Netflix’s original series Neo Yokio has some strong names in its roster. The series creator is Ezra Koenig, lead singer of Vampire Weekend, which makes good music. So does Jaden Smith, who stars in the series. So does Dev Hynes — aka Blood Orange, my favorite indie artist on Spotify — who composed original music for one episode. Some of the best anime storyboard artists are on this project as well: Kazuhiro Furuhashi, who worked on classic hits like Rurouni Kenshin and the more recent Hunter x Hunter, and Junji Nishimura, who worked on oldies but goodies like Urusei Yatsura. Jude Law and Susan Sarandon show up as voice actors. There’s a lot of talent involved in Neo Yokio, enough to make it sound awesome.
Yet, somehow, the show has no soul. It’s dead on arrival. Even the trailer gives a sense that something is off, that this isn’t going to be a good anime, or even a mediocre one. It’s something you might briefly watch at 4AM while surfing the cartoon channels, when all your aesthetic senses have been numbed by fatigue.
The setting — a rich, cosmopolitan city where luxury-obsessed demons haunt Chanel outfits and diamonds — sounds fine on paper. But if anybody at Netflix actually sat down to watch this travesty of an anime play out, they’d realize that 90 percent of each episode is Smith’s character, Kaz Kaan, complaining about his clothes and striving to be the most eligible bachelor in Neo Yokio, a twisted version of New York. He has demon-exorcism powers, but he wields them with an off-putting casual arrogance.
The dialogue is stilted, and Jaden Smith sounds dead inside. If Kaz isn’t whining, he’s going on in a monotone voice about how it sucks that he’s rich. He stands out in the star-studded cast of characters, most of whom are more expressive. Jude Law is totally wasted as a robot butler, and Susan Sarandon is one of the rare redeeming actors who steals scenes when she appears. Although Japanese voice acting tends to be overly conservative and stereotyped — with gruff, deep voices for macho men, and sweet, high-pitched voices for schoolgirls — actors still bring a lot of emotion and action-flavored onomatopoeia to their productions. Even famous Western voice actors like Tara Strong (Raven on Teen Titans, Timmy Turner on The Fairly Odd Parents) and Yuri Lowenthal (Ben on Ben 10, Sasuke Uchiha on Naruto) create particular voices for each character they embody. Not Smith. He uses his normal, unexcited speaking voice to play Kaz Kaan, and it sounds a lot like Smith’s Twitter account.
I Only Skate When I Have Emotional Trauma— Jaden Smith (@officialjaden) September 17, 2017
At first, it seems like Koenig is out to satirize high society, and shows like Skins or Gossip Girl. After all, its characters are like caricatures of Donald Trump and his circle of status-obsessed businessmen. When I asked a Netflix representative whether the show is meant as a parody, he directed me to Neo Yokio’s production notes, which suggest Koenig is completely serious and heartfelt about his subject matter: “When I think about when I really would’ve liked this show, it’s all different eras of my life — my tween years, my quarter-life crisis years…” Koenig says. “I think there are a lot of layers to what’s happening, so [viewers] can appreciate it in different ways.”
He also compares Kaz Kaan to Batman’s secret identity, Bruce Wayne. “Deep down, the part I really love is that he’s a guy who wants to hang out at the café with his friends. He wants to go shopping. He’s heartbroken and dealing with his inner world,” says Koenig.
More’s the pity, because Koenig could have easily committed to making a satire. Neo Yokio almost feels like one anyway. But at heart, it’s a sincere shopping spree between robots and demons, one that would have been elevated by self-awareness and a little arch remove. We’re in a perfect political and socioeconomic climate and time in history to take a mocking look at the perils of conspicuous consumption and status obsession. And what better platform is there than a multicultural animated series designed for an international audience?
Without an underlying layer of satire, Neo Yokio doesn’t have much, and the initial glamor of the backdrops and talent involved wears off fast. It has awful voice acting, and a pointless, predictable story that’s only surprising because it’s so willing to hit the bottom of the barrel. Its references to designers, philosophy, and literature feel pretentious rather than enlightening. Ridiculous lines include: “She just moved here, she don’t even know what a chopped cheese is,” and “Yo, we gotta teach these old-money fuckboys a lesson.” Contrary to Koenig’s comments about incorporating different parts of his life to entertain a wide audience, Neo Yokio’s best audience is just Koenig himself.
Neo Yokio comes to Netflix on September 22nd. It’s a six-episode series.