Review

by Mike Toole,

Synopsis:
Neo-Yokio

"Neo Yokio... is the greatest city in the world. It is the most populous, urban agglomeration in North America, but its prestige does not merely stem from its size. From Bronx Prefecture to the aquatic elements of Battery Park, Neo Yokio is a diverse labyrinth of cultural and architectural innovation. No wonder we play host to many of the planet's most prestigious events. Of course, whenever a city becomes the envy of the world, problems are bound to arise..."

So says Charles, state of the art mecha and high-tech butler to Kaz Kaan, Neo Yokio's foremost exorcist and top-ranked eligible bachelor. Kaz is a “magistocrat,” a well-heeled wizard who specializes in exorcisms, but he's constantly distracted from his demon-hunting by his obsessions with fashion, field hockey, and romance. Will he live up to his title and be the best-looking, most desirable, and most skilled demon hunter in all of Neo Yokio?

Review:

They finally did it, folks: they animated Jaden Smith's Twitter account.

That was what I thought after hearing Smith's character, Kaz, unwind the first of many bizarre pronouncements, in a bid to make conversation with his field hockey buddies Gottlieb and Lexy. “I can barely navigate the hellish vortex between breakfast and dinner,” he remarks, “let alone the labyrinth of the field hockey field.” You can practically hear the lack of punctuation. Smith's goofy, exaggerated dryness is supposed to make his character, a pink-haired fashion-conscious wizard, relatable, but there's just something off about his delivery. There's something off about everyone's delivery in Neo Yokio, though. Hell, there's something off about everything in the damn show, starting off with the weak, rubbery character designs, the stiff, unfinished-looking animation, the unimaginative backgrounds and uninspired acting, the stilted writing, all the way to the music, which comes off like a temp soundtrack that never got replaced with any much-needed original pieces.

Still, there's a fascination to watching Neo Yokio—as I took it in, I kept not believing that it was real, that it actually got made. I had a hard time dealing with the notion that the show's production team came up with a series that takes so much of its humor from high-end luxury-goods related one-liners. In general, Neo Yokio has a fascination with luxury and pretension; the show opens with Kaz miserably destroying his ex-girlfriend's gift of a Cartier watch, before building a later episode around the hunt for a demon that inhabits a pricey Damien Hirst curio. Later, Kaz will pursue the monster into one of those puzzling brown Arnold Böcklin 60s fantasy-novel-title-font paintings. Luxury names and brands are tossed around willy-nilly, with one recurring gag about those giant Toblerone chocolate bars that you buy your friends at the airport gift shop after you realize you forgot to get them a proper souvenir. Even Kaz's aunt and broker rolls around in a Rolls Royce Phantom, which would be pretty cool if it looked or moved anything like an actual Phantom, much less an actual car. I'm kinda spoiled by all of that Lupin the 3rd Part 2 I've watched; one of the things that show does right is having prop designers who can accurately recreate luxury cars of the time period. Here, they just kinda rushed through it, just like the story and characterization.

What's the story? Well, Kaz hunts a couple of demons, but his powers are never really explained or delineated. He professes to love field hockey, but is only shown playing it once. He exorcises Helena St. Tessero, an old hookup who uses her influence as a fashion blogger to upend the city's social order. He takes a bunch of dumb jobs at the behest of his aunt, and squabbles with his rival, even though he has no obvious reason to fight with—okay, actually, his rivalry makes sense, because the rival in question, Arcangelo Corelli, is an amusingly snide dick. Still, Neo Yokio is a show without any credited writers, and without a director. The lack of substance leaves a yawning, howling void.

Let me get back to complaining about the acting. The show employs real-life fashionistas like Tavi Geninson and Alexa Chung to play Kaz's romantic interests, which is a terrible idea because these ladies are not actors, or at least not voice actors. The voice cast in general is uniformly awful, except for the Kid Mero, who infuses his character Lexy with a lot of fun, lively bravado, and Jason Schwatzman, who is his charmingly puckish self as Arcangelo. But even big names like Jude Law and Peter Serafinowicz just seem to be phoning it in. Also, when I say “bad acting,” I don't just mean voice performances—visually, none of the characters move or act right in this thing! Like, you'll keep noticing that the characters faces, body language, and gaits don't match up with their voice performances. This is particularly obvious with Schwartzman, whose character looks like a DeviantArt version of one of the Utena student council members.

The character acting is just one of a whole host of major animation and production issues. Most anime fans are drawn to the medium because of its cinematic style, because of an almost intangible “wow” factor. The original Astroboy had it. Pokemon had it. The show that most comes to my mind as a broad thematic match for Neo Yokio's slanted and enchanted version of New York City, Blood Blockade Battlefront, has that “wow” factor in spades. But there's no wow factor here. In six episodes of TV animation, there's not even a single moment of truly dynamic action, nothing that's boldly visually inventive. I'd say there's only four or five cuts of animation in this whole show that don't just look like crap. If you want a good visual indicator of the show's quality, just look at Kaz's robot butler, Charles. Charles looks and moves like an unpainted Gundam model kit that had just enough of its pieces sanded down so that Sunrise wouldn't sue them for copying Gundam. The result is something that just looks like a heap of spare parts, with nothing to distinguish it.

There are a few fun choices and intriguing ideas in this pile of wreckage. We learn, via a funeral, that Kaz's family is Eastern Orthodox. In a lamely twisted version of New York that still has the twin towers to let you know that this is an alternate reality, we still get to see a district modeled after Shinjuku Golden Gai, and the notion of Lower Manhattan being submerged but still lively thanks to a network of underwater tubeways and submarines is kind of delightful. One of the show's big fights is a cross-city race, featuring the Guggenheim Museum's distinctive atrium transformed into an F1 track. These are a handful of neat ideas, but once again, the execution is missing.

The music and dialogue is another point that's mostly just infuriating. The show's opening is courtesy of Orlevsky, to let you know that you're watching something fancy. The first scene of the first episode begins with Bach's “Concerto in F Major Largo” by the Swinger Sisters, to let you know you're seeing something refined but a bit silly and campy. Neo Yokio's national anthem is William Blake's “Jerusalem,” and fight scenes are underpinned by tunes by the likes of Mingus. One of the episodes' end credits song is Radiohead's “Creep,” only sung in German or Dutch, I don't even remember which. Charles' speech at the funeral of Kaz's uncle is Kipling's “Cold Iron.” These choices aren't really meant to be momentous, but only to seem momentous. Along with that, there's a little parade of silly anime references, like a fashion item called the Tuxedo Mask (no prize for guessing what that looks like), an elderly mecha pilot who looks almost exactly like a prematurely-aged Rei Ayanami, right down to the plugsuit, and a clunky, episode-long Ranma ½ gag. I'd go as far as comparing one of the show's later femme fatales, Mila, to a Totally Spies character, but I feel like this comparison would somehow diminish Totally Spies.

Productions like Neo Yokio are why I greet the news of every “big-time east-west Hollywood anime collaboration!” with a certain amount of trepidation. Just think of the Marvel anime—most of it's third-rate, because the talent just isn't there for it. It's much the same for Neo Yokio. We're told that this is somehow a collaboration with Studio DEEN, who provided storyboards for the series. I wouldn't have believed that Neo Yokio even had storyboards, because none of the shots make sense and there's no sense of time passing, but there are storyboard revisionists named in the credits, so I guess there must have been storyboards. Character designer Hirofumi Morimoto has a few bona fide credits under his belt, but most of the rest of the animation staff are capable but workmanlike shemps from MOI Animation. One of Morimoto's fellow designers from the Japan side uses the alias “Okadochigai,” which is a slangy, fun way of saying that you're really frustrated. I'll bet you were, buddy! One of the production execs on board is Production I.G.'s own Mitsuhisa Ishikawa. He can go ahead and put Neo Yokio right there on the shelf next to Jin-Roh.

This show was created for Fox's now-defunct ADHD animation programming initiative - but when all was said and done, it never aired. So, Netflix got it. In the wake of Neo Yokio's portentous, absurd trailer, I saw a lot of hand-wringing about how this show was beneath Netflix's standards, and showed that they didn't take anime seriously. Folks, it's common sense: Netflix got this series for one reason only, because it was a TV show with some notable celebrities attached—one that they could tout as yet another Original, something no other network or service has. Just like House of Cards! Or maybe more like that Richie Rich show from a couple of years back.

The most interesting co-productions have thrived on strong creative partnerships – The King Kong Show, the first real American-Japanese co-pro, thrived on the fusion of Jack Davis's iconic, swingin' designs and Toei's dynamic, economical animation. A decade or two later, Bernard Deyries' glitzy, exalted storytelling meshed beautifully with Studio Nue's impeccable design sensibilities to give the world Ulysses 31. But as I've detailed several times at this point, there isn't really any strong, proven talent on either end of the seesaw here. One of the designers is William Gibbons, so I guess you could accurately say that Neo Yokio is from the same people who brought you Space Dandy, but since Production I.G. is involved, it's also from the same people who brought you Abunai Sisters.

A few times across Neo Yokio's interminable six episodes, something about Smith's wry delivery shines through for a moment, or a bit of dialogue draws a laugh rather than a scowl, or a joke actually lands. It leaves me feeling that, if this show had just been better-written, maybe by a totally different writing team and if it had looked better, and had been animated better, maybe by a completely different studio, it might've been a huge hit (and a completely different show). But we're stuck with Neo Yokio, and as mind-bendingly awful as it is, I am utterly fascinated. It's weird enough that this made it to pilot, but they made a whole 6-episode season of this thing! Neo Yokio is going to be savaged by fans around the globe, but the show's very existence is so strange that you won't be able to look away. I think that animation lovers all over the globe are going to love the crap out of hatewatching this, for at least an episode or two. But is Neo Yokio a valuable, interesting, or even marginally competent series? The answer is no.

Grade:
Production Info:
Overall : F
Story : F
Animation : D
Art : F
Music : F

+ It's astonishing that something like this got finished and released to the public.
It's still nigh-unwatchable codswallop.

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