What’s Neo Yokio Under All That Swag?
Netflix's new animé show is dressed to the nines.
Image courtesy of youdontdeservethis.com.
Kaz Kaan, the foppish boy wonder at the center of Ezra Koenig's new Netflix animé show Neo Yokio, is a super-sensitive superhero. A kiss on the cheek gives him a nosebleed. He wrinkles his snub nose at a gratis glass of Château Lafite. A fond inscription from an ex-girlfriend on the back of his watch has him flinging it off the top of a building. "Destroying a 1919 Cartier Tank is a bit…imprudent," says his robo-butler, played very straight by Jude Law, with the patience of Stevens from The Remains of the Day.
With a soundtrack of elegant classical standards (Bach's Fugue in A-Minor, Vivaldi's Violin Concerto in E-Flat Major) and contemporary acts such as Blood Orange, and dreamily drawn by several collaborating Japanese studios, Neo Yokio is set in a retro-futuristic alternate present in which 9/11 never happened, the Cold War never ended, and rising seas have engulfed everything south of 14th Street. Kaz, voiced by an impeccably cast Jaden Smith, is a flashy "neo-riche" magistocrat, one of a pink-haired caste of secret service types who find and eject terrorist demons with generic crackling magic shot from the palm of their hands. It's well-remunerated manual labor that's derided as rat-catching (a reference to the immigration category the magistocrats fell into when imported from the Old World) by the city's old-money elites. The job helps pay the dues at Kaz's tennis club and the fees at the twin-towered El Dorado, a fancy building at 300 Central Park West. In loco parentis and boss is Aunt Agatha (Susan Sarandon), a Mallory Archer figure who shows up to important appointments in a chauffeured Rolls Royce. When Kaz drags his feet—or lolls in the bathtub with his rubber ducks, or lies in bed all morning listening to lines of William Blake—she reminds him that he's "not a gentleman of leisure like those other uptown buffoons. You can't just drink Americanos and watch tennis all day….you need to work to support your wretched lifestyle."
That lifestyle entails tooling around town with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern–like sidekicks Gottlieb (Desus Nice) and Lexy (The Kid Mero), being the face of a martini campaign, trying to defeat even-prettier-boy arch-nemesis Arcangelo Corelli (named for a Baroque composer and played by Jason Schwartzman, think Draco Malfoy by way of an Acquavella brother), and shopping like Cher from Clueless. Kaz and Arcangelo can agree on just one thing: that they wish they lived in Bergdorf Goodman. They're always there, trying stuff on. Kaz looks for suits with a blindfold on ("I'm a huge fan of fabrics"), which gets him in trouble when he accidentally chooses a midnight blue tux to wear to a black-and-white ball at the Met. Who does he think he is, the Duke of Windsor? He backtracks and buys a tux that's properly black, but then Arcangelo shows up in midnight blue and pulls it off. To make things more embarrassing, his date, the pop star Sailor Pellegrino (Sailor Moon × Taylor Swift × the Italophilia of classic animé), turns out to be a demon; this demon then casts off the hot-girl costume and dons Damien Hirst's diamond-encrusted skull, and Kaz chases her into an alternate dimension—the landscape of Arnold Böcklin's Isle of the Dead—where she screams at him, "I can see you, bitch! You're wearing a black tuxedo against a midnight blue sky, and it's sparkling."
Unlucky with women, Kaz was canceled on by his original date, the fashion blogger Helena St. Tessoro. He's sad when she calls the gala a vapid celebration of capitalist values. (He thinks it's "a glimmer of hope in a cruel world.") But a brush with death (a demon hiding like a louse in the seams of a custom Chanel suit) has left Helena, voiced by Tavi Gevinson, "done searching for meaning in the aesthetic cycles of commodities." It's not hard to see why an It girl would get sick of all this competition and fronting and just hole up as a hikikomori in her parents' townhouse under the Sea Below 14th Street; but Kaz loves the game too much. In a popularity contest straight out of Black Mirror, the boys are ranked on a "bachelor board" above Times Square. "I'm behind Luke Silver-Greenberg?" Kaz cries at one point. "That's horrendous." (The real Luke Silver-Greenberg, a producer type living in Los Angeles, must have stepped more than once to Ezra's girl.)
If Neo Yokio's inside jokes are hothouse flowers, its cityscapes and ingenuous Astro Boy faces are immediately accessible and delightful. The animation is lo-fi enough that the luxury objects have no especial visual appeal, just a notional fetish value. A widower tending the grave of his dead wife spritzes her headstone with her favorite perfume, Babylon No. 5. "Excuse me, old man," says Kaz, who has stumbled on this touching scene, but "it's really not a very elegant perfume. It achieved global success, but in a marketplace far less crowded than today's. I believe a classic is a classic when talking about clothes, cars or watches, but scents need to change with the times, don't you agree?" At one point, Kaz wants to know the make of a body bag. (Louis Vuitton, obvs—same as his luggage.) He lets a strange music teacher from his old prep school give him a makeover. "Do you have anything aggressively Belgian?" Mr. Muhly wants to know. Ann Demeulemeester? "Something really…oblique?" He shops his own ginormous closet for what looks like Rick Owens: "I found the perfect ensemble, with which you are already obsessed. I drape you." (Lexy, in cornrows and a cricket sweater, rejects the new look as inauthentic.) In an episode called "Hamptons Water Magic," a baptismal dip in a hexed Amagansett pool turns Lexy into a lady, and Charles the robo-butler runs out of juice. Kaz trades his new watch, a "Rollie," to Lexy, in exchange for Lexy's going with him as his girlfriend to a party at fellow cool kid Freddie Miles's house (remember him from The Talented Mr. Ripley?). The sugar daddy moves continue as Kaz tries to figure out which handbag will render Lexy's outfit a "showstopper." Chloé or Céline? "Would it be crazy to wear both bags?" he asks Charles. But Charles is too hypoglycemic to have an opinion. When his battery is entirely flat, he sheds his exoskeleton like a suit of armor and his id, a mean little Cockney lady named Sadie, pops out. Sadie's existence suggests that all of Charles's charm and refinement comes from his outerwear. In Neo Yokio, clothes make the man and his mecha- too.
Charles's true self is put-upon and stroppy, but who is Kaz under all that swag? "I'm starting to think maybe Neo Yokio isn't the greatest city in the world," he says at the end of the season, when he races his F-1 through the walled slum of Long Island City and sees people roasting rat kebabs over an open flame. "Can't you see we're dying down here?" they say as they bang on the car with metal pipes. "Sorry everyone!" says Kaz, reversing in a hurry. Minus his finery, he may harbor a dawning conscience, an awareness that class warfare extends beyond field hockey bouts with Upper East Siders.
From Alaïa to Thom Browne to Ralph Lauren Purple, Kaz namechecks brands like a kawaii rapper or Bret Easton Ellis, but he'll never be a trendsetter like Jaden; he wants too much to get it right. Fashion darlings like Vetements and Gosha Rubchinskiy would be too esoteric, even if Koenig told GQ that Kaz is "supposed to be a Hamlet type dude." To brand or not to brand? On the night of the premiere, Jaden carried a Louis Vuitton bag from the French house's collaboration with streetwear behemoth Supreme. Koenig wore socks with sandals, "millennial pink" trousers, a rose-colored cable knit sweater around his shoulders, and a Cartier Tank.