Natasha Dardashti staff writer
What do you get when you combine Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig, actor and online personality Jaden Smith, some of the most famous production companies in modern anime and ostentatious product placement? Well, you get “Neo Yokio”.
Even before its premiere, the cast of “Neo Yokio” garnered instant attention among anime and non-anime fans alike with names such as Studio Deen, Jude Law, Tavi Gevinson and Production IG appearing in the credits. Anime has never been more accessible than it is now, and when the big, popular and distinctly Western corporation Netflix decided to adapt the cult classic franchise Death Note into a live action film and stock modern anime hits such as One Punch Man and Sword Art Online onto its digital shelves, whispers of a Netflix original anime-style show began to circle.
And so “Neo Yokio” was born. “Neo Yokio” is a six episode animated series following the adventures of exorcist and number one bachelor Kaz Kaan (Jaden Smith). The animation genre of “Neo Yokio” contributed to further blurring the lines between Western cartoon and anime, with its voice acting done originally in English but its design remarkably Japanese. “Neo Yokio” also has the troupes of a modern anime, including superpowers and an archnemesis. Since it was not originally produced in Japan, though, most viewers do not consider it to be an anime.
Despite the star studded cast of decidedly fantastic actors, the voice acting was incredibly lackluster. The appeal of “Neo Yokio” was supposed to reside in its monotonous humor spearheaded by Smith as the main character, but it failed to live up to such a feat. As both a Vampire Weekend and @arzE (Koenig’s online personality) fan, I can confidently say that the cynical and ridiculous humor was right up my alley. Sadly, the jokes, though funny, were delivered with such poor execution that I found myself forgetting to laugh. The most noteworthy example of this was the emergence of the “You don’t deserve this big Toblerone” meme, which appears funny when taken out of context, but in context was overlooked by most viewers.
With companies that produced the likes of “Attack on Titan” and “Haikyuu!!” leading the production of “Neo Yokio,” the production expectations for the show were considerably high. Unfortunately, “Neo Yokio” missed the mark by a mile — specifically in the boring scene composition and choppy animation. At times, it felt like the scene composition was attempting to imitate that of anime, especially when considering that storyboard artist Kazuhiro Furuhashi had worked on popular shows like Hunter x Hunter (1999) in the past. The animation fell short mostly in part to the constant stoic character expressions that were consistent even as voice actors attempted to express exaggerated emotion. The character designs closely resembled that of a 2008 DeviantArt drawing fashioned from a How to Draw Manga book, contributing to the feeling that “Neo Yokio” sought out to copy anime, but then ended up mocking it.
Despite claiming itself as a demon-slaying narrative, “Neo Yokio” the show fails to stay faithful to any one topic. The exorcist narrative is completely dropped by episode three, and the series begins to bounce from genre to genre, starting as a sort of action comedy but then shifting to social commentary. “Neo Yokio” grapples with issues involving capitalism versus communism, gender politics and the dangers of greed. This dip into social commentary starts off as a joke with a core of truth, but then unsuccessfully pushes to be taken seriously in later episodes.
While Koenig wanted to incorporate lectures on the realities of gender politics into his show, it was not done with precision or grace. In the episode called “The Hamptons Water Magic,” where Kaz’s friend, Lexy, is transformed into a woman, there are negative implications about trans women that perpetrate ludacris TERF (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist) stereotypes about trans lesbians. These harmful stereotypes, such as the idea that trans women are men trying to invade spaces for women or that they’re trying to hit on lesbians without consequences, seem to be encouraged by the actions of the characters. However, the writers do try to remedy their transphobic humor by having Lexy explain gender dynamics in the most simpleton way possible in the second half of the episode. Lexy’s explanation did not correct the wrongs of his or Kaz’s behavior, but instead left the audience convinced that TERF type ideology is acceptable.
Despite all the obvious flaws in writing, animation and acting, I could not help but to find myself fascinated by “Neo Yokio.” The series fluctuated between taking itself seriously and acting like a Western parody of anime. At times, I found myself laughing at a combination of the sheer terribleness and genuinely funny humor “Neo Yokio” presented. This mishmash of a series struck me to be like most abridged series I’ve watched, from the millennial humor to the poor lip syncing. So, in the end, the Jaden Smith anime was not as big of a disaster as I thought it would be. I’m unironically hoping to see a season two of the laughable disaster that is “Neo Yokio.”