Some thoughts on Neo Yokio

A few weeks ago, I finally sat down to watch Neo Yokio: Pink Christmas, a Netflix show created by Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend.

During my undergraduate years, I spent a not insignificant amount of time in an office reeking of human fluids intimidated by people who actually knew how to write about pop culture. Nonetheless, I would like to share a few words about this show.

What other people think of Neo Yokio

We live in an age of populism and media bubbles. Which is why it’s important to listen to diverse views and opinions.

Here’s one I found from a YouTube channel called “The Cosmonaut Variety Hour”. What does this guy have to say about Neo Yokio: Pink Christmas? 

To avoid inadvertently providing this video with more advertising dollars, I have extracted some key claims that the video makes about the show.

Neo Yokio surprisingly hasn’t been dropped by Netflix, because I guess it’s cheap to make and there were enough pseudo-intellectual reviews praising it for being some genius postmodern critique. I already talked about how that was all bullshit.

[00:08-00:19]

The more I thought about “pseudo-intellectual reviews”, quite unironically, the more appreciation I gained about how devastatingly efficient this term is. The only jargon that I can think of as crisp as “pseudo-intellectual reviews” is “dead weight loss” (from microeconomics).

And it’s so easy to condemn anything as a “pseudo-intellectual review”: the culture section of The New Yorker; the formerly graded writing section on the SAT; this very blog; the multi-million view industry on YouTube dedicated to analyzing anything and everything about anime that “The Cosmonaut Variety Hour” is unapologetically part of.

But why does this guy want Neo Yokio to die?

My problem with Neo Yokio is that it always feels like this is the first draft they came up with. It always kind of feels like the story in the script had just thrown together without a care in the world [sic].

[01:05-01:16]

To be fair, in the first season of Neo Yokio, Kaz Kaan (voiced by Jaden Smith), the protagonist, didn’t really do much. Kaz is a pink-haired fuerdai who, under his Aunt Agatha’s stern eye, struggles to take his family business of exorcizing random demons seriously. He lives in an anime New York where people have onigiri and ocha for snacks. He and his friends a rivalry (?) with some white boys with salmon shorts led by his arch-nemesis, Arcangelo (voiced by Jason Schwartzman). And, as a giant Bachelor Board in Times Square reminds him everyday, he’s seriously single.

But take off those hate-colored lenses and the nuggets embedded in the show start to spring up at you like bits of a giant Toblerone bar. Helena Saint Tessero (voiced by Tavi Gevinson), who Kaz has an anime nose bleed over in the second episode, is an unapologetic satire of Taylor Swift and her excesses. Imagine Anna Wintour’s face if someone actually waltzed up into her Met Gala (sans invitation, obviously) with bandages and a hospital gown. And many people in the art world do treat Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God as a living, breathing manifestation of Satan on Earth. It deserves to be destroyed: and it does meet its well-deserved fate on the show.

The first season was harmless fun, but Pink Christmas marks a darker turn for the show.

Most of the time you’re just going to be looking at characters who are talking about shit that doesn’t matter.

[01:20-01:26]

“Shit that doesn’t matter” is synonymous with liberal arts degrees and millennial anxieties. Which is also the central focus of Pink Christmas.

How does Pink Christmas a darker turn for the show? One character we meet is Herbert (voiced by Richard Ayoade). He is a sales clerk who works in a downtown department store called Bergdorf Goodman. The battered one-room apartment he lives in, which we see from the get go, clearly shows that he is in no position to buy anything from his place of employment (not even Helena’s Vetements hospital gown, which fetches for $2,000 on the sales floor). And he hustles at his job to shop on Kaz’s behalf for a Secret Santa competition that is to take place between Neo Yokio’s most eligible bachelors. He loves, or is made to love, or has no choice but to love his job, despite how insignificant he is to his customers, or to his fellow colleagues, or to anyone for that matter: it’s hinted that he knows has no one in the city to celebrate with at Christmas. And when a wave of “fuck material goods” sweeps the city, he is the first and only employee to be let go. He hands in his employee ID and bow-tie to his supervisor. And soon, he stands on the department store roof, and drops to his death. And when you extrapolate Herbert to his logical conclusion and overlay it to our world, you see the millennial experience. Moving to a big city and not knowing enough. Making you and the body corporate that employs you into one flesh. Not fitting into a job you don’t like. Not understanding why old hags in your office are so malicious towards you. Getting hired and fired by a video screen.

Is any of this “shit that doesn’t matter”?

Not to mention the product placement in this season is way more obnoxious, though I kind of give this a free pass, because the show is mostly about material goods so product placement actually does make sense in the story.

[02:13-02:24]

It’s funny that “The Cosmonaut Variety Hour” decides to mention product placement in Pink Christmas, because he doesn’t get it.

The Secret Santa competition requires Neo Yokio’s most eligible bachelors to out-gift each other in a lavish display of masturbatory materialism. But Arcangelo turns the tables on the competition and decides to gift Kaz (and Ezra Koenig fans) the gift of song. He tells Neo Yokio, on his podcast, that “our gross capitalist culture tells us that we are the things we buy, but honestly, fuck that. Our generation doesn’t want to buy things. We want to buy experiences.” Indeed, no millennial does: at least not in Hong Kong, where it’s impossible to own either a house or a car, and we would rather escape from Chinese capitalist hell by making frequent trips to Japanese capitalist hell. Against a dark backdrop with an uncanny resemblance to Alex Jones’ own show, Arcangelo then sells the city with his own capitalist machination: his very own Christmas Spectacular in Radio City Music Hall. No wonder Allison Keene on Collider writes that “Neo Yokio has one of the most realistic understandings of modern media and nauseatingly shallow “you are a brand” trends that dominate the culture.”

Which brings me to Aunt Angelique. “The Cosmonaut Variety Hour” has some choice words for her:

You might think they may use this character to deliver some sort of moral or any different concepts into the story, right? Nope, she doesn’t fucking do anything.

[02:51-02:58]

Aunt Angelique is the one and only family member who visits from Paris for Christmas. She’s the OG hater of material goods, untainted by Arcangelo’s fake opportunism and the general Gatsbyesque air of the city.

So what does “The Cosmonaut Variety Hour” want Aunt Angelique to do? Exorcize another Damien Hirst skull?

Unfortunately, Aunt Angelique gives us more than that. She knows that Kaz is full of old money shit, but is generous enough to realize that people in the twenties should be able to do what they want. And unlike the “I don’t think you deserve a big Toblerone” Kaz Kaan in the first season, the Kaz Kaan in Pink Christmas has clear desires for human connection. He wants to have a nice Christmas Eve dinner with his aunts. But the family business comes first and Aunt Agatha sends Kaz off to exorcize the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree: “It’s triple our usual rate!” When Kaz returns, he finds his place devastated by a fight between the aunts. Aunt Angelique is on the red eye back to Paris. Kaz exclaims something that he might not have in the first season: “She’s the only family we have left, Aunt Agatha.”

Perhaps smoking on a sad cigarette alone in a dark and dirty room is the ultimate fate of all “capitalist mercenaries” like Aunt Agatha. She’ll do anything for money, even if it means the high-dollar exorcisms she charges on the hour ends up killing everyone in Neo Yokio.

If there’s no bigger moral struggle than realizing whether you want to be a capitalist mercenary or not in your twenties, I don’t know what is.

Some people think that the point is that there is no point, but again, that’s not the case because the creator’s have stated so.

[03:04-03:11]

At the end of his video, “The Cosmonaut Variety Hour” points us to other shows that he’d rather watch for the holidays, like Devilman Crybaby and Castlevania.

So this is the root of the problem. I see Neo Yokio as a TV show. He sees Neo Yokio as an anime. Are we just talking past each other?

What is anime?

The answer is simple. It just means ‘animation (アニメショーン)’. And because it’s cool to do so in Japanese, words get arbitrary abbreviations. Hence ‘anime (アニメ)’.

The online version of the Oxford English Dictionary says that anime is a “style of Japanese film and television animation, typically aimed at adults as well as children.” The speech synthesis function on the site tells me to pronounce the word as an-ne’h-may, like ‘aunt’. An Anglicized pronunciation.

But what about people who say ah-ni-may, with a high ‘a’ à la katakana? You know, the authentically Japanese way? What sort of expectations do they bring to anime? How do their attitudes alienate people to the point where it’s normative to express your love for Parks and Recreation but not My Hero Academia to a person you’ve just met?

According to me around three years ago:

Granted, everyone has the right to be obsessive about what they love. Fandoms around Star Wars, or Star Trek, or Fallout, or Friends, or Harry Potter exist, and so do extensive databases about each and every detail from the books, games, films, and TV shows. But there seems to be a hierarchy of fandoms. Dressing up as either Chewbacca or Mario, or both, would be completely acceptable for Halloween. I’m not so sure if you would get the same reception from your friends if you dressed as your favorite anime character.

What do ah-ni-may lovers want? Do they want stunning visuals? Great soundtracks? Splendid character development? Moral values? Smooth voice actors in Japanese and in English? What does it say about anime fans when the most-liked reviews on MyAnimeList (a database to keep track of all the shit you watch) go something like “The symbol of hope & the symbol of victory / One is introvert & the other is mad / And both are always in each other’s memory / They were friends in their childhood / But both turned to be an obstacle in each other’s road”? Is it not a coincidence that these are also the discrete criticisms that “The Cosmonaut Variety Hour” has for Neo Yokio: that Jaden Smith and friends have drab voices, that the character are not likable, that the characters aren’t developed, that “this show looks like ass”, that there is some world building but rather than a critique of capitalism and social media created by people who arguably have way more clout than any of us on Instagram, they would rather have had Kaz Kaan actually fight some goddamn demons so we know all about how his powers work and where are they from, because “a story about a powerful wizard who’s also a rich selfish fuck boy could actually be a really good premise for a show even if the animation was bad”, and that because the show is heavily based on inside jokes about some distant New York subculture that is so removed from their everyday realities the the very fact that Netflix had the money (and of course Netflix has the money to throw around at vanity projects that are poor excuses for Netflix Originals!) to hire their favorite Japanese directors from the mecca of Japanese animation studios—Production I.G. and Studio Deen—and have Kazuhiro Furuhashi, the reincarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ, go from Rurouni Kenshin to make storyboards from some “first draft” shit where the characters don’t “fucking do anything”: well, no wonder Neo Yokio had such a chilly reception.

I get it. People are passionate. But, for example, a lot of people are also passionate about other things. Like Get Out. But no one talks nitpicks on the color of the bingo cards used in Jordan Peele’s film. You would rather enjoy its holistic horror.

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AnimeJapan 2016: an intellectual property feast at the Toho Animation booth.

To digress, in the past few days my law school friends have ridiculed me for thinking about doing another trip to Tokyo in March, notwithstanding the exorbitant airfare out of Hong Kong International Airport. What I really wanted to do (other than go meet my friends and some cool art shows like Roppongi Crossing 2019 at the Mori Art Museum) is to pop over to AnimeJapan 2019, an annual consumer and industry event that takes place in around March every year. It’s big business for all the stakeholders involved and a rare chance to see expensive intellectual property being hung up on giant walls and printed on life-sized cardboard cutouts. I went in 2016 when I was on exchange at Waseda University, and I’ve been itching to go back.

But rational thinking quickly takes away any of the fun I hope to have on this hypothetical (and expensive) trip. If I actually had to go to AnimeJapan, I would have to line up for hours outside Tokyo Big Site just to get in. Since it’s happening on a weekend everyone from Tokyo will also be in Odaiba trying to get in. Once inside, all I will probably do is try to weave through the crowds to capture photos, take freebies, and walk around aimlessly. I will see lines of people who have waited for 5 hours at one  booth trying to snap up limited edition items from their favorite show. Because a company has decided to sprinkle over anime fairy dust over such intrinsically valueless items as plastic folders and can badges.

Anime, after all, is big business. It is also brutal, supported by a huge network of poorly paid voice actors and animators. Flip open any anime magazine in Japan and you see ads for  Every show wants to be a franchise, and your attention. A manga volume multiplies into thirty, and then into novels, CDs, soundtracks, anime series, voice actor performances you can only get a chance to see by lottery, exclusive Blu-ray specials, keychains and mugs only at one particular Bandai Namco store, magazine covers containing exclusive illustrations and interviews, bonus stickers that you can only get at the Ikebukuro Animate store, and so on. It is an exhausting act of performative consumption. As a result, we become capitalist mercenaries ourselves: plotting where to plough our cash for our next favorite franchise. This psychological transformation where consumption is key is what makes consuming anime so different from any other moving image media.

As Kaz’s friend Lexy would say in Pink Christmas: “At the end of the day, people just want to engage with a logo.” The joke was probably intended to make fun of people obsessed with Supreme. But it rings just as true for anime.

Coda

Neo Yokio is a reminder that anime, as with any other piece of animation, is about the medium. And the medium delivers well. Neo Yokio, as a TV show checks “our hyper-connected, hypebeast culture“, and holds up a mirror to our materialist sins.

As Netflix pumps out endless streams of multilingual content across the world using vast amounts of debt, I can only hope that it found peace in investing in Ezra Koenig’s hilarious little enterprise. What’s the return? Hearing Jaden Smith say to Jason Schwartzman in the recording studio: “I’m not a rapper.”