The new Netflix show depicts New York City's problems in their most extreme, playfully modeling how the city shouldn’t be.
Imagine, if you can, a city starkly divided by class, living in constant fear of terrorism. An out-of-town pop star is the official cultural ambassador, and climate change leaves much of the city underwater. Such is life in Neo Yokio, the setting of Netflix’s new anime show by the same name, created by Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig.
Following a long tradition of allegorical cities in anime—think Metropolis, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Akira—“Neo Yokio” provides a setting that is finely attuned to the issues facing contemporary New York City. Infused with ironic pop culture commentary and adorably twisted narratives, the show’s relationship to its city forces viewers to ask: How can New York avoid becoming any more like Neo Yokio than it already is?
The show’s protagonist, Kaz Kaan (Jaden Smith), is an angsty “magistocrat,” who uses his magical powers to protect the city from its scourge of demons—malevolent, supernatural beings intent on wreaking havoc on the good people of Neo Yokio. The main arc of the show depicts Kaz’s evolving relationship with popular fashion blogger Helena St. Tessero (Tavi Gevinson), who becomes a radical crusader against materialism and economic inequality. Most of the time, though, Kaz is preoccupied with the absurd entanglements of his demon-slaying and his illustrious social life as one of Neo Yokio’s most eligible bachelors.
One such incident at the Met’s black and white ball involves a pop star named Sailor Pellegrino (Katie Mixon), who also happens to be Neo Yokio’s “cultural ambassador.” Earlier in the episode, on a Taxi TV, Kaz watches Sailor extoll the city’s virtues in a heavy Southern accent that clearly identifies her as an out-of-towner: “Why do I love Neo Yokio? How about that food? Can’t forget the fashion! But most of all, the people!” Anyone who visited New York circa 2014 will catch this nod to Taylor Swift’s stint as New York’s Global Ambassador for Tourism, which included Taxi TV appearances and the song-vertisement “Welcome to New York.”
But the foibles of a tourism campaign are only the lightest fare lampooned by “Neo Yokio.” Some of the show’s most beautiful animations depict the neighborhoods below 14th Street, which exist completely underwater. To reach, say, The Village, whose walkups and brownstones have air locks on their front doors, Neo Yokians must travel in a glass bubble gondola that gracefully passes through the triumphal arch in Washington Square Park. These fanciful scenes call to mind a permanent Sandy scenario; for real-life New York, Neo Yokio remains just a superstorm away.
Sea level rise is just one of the existential threats complicating the charmed lives of these uber-rich characters. When Kaz exorcises Helena in the first episode, the demon possessing her proclaims, “Prepare to meet the dark forces that lie beneath your precious city!”As the season continues, it becomes clear that Neo Yokio’s demons reflect the persistent threat of terrorism in New York and cities around the world. Everyone from the associate curator of the Met to the headmaster of Kaz’s elite prep school lives in constant fear of senseless, supernatural violence. A newscaster describes one incident, which notably didn’t involve any human casualties, as “a deliberate act of terrorism, most likely demonic in origin.”
The show’s take on terrorism isn’t exactly straightforward, however. Neo Yokio’s obsession with with the threat of demons also reflects the way terrorism has historically been used to distract from other important issues. "There's a darkness in Neo Yokio and it's not the demons," Helena tells Kaz at one point.
The six-episode season sees the protagonist gradually becoming conscious of the extremely unjust world he lives in, largely through Helena’s prodding. Meanwhile, everyone else in his world continuously reinforces the status quo, in a classic manifestation of privilege. "Neo Yokio doesn't concern itself with the safety of its slum denizens," robo-butler Charles (Jude Law), tells Kaz as he speeds through the crowded streets of Long Island Walled City during the Neo Yokio Grand Prix. “I’m starting to think Neo Yokio is not the greatest city in the world,” Kaz replies.
An homage to Kowloon Walled City, a now demolished neighborhood in Hong Kong known for extreme poverty and violence, Long Island Walled City is clearly a place of desperation and alienation. Residents throw bottles at Kaz as he whizzes by, while crowds everywhere else cheer the racers on. The stark contrast between Long Island Walled City and the glamorous habitats of the show’s main characters echoes the inequality Bill de Blasio described as a “tale of two cities” during his first mayoral campaign.
But as in real life, progress is hard won. Proximity to the struggles of less fortunate Neo Yokians doesn’t prevent the city’s leisure class from continuing its utter domination, and Kaz remains anxious and aimless. The scars of terror are undone in a rather soulless style that might seem familiar to some viewers. Life in Neo Yokio goes on as before.
The final scene of the season seems to suggest that another is on the way. Perhaps, instead of providing an example of what New York shouldn’t be, season two will present some magical solutions to New York’s real problems.