Film / TV

neo yokio is a powerful use of satire to highlight the need for intersectionality

October 3, 2017
676 Picks
By Bryan Epps, AFROPUNK Contributor

Netflix dropped Ezra Koenig’s anime inspired series Neo Yokio on September 21. Twitter went berserk and I had to watch. The show’s main character is Kaz Kaan, voiced by the cultural ambassador of millennials Jaden Smith.

In a nutshell, the series is an awkward, short and politically ambitious 6-episode series prompting viewers to question everything that is good about Manhattan on the first day of spring.

As a native of the New York metropolitan area, I tend to believe that there is nothing better than being in Manhattan at the start of springtime. On that day, health-conscious folks jog with extra zeal, scenic rooftop bars are sure to be vibrant and everyone starts making plans for the first trip to the beach. Depicting the vibrant social and cultural life of NYC, and bringing to the screen the overwhelming energy of a NYC spring day, is no easy feat.

Set in 2017 as a modernistic version of New York, Neo Yokio’s first episode opens with scenes from a promotional ad produced by the city’s Board of Tourism. The commercial’s narrator states “New Yokio is the greatest city in the world…New Yokio is a diverse labyrinth of cultural and architectural innovation” yet in small print the add features a disclaimer that reads for “promotional use only.” No irony there.

Immediately we know that Koenig is not playing. He is aiming to strike at the prestige and values of Western society. So many adult cartoons tend to hint at systemic injustice through subtle narrative, but Neo Yokio is less careful. He has no fu*ks to give.

Kaz is a magistocrat who is part of a revered class of exorcists with the power to defeat the demons of society. They are affectionately called rat catchers and disparagingly called neo riche. In his case, his wealth is dependent on using his magic to earn income for the family.

In episode 1, titled “The Sea Beneath 14th Street,” lower Manhattan is flooded, presumably by climate change, yet the wealthy are able to maintain residence in their property due to technological advances. Viewers are encouraged to imagine a world where humans can thrive despite our commitment to hyper-capitalism and unquenchable consumption. In the series, Koeing fucks that lofty wish up.

In the same episode, Kaz meets his pimp-ism Aunt Agatha (Susan Sarandon) for lunch. She assigns him the task of exorcising a demon from his low key love interest, Neo Yokio’s “it girl’  Helena Saint Tessero (Tavi Gevinson). Kaz who unknowingly enslaves a human (Sadie) that operates his mecha (robot), named Charles (Jude Law) is resistant to work. He is also a young bachelor fresh out of an elite prep school obsessed with sports, designer suits and the ranking of his public persona.

Auntie makes the final push to get Kaz into the family business by stating  “you can’t just drink americanos and watch tennis all day.” From this encounter it becomes clear that the demons Kaz’s has been taught to concern himself with are those that conflict with his material wealth.

Even though our introduction to his journey starts with greed, it is awesome viewing him slowly learn from Helena (and his many adventures) that his true assignment in life is to determine what love is and how evil actually operates.

The show has its share of problems, but I’d say the  failings of the series mirror our own failings as a society. In episode 4,  “Hampton’s Water Magic,” for example, Kaz and his besties Gottlieb and Lexy (Desus Nice and The Kid Mero) take a trip to the Hampton’s to check on his deceased uncle Albert’s house. Still living in the home is Kaz’s first cousin, Jeffery. Unlike Kaz, Jeffrey is vulgar and spoiled to the point that he only uses his magical powers to maintain the property’s infinity pool. A moment that shows us that too few of us use our privilege to benefit society.

Like the Boondocks and the Chappelle Show, this satire’s true purpose is to disrupt, and not inspire, laughs. It is an attempt to introduce viewers to issues in intersectional equity including the rights of workers, gender nonconforming people, animals, among others. Koeing does not do these issues justice in the series, but neither do we in real life. And this, I believe, is part of his aim.

Through Neo Yokio he is asking viewers to question the norms of our society and our trivial attempts at reforming them.

In the final episode, we see everything that is important to Kaz has been repurposed. This symbolism is the show’s greatest achievement. With a season that is roughly an hour of content we witness Kaz as he begins to question the value of his socio-economic standing and how he uses his magic. An amazing feat considering the production which marries openness of American satire with the flatness of Japanese anime. The challenge for Koeing  and Smith will be to get viewers to question themselves as Kaz continues his journey