Pop Culture

Pop Culture: Netflix's Neo Yokio a failed melding of American, Japanese influences

American-Japanese co-production Neo Yokio's animation disappoints as it fails to capitalise on its cultural influences

On paper, animated series Neo Yokio sounds intriguing.

It was created by Ezra Koenig, frontman of indie rock band Vampire Weekend, with anime veteran Kazuhiro Furuhashi - director of the acclaimed period action series Rurouni Kenshin (1996 to 1998) - as storyboard artist. It boasts the voice talents of Jaden Smith, Jude Law, Susan Sarandon and Jason Schwartzman.

The show is set in an alternate New York where Magicians who once saved the city from demons are now firmly entrenched as elite Magistocrats and, score one for cultural diversity, the central character Kaz Kaan (voiced by Smith) is African-American.

So far, so promising.

And yet, I could not make it through the first episode.

This American-Japanese co-production blithely invites comparisons with Japanese works given the anime influences, which range from the demon-battling fantasy story to the use of mecha elements such as the robot butler (voiced by Law).

But it comes up far too short of its potential, not to mention its influences.

Getting inspired and influenced by another culture is perfectly fine, but it is key to not force the issue. And if one can fashion a cohesive and compelling work out of myriad influences, it is surely a sign of brilliance.

The first flaw one notices is the lacklustre animation, which makes the show look dated. It works for the opening sequence which is an old tourist promotion clip of the city, but inexplicably, the style does not change noticeably when the story shifts to the present.

Compared with the richly detailed animation of many Japanese series today, Neo Yokio's artwork feels embarrassingly threadbare, like it was made in the 1990s. If it is meant to be an homage, it does not quite work.

Perhaps the biggest sin here is that the creators did not meld the Japanese and Western elements well.

A successful example would be the animated superhero film Big Hero 6 (2014), which is notably set in the imaginary, futuristic city of San Fransokyo (a conflation of San Francisco and Tokyo).

Its directors Chris Williams and Don Hall turned to the films of acclaimed auteur Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, 2001) for inspiration and even made two research trips to Japan. Yet the movie never feels clunky or showy with unnecessary detail.

Getting inspired and influenced by another culture is perfectly fine, but it is key to not force the issue. And if one can fashion a cohesive and compelling work out of myriad influences, it is surely a sign of brilliance.

Miyazaki himself absorbed Western ideas from European fantasy literature to modernist artist Marc Chagall. He reportedly once travelled to Portugal to look at a work by mediaeval painter Hieronymous Bosch, known for his macabre depictions of hell.

Yet there is no mistaking his vision as a film-maker for anyone else's and he has, in turn, influenced Western animation. John Lasseter, chief creative officer of acclaimed Pixar Animation Studios, is a big fan of his and has even said: "Whenever we get stuck at Pixar or Disney, I put on a Miyazaki film sequence or two, just to get us inspired again."

On the Rotten Tomatoes aggregator website, Neo Yokio has a "rotten" rating of 33 per cent from nine reviews. Hollywood Reporter asks reasonably: "(Why) resort to a so-so anime take-off when there's ample real anime that's cooler and funnier on its own?"

For instance, Rurouni Kenshin - about a battle-scarred assassin-turned-wandering-swordsman - juggles slapstick humour with deep philosophical questions about sin, guilt and forgiveness.

It is also true that there are several American animation series with distinctive voices such as Rick And Morty (2013 to present), a darkly funny and withering takedown of the wide range of human foibles as brilliant but self-absorbed scientist-inventor Rick and his grandson Morty go on outlandish adventures in the multiverse.

Presumably, Neo Yokio is good, even excellent, in some of these other universes. But in this world, it is merely an awkward amalgamation of New York and Tokyo whose name does not even roll off the tongue smoothly.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 04, 2017, with the headline 'Anime loses its colour with poor blend of East and West'. Print Edition | Subscribe