This article is part of POMEmag Space Week 2017. Think back to 2015:…
Aesthetic Melancholy in the Superfluous Aristocracy
by Jenny Mott
October 6, 2017 at 12:00 pm
Listen: Neo Yokio is a goddamn masterpiece. It’s only six episodes long, so it takes less time to watch than Forrest Gump (and honestly why would you watch Tom Hanks claim to have founded Bubba Gump Shrimp when you could watch Jaden Smith and his mechabutler fight demons using magic).
Neo Yokio: it’s like New York, but not??
If you’ve somehow managed to avoid all of the jokes about giant Toblerones that have been taking over my twitter feed, let me sum up: Ezra Koenig (from Vampire Weekend, the band from 2009) created an anime about a neo-riche magistocrat navigating the social and supernatural pitfalls of the 1% in an alternate-reality New York City, where demons are real and everything below 14th Street is underwater, but in a cool, undamaged kind of way.
Kaz Kaan: the shitty protagonist 2017 deserves
Jaden Smith plays Kaz Kaan, a bored and selfish rich asshole. Prone to aesthetic melancholy, he is given opportunities to change, really genuinely considers changing, actually comes pretty close to changing, but then does not change. However, unlike the old money assholes who are traditionally known for the privilege of stasis (represented by a human person actually for real named Arcangelo), Kaz has to work for a living by protecting the city from demons.
This variance from the conventional rich guy role sets Kaz Kaan as an outsider desperately trying to fit in. His every action is motivated by a desire to prove himself the MOST elegant, the MOST genteel, the MOST bourgeois, in the hopes of silencing those who would count him lesser, both because to be a magistocrat is to be neo-riche, and because of the fact that he has to work to support his wretched lifestyle.
Consistently throughout the show, Kaz places himself and his desires above his sacred duty to protect the city, and above the feelings and lives of those around him, including his friends, family, and potential romantic interests.
Helena St. Tessero: a prophet
The ultimate conflict of the six-episode arc comes in the form of one such romantic interest: Helena St. Tessero. She is a fashion blogger whose love of bespoke tailored goods leads to her possession by a demon. Kaz is called in to exorcise her, and he succeeds, though she is greatly changed by the experience.
Helena, who lives with her old money parents in the Sea Beneath 14th Street, begins her journey with a higher social standing than Kaz. But, she comes to realize the absurdity of their shared lifestyle and denounces it, thereby undermining Kaz’s primary motivation to become the bourgeois ideal.
Even more than being old money, Helena’s capacity for change is a greater threat to Kaz’s understanding of his identity simply by nature of her being a woman (much of the anti-capitalist dialogue this show creates has to do with the treatment of women).
Here’s What’s Up
In his effort to encapsulate the ideals of the bourgeoisie, Kaz succeeds not only in scorning the concept of work and revering his tuxedo as a living thing, but also in treating women as status-enhancing accessories.
From delighting in a chance to tell high-school-aged girls what to wear, to assaulting his friend Lexy (who was temporarily Ranma-1/2-ed into a female body) in order to make his ex-girlfriend jealous, Kaz again proves himself to be more interested in capitalism’s understanding of how a “gentleman” appears than he is in respecting the lives and feelings of the people about whom he claims to care.
Helena’s transformation from a premier fashion blogger to an anti-capitalist protester and terrorist stands in stark contrast to Kaz’s own inability to change, his inability to stop caring about the trivial field hockey and social status games of Neo Yokio high society and to see them for the meaningless spectacle they truly are.
Helena’s ability to see the falseness of society when Kaz cannot torments him because her insight where he is blind speaks to his greatest flaw: his incapacity for self-examination.
And it is that complete deficit of self-knowledge in someone who is so self-obsessed that pierces through to the heart of Neo Yokio’s message: capitalism is a trap from which the only escape is awareness and protest; you cannot change the system when you are complicit in the system.
Even when Kaz is distracted enough from his search for satisfaction within the trappings of wealth to actually provide some aid to Helena’s cause, he is mostly playing at an adventure, and he is never so distracted as to actually change himself or the rules of his world.
Just — Watch It. Okay?
Once you get past the fact that Jude Law doesn’t know how to deliver a line when he can’t distract the viewer with his sparkling blue eyes, Neo Yokio is a fun and thoughtful presentation of an enchanting world. Richard Ayoade is there, as an earnest sports fan and helpful Bergdorf’s employee; people drink alcoholic versions of caprese salads and they’re good, somehow; hair is naturally pink and magic is real.
As much as this is a silly cartoon about some rich asshole fighting demons with magic and his robot butler, it is also an examination of the sexism present in bourgeois ideals and the complacency inherent to the capitalist hamster wheel. Much like trying to actually eat a giant Toblerone, trying to find satisfaction through material possessions will only leave your soul sick, but maybe in an aesthetically melancholic kind of way.
© 2014 - 2017 Jenny Mott and POMEgranate Magazine