Segments of the anime fandom just baffle me sometimes. If some archetypical forum trawler doesn’t understand something, it’s bad, unless it’s funny-bad. Then it becomes a whole new level of empty stupidity: a meme that pollutes discussion with non-sequitur, conversation-ending image macros. I’m swatting at an imaginary composite of anonymous annoyances, but if you frequent online fan sites, I think you know the type.
To my caricatured online commentator, if something’s bad, it’s for inspecific* reasons like “art” or “sound” or “writing,” which so-called “objective” reviewers like to pretend to assess for “quality.” However, that segmented approach often seems to forget the context of the piece. For example, taking flat voice acting as a universal criterion for low quality will often miss the purpose of specific lines, like deadpan humor. Contextless assessments then risk descending into simple solipsism, with “good” equating to “things I like” and “bad” equating to “things I don’t like.” It’s perfectly fine to prefer dynamic, lively performances, but it’s important to also recognize that flat acting has valid uses in certain contexts as well (if this chariture sounds uncharitable, just wait: the review I review here misses Neo Yokio’s clear deadpan humor!).
* (inspecific: not a word, but I like the sound more than “nonspecific”)
That’s all a roundabout way to my reaction to Neo Yokio, or rather my reaction to the reactions. They seem fall into three broad categories: 1) those that recognized it as a deliberate satire, 2) those that did not, 3) and those that did not care because they just wanted Toblerone memes. I suppose the title makes it obvious that I belong to the first group and, given Neo Yokio’s absurdist humor, I suppose I can understand the third group.
However, the vitriol expressed by some members of the second group surprised me when Neo Yokio first landed on Netflix last year. Among the anonymous online public, my imaginary forum-going rivals absolutely trashed the show for “objective” reasons like ugly animation and bad voice acting. Browsing through its 31% Rotten Tomatoes score for season one, even many professional critics ignored or dismissed the satire angle.
Having rewatched the first season, I’m mostly just confused. How could anyone watch a show full of oxymoronic one-liners like “two is the loneliest number” and take it at face value as bad writing? It’s like criticizing a horror movie for being scary… when that’s the point. Or how could anyone watch a show with a pink-haired, demon-exorcising “magistocrat” and complain about poor world building? It’s like attacking an action movie for lacking a well-developed romance… when that isn’t the point.
Did the harshest critics miss the joke? Neo Yokio isn’t a bad (or even funny-bad) failure cobbled together by a cheap, rushed production. It’s a reasonable success that uses ugly animation and voice acting to parody old anime series and sarcastic, deadpan writing to satirize upper-middle to upper class consumer culture. Neo Yokio is lucidly self-aware of its own absurdity, and that contextual distinction makes all the difference in an assessment of its quality.
Now that the meme-fueled hype has passed, maybe it’s worth approaching Neo Yokio again, especially with release of its surprise, hour-long special Pink Christmas. Even more so than the first season, Pink Christmas presents a serious satire of conspicuous consumerism with one notable addition: a subtle mockery of the first season’s critics that refused to recognize the parody that kept slapping them in the face. It’s worth watching just for that.
But nah, discussion’ll just get buried under Toblerone memes, jokes about Jaden Smith’s Twitter account, and pointless bashing of the art, voices and… eh, maybe I’m ranting again.
Let’s start by stopping the vague rant to consider a fairly typical example of the negative reaction against Neo Yokio: this Anime News Network review of season one. Afterwards, I’ll attempt a close reading of Pink Christmas’s satire against the critics that well… maybe missed the joke.
In the ANN review, writer Mike Toole exemplifies the dismissive stance taken by the harshest critics: never once does he suggest that Neo Yokio functions as a satire or parody. I suppose it’s pointless to respond to a year-old piece, so I’ll briefly focus on just one topic that I think Toole gets wrong: the voice acting. On that, Toole writes that “the voice cast is uniformly awful.” That’s maybe true in some ways, but also a bit unfair in others.
For example, the review makes the odd suggestion that Jaden Smith’s melancholy deadpan tries to make Kaz “relatable.” However, I feel like Toole missed the point of both the voice acting and Kaz’s character. Kaz isn’t supposed to be relatable or even likable. Instead, he embodies everything wrong with Neo Yokio’s self-centered, status-obsessed consumer culture. The show repeatedly acknowledges Kaz’s flaws, with his ex-girlfriend Helena accusing him of narcissistic materialism, his Aunt Agatha berating his mopey excess, and his own best friends repeatedly calling him crazy. In that context then, Smith’s amateurish deadpan mirrors Kaz’s own lack of critical thought. He sounds stupid because as the target of the satire, he is.
Neo Yokio even demonstrates a tongue-in-cheek self-awareness of its ugly voices. In episode one, Kaz says “Oh, Arcangelo, I’d recognize your shitty voice anywhere” after encountering his arch nemesis while shopping for suits in a department store. The scene then immediately cuts to an awful, exaggerated falsetto as Arcangelo exclaims “Oh! Look!” before jumping into some vapid mockery of Kaz’s fashion choices. In isolation, I would agree that the acting is bad. But placed in context, it’s part of the joke: Neo Yokio is calling its own voice acting shitty while establishing Arcangelo as a caricature of the rich, bishounen pretty boy archetype common to many of the anime it parodies.
Toole’s blanket condemnation of the voice acting as awful misses its purpose. Placed in proper context, the deadpan or over-exaggerated voices are critical to Neo Yokio’s characterization. More generally, I can’t imagine the series setting the same sarcastic tone with the sort of strong, emotive line delivery Toole seems to prefer. I don’t expect everyone to enjoy or agree with Neo Yokio’s stylistic choices, but it feels unfair to slap a hard “F” rating on the entire show without acknowledging the comedic goals that drove those choices in the first place. To return to my metaphor from before, criticizing the deadpan voice acting for being absurd is like attacking a horror movie for being scary… when that’s the whole point!
So what about Pink Christmas’s satirical defense of the first season? The special functions as a frame narrative, with Charles telling Kaz a story to cheer him up while he’s sick for the holidays. The story itself runs through the same satirical beats as the first season, attacking capitalism, consumer culture, and a status-obsessed bourgeois (this time with extra emphasis on social media’s role in signaling that status). However, in my mind the frame itself was the most interesting part of the episode. Kaz’s reactions to Charle’s story perhaps stand in for the critics of season one. And given Kaz’s imbecility, it results in a pretty scathing comeback to the “missed the joke” crowd.
The special opens to Kaz complaining about “sipping tea in a penthouse apartment like a monk” (more self-aware deadpan to highlight his lack of self-awareness!). Tired of Kaz’s moping, Charles recommends some story time to cure his master’s boredom. The robot starts with a dull New Testament genealogy (“the greatest story ever told”), working through Abraham’s descendants and all those they “begat.” However, Kaz quickly becomes bored and stops Charles with the line “there’s no action, no stakes, no drama. The characters aren’t even likable. All they do is begat.”
Here, Kaz commits the same error as many of the critics that applied unreasonable genre expectations to Neo Yokio without considering the series in the context of its satire. The New Testament’s genealogy works like an encyclopedic list of characters in the Bible rather than a meaningful story of its own. It’s fair for Kaz to feel bored, but it’s silly for him to complain about a lack of drama because the genealogy does not even attempt to create drama in the first place. By analogy then, Neo Yokio defends itself from those critics that attacked the first season for lacking good action or stakes. It’s a comedy, people! Why worry about those things?
Moving on, Charles suggests a “switch into narrative improvisatory mode” to produce something more entertaining. The uncritical fool that he is, Kaz asks for a story that won’t expand his world view: one set in Neo Yokio, present day. Even worse though, when Charles asks about choosing a protagonist, Kaz says “How about me? Not an ego thing, just so I can identify with it, you know.” (Kaz also says “I do love original content” despite requesting a wholly unoriginal story… more self-aware deadpan to highlight his lack of self-awareness!!).
The joke is maybe a pluck against the critics that expected a likable or relatable protagonist, thus missing Kaz’s role as a satirical caricature. Though Kaz insists that his choice has nothing to do with his narcissistic ego, he doesn’t seem to understand his own intentions: when Charles starts with a typical Christmas Story window-view of a poor sales clerk, Kaz immediately interrupts, saying “Charles, I thought I was going to be the main character!” In the context of Neo Yokio’s parody of anime, Kaz’s solipsism pokes fun at the tendency for so many shounen series to rely on blank, self-insert characters. But as a defense against the critics, Pink Christmas is maybe also pointing out the solipsism of season one’s critics, many of whom failed to move past their first impressions and consider Neo Yokio within its intended genre.
When Charles finishes his story and returns the narrative to the frame, Kaz looks confused. He says “I don’t know Charles. I mean, there was good lines, I guess. I like the Toblerone stuff, but why did you have to destroy Neo Yokio?” In reply, Charles asks Kaz to give his own interpretation. However, Kaz doesn’t take the bait to finally engage in some critical thinking, instead saying “That’s my point. Why leave room for interpretation?” Recognizing that Kaz did not understand the allegory against consumer capitalism and social media status-posturing, Charles gives up and instead promises to “add more Toblerone jokes next time.” Always a self-satisfied moron, Kaz thanks Charles and the special ends with a literal wink to the audience (hopefully making the series’ self-awareness obvious to anyone still confused!!! It’s not subtle people!).
This final scene works as a sarcastic parody of the group of viewers that took season one as nothing more than a giant funny-bad Toblerone meme. Perhaps more pointedly though, it also calls out the critics one last time for failing to produce a rigorous interpretation of the series beyond a rubricized “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.” (for example, Toole’s rubric gives and F for story, a D for animation, an F for art, and an F for music). Like Kaz expressing shock at the destruction of Neo Yokio in Charles’ story, many reviewers seem to have punished the show just for defying their expectations without considering Neo Yokio’s thematic purpose.
So, do I have a bigger point to any of this? Nah, not really. I just happened to have stumbled across Pink Christmas on Netflix last week and I’m bored at work as usual. I suppose if I’ve learned anything writing this, it’s just to appeal to charity when commenting on media.
For example, I think many mainstream outlets like The New York Times and The New Republic did a better job covering Neo Yokio than more devoted hobby sites like Anime News Network or fan blogs. Neither review goes easy on Neo Yokio: The Times suggests that it will only appeal to a niche audience and the New Republic argues that the satire mostly fails. However, both recognize the satirical goals of the series. They don’t slam the show with hyperbolic conclusions like Toole’s, that Neo Yokio is not a “valuable, interesting, or even marginally competent series.”
There’s plenty of room for discussion about if the satire succeeded (this article says no) or if the show expresses healthy themes (this article says no). But at least give the series the simple courtesy of careful, charitable consideration before tearing it to shreds.
…or, whatever. Maybe it’s better to just embrace the Giant Toblerone and enjoy the memey disasterpiece. To quote from Pink Christmas itself, “The line between gorgeous and ugly grows thinner by the day.” More self-awareness?