Shouldn’t There Be More Music in Neo Yokio?

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Photo: Netflix

It would be fair to assume that Neo Yokio, the new Netflix animated series created and largely written by Ezra Koenig, would have a powerful sense of sound, and of music especially. In addition to Koenig, best known as the front man of Vampire Weekend, the show boasts a variety of music and music-adjacent voice actors: Kaz, the demon-hunting protagonist, is voiced by Jaden Smith; his cronies Gottlieb and Lexy are voiced, respectively, by Desus and Mero, the comic duo known for their hip-hop fluency and frequent advocacy of their fellow Bronx artists Cardi B and French Montana. (Mero even wrote all-caps album reviews for Noisey back in the day.) There’s also the matter of the score itself, which counts Dev Hynes as one of its co-composers.

Lastly there’s the matter of heritage: From its title, which references Akira’s futuristic metropolis Neo Tokyo, to its Korean-made animation, Japanese direction, and large, sentient robots, Neo Yokio is clearly patterned on anime, even if Koenig demurs from describing it as such in interviews. Anime has long been known as a medium where a powerful sense of melody is crucial. As with Japanese video games, it’s hard to think of any masterpieces in the field that aren’t accompanied by stellar arrangements from top-flight composers: Shirō Sagisu on Neon Genesis Evangelion, Yoko Kanno on Cowboy Bebop and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, the Pillows on FLCL, etc. Given all this, it’s logical to expect Neo Yokio would sport a snazzy original soundtrack. Just because it’s set in a futuristic alternate version of New York shouldn’t mean that the musical spirit of New York wouldn’t come through loud and clear. Right?

But in fact the sound and song on the show is somewhat absent and relatively feeble by the standards of both anime and New York City. The theme song, a dashing but slender violin composition, lasts all of 30 seconds, and the music in the show proper, when it does appear, tends toward snatches of classical music long associated with an ambience of old-fashioned luxury and leisure. The sound effects are a bit muted. No character really has a theme: The closest we get to one is an ominous bass drop linked to Steve Buscemi’s villainous secret policeman. It’s a quiet show in just about every way. To be sure, there are a few moments when the background comes alive with song. After Kaz powers his team to victory in a game of men’s field hockey, his giant robot butler Charles asks if he should play Vivaldi in D minor to celebrate; Kaz decides E flat major is a better key. In another episode, Kaz tracks the music teacher at the expensive prep school he once attended to an underground concert of “Gregorian house” music. When a Russian, or rather Soviet, race-car driver arrives in New York for a Grand Prix circuit, she does so accompanied by dance music with Russian vocals.

The show’s most sustained engagement with music comes in the second episode, where Kaz decides to escort Sailor Pellegrino, a Southern-twanged, blue-haired, country-pop crossover artist who’s sold a billion records and is Neo Yokio’s new tourist ambassador, to one of the extremely exclusive social events he regularly attends. Reeling from a breakup, Kaz’s new girlfriend Helena has become disenchanted with the bubble of megawealth and ultraprivilege in which they, their peers and rivals circulate; Kaz, obsessed with his status, rebounds from his rebound by yielding to Sailor’s entreaties that he go with her. Sailor, it turns out, is a powerful demon of the sort Kaz is regularly hired to exterminate. Possessing a Jeff Koons skull made of millions of dollars worth of platinum and diamonds, she nearly succeeds in defeating him and destroying the venue (“Tonight, the Metropolitan Museum of Art will run red with the blood of the bourgeoisie!”). But Kaz ultimately prevails, and the bizarro-world counterpart of Taylor Swift (with trace elements of Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus mixed in) is reduced to nothingness.

Clio Chang, in her perceptive review for The New Republic, notes how the show walks a fine line between a satire of the obliviousness of the ultrarich and a celebration of their cushy lifestyle: Citing a Pitchfork interview where Koenig describes nearly everything in the show as a “loving tribute,” she wonders how the show will ever come to possess the bite to match its class-war bark. The six-episode season ends (minor spoiler alert) with Kaz stranded in the wilds of New Jersey wearing a red hammer-and-sickle racing suit; only time and further Netflix funding will reveal what he learns within the world of the 99 percent.

Still, to judge purely by the episodes we have, Neo Yokio is an unfinished project, not just in terms of its plot, but its political implications as well. Anime invariably takes on the character of its protagonist, and with his exaggerated melancholy, wan disposition, and tendency toward a particularly fatuous kind of vanity, Kaz both weighs down the show and renders it relatively insubstantial. If Neo Yokio has been compared by reviewers to the films of Whit Stillman, it’s fair to quote a critical description of Stillman’s films — “like porn films with the sex scenes cut out” — to illuminate its own flaws.

Possible explanations for the show’s lack of tension lie in plain sight and sound. Economic class divisions feature prominently in the universe of Neo Yokio: Kaz suffers from intra-elite bigotry due to his less illustrious pedigree: As a “magistocrat” (which Chang interprets as a play on “meritocrat”), he must earn his wealth instead of living purely off of a trust fund. And he gradually discovers that across a vast chasm of wealth and culture, there exists a great multitude of the dispossessed profoundly and potentially violently dissatisfied with the elite he exemplifies. So far, so New York, and so American. But what sets it apart from an American context (and makes it faithful to its Japanese inspiration) is precisely what weakens the power with which it delivers its themes.

As in virtually all Japanese anime, race is a nonfactor in Neo Yokio. Though Kaz, like his voice actor, is dark-skinned, the color of his skin never factors into his social relations. No one notices or cares about his blackness, nor that the rest of the Kaan clan has pale skin, nor that his fellow upper-crust cronies Lexy and Gottlieb sometimes reference aspects of New York culture (chopped cheese, calling people “B”) rooted in the city’s black and Hispanic populations. It’s quite possible to discuss class in Japanese manga and anime without ever bringing up race. (One current favorite, Kakegurui, is set in a private school every bit as rarefied as Kaz’s social circles: Instead of attending class, the students are forced to engage in insane bouts of gambling.)

As one of the planet’s most ethnically homogeneous nation-states (a fact much cherished by various online maggots sporting anime avatars), Japanese social divisions coincide more cleanly with economic divisions. But to talk of class in New York City, even in a fantasy world where everything south of 14th Street lies underwater, while erasing all traces of race — this makes for both incomplete politics and a half-finished aesthetic. And it also explains why the show’s music lacks pace, force, and timeliness. Not even Kendrick Lamar or Solange could have done anything for the soundtrack of a show where blackness, and color in general, has been rendered a nonfactor. Just imagine if rap and R&B featured as prominently in Kaz’s life as they do in the actual lives of New York’s superrich kids and it becomes apparent why they can’t appear: Even two bars of “Bodak Yellow” would instantly shatter the reality of a fictional universe rooted in color-blindness. Tokyo is another matter, but it’s impossible to meaningfully discuss class in New York, or in America, without clearly discussing race at the same time. Anime’s neutrality on color is something that would best have been lost in Neo Yokio’s translation.

It’s not as if it’s impossible to pull off: Witness the most successful adaptation of anime to an American context, The Boondocks, which tackled issues of class every bit as powerfully as it did matters of race. It’s no accident that The Boondocks had phenomenal music and sustained engagement with the musical world, particularly rap. But as far as Neo Yokio goes, the die is cast and the sounds are faint. There’s no way to reintroduce color as a social factor to a show whose world-building was based on its absence. To be fair, the show is quite enjoyable, particularly if you belong to its core audience of left-leaning anime fans overly familiar with New York. (In any case, the recurring gag involving a giant Toblerone bar is exquisite.) But the show doesn’t feel like it belongs to the present. It’s clearly the product of a post-Occupy but pre-Trump era that will never return, and should be appreciated as such — perhaps, one day, in a historical exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Shouldn’t There Be More Music in Neo Yokio?