Animated series can get away with being based on truly wacky ideas, simply because you’re less likely to question what you’re looking at than you would with live-action shows.
Take the wildly successful BoJack Horseman, which follows the life of a depressed humanoid horse in Hollywood. Or Big Mouth, which explores the trials of puberty through a series of anthropomorphic hormone monsters. If you take a step back for a moment and think about what you’re actually watching, it’d be easy to query the strange direction television has taken in recent years.
These high-concept ideas make for enjoyable animated shows, though – and popular ones, based on the examples above. But not all of them break through the noise. Neo Yokio is another strange Netflix animated show that has largely flown under the radar since its release in 2017. In fact, “under the radar” is an understatement.
Neo Yokio is largely considered a critical and commercial failure, and it’s no surprise that its short debut season and Christmas special have since been buried by more popular Netflix shows — which is a shame, because Neo Yokio is an interesting creative experiment in… something.
The brainchild of Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig, Neo Yokio takes place in a dystopian mash-up of New York and Tokyo, and follows the life of purple-haired “magistocrat” (yes, that’s “magical aristocrat”) Kaz Kaan, a high society teen who moonlights as a demon slayer. Essentially, Neo Yokio (the fictional city) is overrun by demons who are attracted to the wealth and excess of its urban metropolis, and magistocrats are enlisted to purge the city of these evil forces.
None of that ends up mattering in the finished result, though. Neo Yokio ditches its demon-slaying premise very early on and turns its attention to Kaz’s criticism of his image-oriented lifestyle (“I’m done searching for meaning in the aesthetic cycles of commodities,” he declares). From then on, Neo Yokio isn’t quite sure what it wants to be – let’s go with art-project-cum-social-critique – but manages to remain an intriguing and often hilarious ride nonetheless throughout its short, six-episode season and Christmas special (dubbed Neo Yokio: Pink Christmas).
That’s largely down to its aesthetic. Neo Yokio may look like an anime, but the similarities stop there. At times, it even satirizes the genre with its over-the-top action sequences and occasional interjections to ridicule the manga art style. The real star of the show – and the driving force behind its label as a social commentary – is the seemingly-ceaseless pop culture references and obvious commercial allusions. It’s rare to come across a scene lacking in deliberately undisguised product placement – from Domino’s Pizza to Rolex watches to Ralph Lauren pastries – and it’s these moments that establish the show’s very contemporary satirical humor.
If you don’t read too much into its tentative postmodern themes, Neo Yokio is an enjoyably bizarre ride. It treads a line between woke social criticism and comical self-awareness, while occasionally lapsing into straight-up tomfoolery (“woah, cool your dick man!”), but it manages to retain a unique millennial charm which keeps it from falling into the category of failed attempts at real anime.
That’s because, well, it’s not a real anime at all. It’s not even a TV series, really: rather a collection of largely unrelated adventures through a glitzy animated metropolis.
Neo Yokio is also rich with a frighteningly-talented voice cast. Jaden Smith is a convincing spoilt teen (and walking meme-maker) as Kaz, while the likes of Susan Sarandon, Steve Buscemi, Stephen Fry and Richard Ayoade all lend their comic talents elsewhere. Jude Law steals the show, though, as Kaz’s personal mecha-butler who, it turns out, is actually a naked elderly woman encased in a robot’s body – but who’s asking?
The soundtrack, too, is particularly great, and is at (wonderfully effective) odds with Neo Yokio’s ultra-modern aesthetic. The sweet sounds of Bach, Vivaldi and Rossini accompany Kaz as he soars through the city’s shopping malls, sky bars and tennis courts on his rocket-powered mechanical assistant, and give the whole show a refreshing sense of calm – you’re never quite sure what you’re watching, or indeed why things are happening, but you learn not to dwell on it all that much.
Neo Yokio has been described by some as “the worst anime ever”, and if you come unprepared for its quirky modernity, you’ll likely walk away feeling the same way. But Ezra Koenig’s admittedly oddball foray into exploring the lunacy of Western society is absolutely worth the watch to a) try and figure out what the hell is going on and b) laugh out loud at its unpredictability.
It’s a disjointed vanity project, for sure, but Neo Yokio is also a delightful mess.