At glance, streaming giant Netflix’s latest original anime series was poised to be a winner. Neo Yokio was marketed as satirical take on 90’s anime (think Sailor Moon) featuring a diverse cast of characters in a demon-infested version of New York, wherein high society and high fashion are paramount. Quite the concept, but success lies in the execution and that’s where Neo Yokio falls short.
I should preface my opinions by stating that Neo Yokio is not a bad series at all. It’s rather enjoyable — but this had the potential to be an amazing series instead of just a serviceable one.
Series creator, Ezra Koenig (of Vampire Weekend fame), manufactured a zany concept yet fails to develop a show worthy of its premise. Perplexingly, Neo Yokio is totally understated in regards to its characters, direction, and plot. The intention was clearly to go for a more dry wit, however, it come across as somewhat dull. There’s a number of factors contribute to this, but chief among them is the voice talent assembled for the series.
Jaden Smith performs his voice work competently as fashionable bachelor/demon slayer Kaz Kaan, giving him a certain melancholy charm. This would work well if he was more or less the straight man of the show’s proceedings, but Kaz is often paired with his mecha-butler Charles (Jude Law) and their interactions are much too low-key to make for exciting central characters. This is driven home whenever Agatha (Susan Sarandon), Kaz’s grumpy aunt and mystical handler, is present and gives something for Kaz to bounce off.
One actor that achieves pure perfection is Jason Schwartzman as Kaz’s rival Archangelo Corelli. Schwartzman gives Archangelo an air of sardonic contempt that is the trademark of anime douchebags, only dialed up to hilarious levels. He’s the best thing in Neo Yokio and the series feels most alive in his presence. You could be forgiven if you secretly wish he was lead character — I certainly do.
Another bright spot is fashion blogger/socialite Helena St. Tessero (Tavi Gevinson). She’s perhaps the series’ only fleshed out character and provides a bit of social commentary. After being possessed by a demonic Chanel suit (yup!) which is later expelled by Kaz, Helena gets all woke and realizes the vapidness of Neo Yokio’s society. Her anti-capitalist, anti-materialist awakening challenges Kaz’s concepts of his social status and his relationships, making her his true foil as the story develops.
The dynamic between Helena and Kaz is the only time the plot of the series feels like it’s moving toward something, but unfortunately, their interactions are sparse. When she isn’t present nothing seems to be driving the plot of the series, so it meanders around in the same aimless malaise as its lead character. This makes watching Neo Yokio feel rather tedious. There’s simply not enough meat on the bone to keep an audience satisfied.
With being scant on plot, Kaz’s forays into demon-vanquishing was the perfect opportunity for this series to really pull out all the stops, but somehow this is the dullest aspect of all. Yes, Neo Yokio manages to make a demonic exorcism boring.
On paper, a demon in the guise of a southern pop-star that possesses the artwork of Damien Hirst sounds absolutely mad. In execution, it’s inexplicably lackluster. Time after time, when the gleefully ridiculousness of Neo Yokio should culminate into an outstanding moment it simply fizzles out. It’s difficult to explain why this happens, but I have a theory.
American produced anime is typically more straight-laced than its Japanese brethren. The shift in cultural tastes leads to a certain hallmarks of the Japanese style becoming diluted, most notably the comedy. Japanese anime is more unabashed and tends to go over the top. Neo Yokio doesn’t have to attempt comedy so bold, but compare it to a series another parody/satire like Excel Saga and its faults become all the more glaring.
This may be a case where a series tries to do so much it loses sight of what it should actually be. It attempts to travel down many avenues, but navigates none of them expertly. I can’t help but feel if the series was more focused, or more resolute in one particular sub-genre, it would be far more enjoyable. The series lands in an uncomfortable territory.
It’s too reserved for a satire and it’s too thin for an independently compelling series. As time goes on I’m afraid Neo Yokio will become more notable for the product it could have been rather than what the creators actually delivered. If it is renewed for future seasons they would be best served untethering their premise from a broad appeal and allowing the series to run wild. It sold us on high fashion, but wears more like last season’s rags.
GRADE C- :
A STELLAR CONCEPT IS SQUANDERED WITH LACKLUSTER EXECUTION, MAKING ‘NEO YOKIO’ A BARGAIN FIND RATHER THAN A RUNWAY KNOCKOUT.