Calling out New York City’s aristocracy is in vogue, even among the aristocrats. Thanks to the rise of the city’s own born-and-bred Donald Trump, not to mention a Great Recession caused by Wall Street greed, the conscience of the socially liberal cosmopolitan elite has never been heavier. The growing awareness of America’s seemingly intractable class divide has reportedly driven some in the upper echelons of New York society to hide their wealth by taking price tags off their purchases, so their household staff don’t have to see them.
All this creates an environment in which a satire of the city’s elite seems inevitable. Enter Neo Yokio, the recently released Netflix anime series created by Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig. Set in a fictional version of New York, it stars Jaden Smith, a very rich teen, as Kaz Kaan, a very rich teen who slays demons. Kaz comes from a class of exorcists that had been exiled from society until the demons showed up—now they make up the “magistocracy,” a not-so-subtle dig at the self-satisfied winners of the meritocracy. Kaz is accompanied everywhere by Charles, his mecha-butler (voiced by an extra-British Jude Law).
Smith delivers an exquisitely deadpan performance that serves to heighten his detached snobbery. At the end of the first episode, when Kaz’s team wins a field hockey match, he requests a celebratory song from his mecha-butler: “Charles, play Vivaldi’s concerto.” Charles clarifies, “In D minor?” To which Kaz emphatically replies, while smiling and holding his cheek in his hand, “No, in E flat major.”
Neo Yokio continuously pokes fun at the characters’ bubble of wealth and privilege. In one scene, Kaz and his rival as the city’s most sought-after bachelor, Arcangelo Corelli (Jason Schwartzman), find themselves standing in adjacent fitting rooms at a fancy suit store. Kaz is there because he has discovered that his tuxedo is midnight blue, which is inappropriate for an upcoming black-and-white ball. “Oh, Arcangelo, what, do you live here?” Kaz snarks when he realizes his nemesis is in the next room. “I wish I lived here,” Arcangelo whispers under his breath. “Me too,” Kaz replies.
But one of the questions surrounding Neo Yokio is whether or not the show actually is a parody. While the premise seems too outrageous to be anything but one big joke, the truth is that Ezra Koenig (a rock star) and Jaden Smith (the son of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith) are the Kaz Kaans of the world. When Shannon Liao of the Verge asked Netflix if Koenig had set out to make satire, a representative pointed her to Koenig’s production notes, in which he wrote, “When I think about when I really would’ve liked this show, it’s all different eras of my life.” And as Koenig told Pitchfork, “Almost everything in Neo Yokio is a loving tribute. Outside of maybe free-market capitalism, we’re not trying to drag anything.”
But watching the show, this is hard to believe. Kaz calls the neighborhood store clerk “store clerk,” doesn’t realize until episode four that his robot butler has a human pilot, and uses the slur “Hamptons hillbilly” to describe his cousin. The characters go to a club where the DJ “spins Gregorian house” and Kaz’s friends are deeply involved in inventing a “Caprese martini.” How could Neo Yokio be read as anything but pure, self-aware satire that is trying to drag everything about New York City elitism?
There are certainly cringe-worthy moments, such as one gag in which a character magically switches genders, or when the show falls into a tired anime trope in which all the female characters have the same body type. In these respects, Koenig’s show seems like so many others made by young white men.
But Neo Yokio’s six-episode arc mostly feels like an introduction to what could be a really groundbreaking show. There is an undercurrent of unrest in the city, most prominently when Kaz visits “the walled city,” or the slums of Neo Yokio. One scene features a Grand Prix race in the slums, giving viewers their first and only glimpse of poverty. The people who live in the walled city throw debris at Kaz’s bright red race-car and yell that they’re “dying down here.” Kaz begins to have a small awakening: “I’m starting to think Neo Yokio is not the greatest city in the world,” he says.
All of this happens in the last episode, and takes but a few seconds of running time. This brief, belated glimpse of the broader world is not an afterthought; in fact, it underscores just how air-tight their wealthy little bubble is. But that’s the only glimpse we get, leaving us wanting more episodes that would lift the curtain on Neo Yokio’s inequality and give the show broader purpose. “We live in such extreme times that I think we all have a responsibility to be aware of what’s happening and talk about it,” Koenig said in his Pitchfork interview. Of course, talk is cheap. But perhaps Koenig is just waking up himself.