Neo Yokio (2017) is a production with some striking ideas embedded in its premise. Directed by Ezra Koenig (the lead singer of Vampire Weekend), the Netflix adult cartoon follows the life of "magistocrat" Kaz Kaan (Jaden Smith) as he balances being a demon slayer and a socialite in the affluent titular city. At a glance, the series seemingly satirizes the vapid excesses of high society in Neo Yokio, which is itself a bourgeois-centric version of New York City. On inspection, Neo Yokio's supposed poignant social commentary and satirical jests are severely lacking. While the show has gained somewhat of a cult following on social media platforms such as Twitter and Tumblr, there is a reason for the cartoon's generally poor reception from other audience members and critics alike.
NEO YOKIO ISN'T FUNNY
: One of the more pressing failures of Neo Yokio is rooted in its comedy. Very little humor or intrigue stems from Kaz's extermination of anti-capitalist demons, and virtually all the cartoon's hijinks spawn from the luxury obsessed denizens of NYC. When taken out of context, some jokes are funny. Numerous clips, gif sets, and screencaps of scenes extracted from the cartoon are floating around on the Internet and heralded as proof that Neo Yokio is indeed comedy gold. A bejeweled sinister skull saying, "I see you, bitch," does seem funny [and like a snarky wave to 'ol Damian Hirst]. However, the same episode contains an overly long gag about Kaz accidently picking a midnight-blue suit to wear to a Black and White Ball. Within the parameters of the series, when each comedic antic is strung together one after another, the result is ham-fisted, repetitious and dead on arrival, jokes.
Much of the humor relies on the viewer to be acquainted with knowledge that only a New Yorker, or specifically, a wealthy New Yorker would be privy to. Mentions of the Hamptons, bespoke attire, 14th St., squash, field hockey, and the Eastside require the audience to know about NYC upper echelons. Watching Neo Yokio is like being the new person in a group of friends. They're all spouting inside jokes, while you're left to politely nod along as you struggle to understand their estranging anecdotes. This series was created by a bougie progressive minded New Yorker for other bougie progressive minded New Yorkers to adore. Though people online from all walks of life are finding the cartoon to be hilarious, it's for reasons that Koenig did not account for. Evidently, fans of Neo Yokio are making up for their unfamiliarity with the context of the series by transforming it into a production that appeals to their tastes.
NEO YOKIO ISN'T A PARODY OF LOW QUALITY JAPANESE ANIMATION
: Neo Yokio is attracting fans who are habitually divorcing the cartoon from its original intent and transmuting it into a more familiar product. The small, yet vocal following of the series are very adamant about pushing the idea that Neo Yokio's animation is bad and the voice acting is ostensibly terrible. These fans argue that the animated series is an intentional parody of poorly produced pre-2000s anime. Koenig never once states that the animation and voice acting are purposefully mediocre as an homage to low quality anime. In an interview with Pitchfork, Koenig is confronted with the accusation that Neo Yokio has a "poor art-style" and he doesn't argue that it's supposed to look awful. Contemporary anime tends to suffer from the same animation issues as Neo Yokio. Extremely limited animation, overly simplified character design, and off model animation errors are the norm in anime. A staple of anime is the principle of quantity over quality and Neo Yokio should be accepted as a part of that distinct animation technique.
As for the voice acting, it's surprisingly well done. The limited, rigid animation that creates the illusion that the voice acting is subpar. The voice actors and actresses are reasonably hammy. If the animation were equally expressive, then Neo Yokio would have been something to behold. The Boondocks (2005) is a good example of how overacting and over-the-top animation can create a great viewing experience. As for Neo Yokio, the fantastically campy voice acting is undermined by the stilted animation. While limited animation can be paired with energetic voice acting to intentionally create friction, the clash of visuals and audio in Neo Yokio is not intentional. The awkward disconnect between the cartoon's poor animation and zany dubbing isn't purposefully satirizing poorly produced anime.
A TERRORIST SHOULDN'T BE THE MORAL COMPASS OF THE SERIES:
Stale humor and wonky animation aside, the message of the series is stunted and the character Helena St. Tessero embodies Neo Yokio's shoddy social commentary. Once a successful young fashion blogger, Helena was possessed by a demon who preyed on the bourgeoisie of the city. After she recovers from being exorcised (by Kaz), Helena's outlook on life changes drastically. From the second episode and onward, Helena serves as the moral center for the narrative. She spends her days sulking in her parent's opulent abode as a self-proclaimed hikikomori (i.e., a recluse) while parroting Marxist theory at Kaz whenever he visits her. In the fifth episode, offscreen she bombs a glitzy billboard to symbolically undermine the rampant decadence of Neo Yokio. At best, Helena is a whiny but "woke" moocher who lives as a hermit in the lap of luxury, at worst she's an aimless terrorist who endangers people's lives to express her social views. The most frustrating aspect of Neo Yokio is Koenig's insistence on making Helena, the freeloading directionless terrorist, the moral compass of the series.
Fans online tend to take Helena's anti-capitalist sentiments at face value and praise her for taking a stand against vapid consumer culture. In the Pitchfork interview, Koenig states that: "Almost everything in Neo Yokio is a loving tribute. Outside of maybe free-market capitalism, we're not trying to drag anything." If Koenig's intent was to "drag" capitalism, then he failed. If social justice concerns were implemented tactfully, we could have seen Helena advocate social reform for the destitute that live on the outskirts of Neo Yokio. Instead we got some rich faux-rebel causing misguided mayhem because she's disillusioned with her status, yet refuses to do anything productive with her privilege.
IS NEO YOKIO REALLY ALL THAT BAD?
It's a special brand of bad with a few good ideas. Neo Yokio had potential to be a good show which could have provided much needed criticism regarding classism, consumerism, and capitalism, but it falls flat under a torrent of one-note humor and a disingenuous message. Most people who seem attracted to the series don't acknowledge the true intent of the cartoon, because they're making unfounded conjectures based solely on their own perceptions. If anything, the cartoon's growing cult status provides an interesting glimpse into how much clips of media spread online can shape how people enjoy and consume said media.