flat.

Of the recent wave of comic homages, American Vandal remains the only one I'd recommend as successful on its own. As with The Orville, Neo Yokio falls into that weird place where I see what it's trying and can muster some respect for that, but why resort to a so-so anime takeoff when there's ample real anime that's cooler and funnier on its own?

Cast: Jaden Smith, Tavi Gevinson, Jude Law, Susan Sarandon, Jason Schwartzman, The Kid Mero, Desus Nice
Creator: Ezra Koenig
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)