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‘Neo Yokio’ Review: This Futuristic Netflix Story is The Greatest Robot Butler Anime of 2017

Born of a very specific set of passions and experiences, Ezra Koenig's beguiling anime tribute is more to be marveled at than related to.

Neo Yokio Netflix Season 1 Robot

“Neo Yokio”

Netflix

In the broad scope of anime history, it would be inaccurate (and maybe even a little unfair) to call “Neo Yokio” an unprecedented series. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a batch of six TV episodes with quite the same subject matter overlap as the latest Netflix animated effort. Starring the voice talents of Jaden Smith and executive produced by Ezra Koenig, “Neo Yokio” is a hyperspecific blend of neo-futurist metropolises, prep school drama, and high-society intrigue, all with a dash of field hockey and weekend jaunts to the Hamptons. The result is a bespoke anime that’s confounding at times, but always in search of new layers to its insulated universe.

Wisely, “Neo Yokio” doesn’t spend more than a narrated intro explaining the origins of its title city, an alternate futurist New York of sorts. Instead it revels in a slew of off-kilter details in the life of Kaz Kaan (Smith), an upwardly mobile eligible bachelor in Neo Yokio’s social hierarchy.

Each episode of the series finds Kaz struggling with the very narrow set of problems that blanket his life: bumping into ex-girlfriends, finding dates to a gala at the Met, juggling his life with the momentary demands of being the face of an upstart craft cocktail fad. Oh, and he’s also the direct descendant of a lineage of demon-fighters that help to maintain order in this version of civilization where some of the wealthiest citizens live in the submerged portions of the borough.

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At a certain point about halfway through the first season’s run, the series switches from a fascination with details of this alt-Upper West Side and settles into something more episodic (and as a result, more satisfying). It’s fun to play along with the ever-expanding glossary that “Neo Yokio” entertains early on (Charcuterie! Damien Hirst! Bourgeoisie!), but once those high-brow bona fides are earned, digging deeper into these characters makes for a more satisfying experience.

All the way up and down the voice cast list, everyone in on this project seems to be having the time of their lives, leaning into the finer points (and respective absurdities) of these characters. Desus Nice and The Kid Mero are a blast as Kaz’s good friends Gottlieb and Lexy, the eventual progenitors of that aforementioned cocktail craze. Richard Ayoade and Susan Sarandon each lovingly dive into multiple characters with a palpable liveliness. Even as the melancholy teen blogger deity Helena St. Tessero, Tavi Gevinson seems to be having fun winking at her own rise through the style writer ranks.

Jason Schwartzman also solidifies himself as one of TV and film’s most delightful on-screen assholes, here voicing Kaz’s frequent nemesis Arcangelo Corelli. You can almost hear the faint smirk in every bit of his drive-by elitism, however infrequent he pops up.

But the pinnacle of these memorable side characters is Charles the mecha-butler, voiced impeccably by the inimitable Jude Law. As the gentle, impartial voice of Kaz’s personal assistant and occasional mode of transportation, Charles also provides the occasional handy information dump to help viewers get acquainted with the city’s quirks. Plopping a 15-foot Transformer in the middle of the angsty adventures of a young trendsetter and letting Law be the literal voice of reason is one of the series’ smartest decisions.

Neo Yokio Netflix Jaden Smith

“Neo Yokio”

Netflix

Though over time he becomes more comfortable as a leading character, Kaz’s fleeting day-to-day problems are never quite as compelling as the sumptuous world that lies right beyond his preoccupations. Smith doesn’t have the same firm grasp on the elevated performance style that the rest of the cast does, which is often a minor hindrance to the overall feel of the show. With a bevy of fascinating characters perpetually in his wake, Kaz feels like the character in Neo Yokio that’s least satisfying as the show’s main focus.

But even if the focus of “Neo Yokio” wavers from episode to episode, it’s hard to argue that this show doesn’t come from a specific, guiding set of fascinations. For as dense as Kaz’s day-to-day life might seem in print, “Neo Yokio” has a lived-in feel, as if every part of this fantastical trip through a world of fashion idols and demonic possession has a very specific analog in 21st century New York, whether from Koenig’s personal experiences or a finely-tuned imagination.

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For a show created by Koenig, the former frontman for Vampire Weekend, there’s also a specific tonal attention paid to the classical cues that soundtrack Kaz’s successes and failures. Bach, Vivaldi, and Ravel all play thematic and atmospheric roles in helping the audience lock in with the rhythms of Neo Yokio. The show’s best joke (which we wouldn’t dare spoil here) also involves the word “Gregorian.”

When the show moves on to more satirical ground, there’s an overriding sense that Neo Yokio is far more of a utopian setting than the jarring environments of the Hollywoo of “BoJack Horseman” or the Brooklyn of “Search Party.” It isn’t so much taking aim at the upper crust of New York society as it is trying to make it mildly relatable to audiences who’ve never set foot inside of Bergdorf’s.

“Neo Yokio” also seems to realize that this fascination with futuristic field hockey and Chanel jackets is already coming from a universe all its own. Whether interest for the series will exist outside of those who share that same innate institutional knowledge remains to be seen. But as a visual playground and an assembly of colorful compatriots, “Neo Yokio” carries its own singular delights. No robot butler required, but it’s the kind of show that’ll make you wish you had one.

Grade: B

“Neo Yokio” premieres September 22 on Netflix.

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