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Neo Yokio
Neo YokioCourtesy of Netflix

Ezra Koenig breaks down his new animated series for Netflix

The Vampire Weekend frontman tells us how communists and fashion bloggers inspired his new cartoon Neo Yokio – starring Jaden Smith, Tavi Gevinson, Stephen Fry and more

Lately, Ezra Koenig has been very busy. He’s been working on Vampire Weekend’s highly-anticipated fourth album,  their first since 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City, which he recently said was “close to being done”. He’s also been putting together Neo Yokioan anime (or, more accurately, an homage to anime) series that he created and wrote.

The show, which has been years in the making, is a collaboration with anime studios Production IG, Studio Deen, and MOI. It has a massive, impressive cast of voices; among others, Jaden Smith, Jude Law, Jason Schwartzman, Susan Sarandon, Steve Buscemi, Richard Ayoade, and Stephen Fry all feature. Smith stars as Kaz Kaan, the youngest of the ‘magistocrats’, a group of demon slayers who once liberated Neo Yokio, ‘the greatest city in the world’. As well as fighting demons and his nemesis Arcangelio Corelli (Jason Schwartzman), lovesick Kaz also battles with his broken heart. After meeting fashion blogger Helena St. Tessero (Tavi Gevinson), he begins to question everything he thought he knew about Neo Yokio.

While there are other adult cartoons around, Neo Yokio isn’t that much like anything else out there. It is full of homages and references to classic anime, the internet, English literature, and modern New York culture. Despite the show’s 80s and 90s anime-inspired aesthetics, Neo Yokio is distinctly modern; it deals with politics, class struggle, race, gender, communism vs. capitalism, and other themes that are very much of our time. It’s a surprise, then, that Koenig put the finishing touches on Neo Yokio in January 2016. It still feels as relevant, if not more so, as it did then.

It’s also very good, if not for everyone, and whether or not you like it probably depends on how much you like anime, Ezra Koenig’s humour, Jaden Smith, and progressive comedy on TV. It’s already faced backlash, naturally, from the anime Nazis of the alt-right. But it isn’t for them, and they’ll get over it. We spoke to Ezra Koenig about Neo Yokio, the inspirations for it, and just how it came to be.

How did Neo Yokio come about in the first place? Because obviously to some people, it might seem a bit out of nowhere for you to do it.

Ezra Koenig: I’ve had some vague ideas for something like this for a while, and I met somebody who worked in animation when I did a voice on this Major Lazer cartoon and we stayed in touch. I told him about this idea – at first I thought maybe it could be like a comic or something, or a manga – but he was encouraging me to actually try doing it as an animated series.

He has an animation studio based in LA and I was like, ‘Well, if we do this as an animated series and it’s going to be this kind of tribute to anime… I think we can only do that if we’re working with people from the anime industry in Japan.’ And so then we reached out to Production I.G and, from there, Studio Deen, and then we kinda got moving on it, and then we sold it to Netflix, which kind of led to this long bit of time in between when we finished it and now. Whatever, it’s here now.

“(I thought) if we do this as an animated series and it’s going to be this kind of tribute to anime… we can only do that if we’re working with people from the anime industry in Japan” – Ezra Koenig

When did you finish it?

Ezra Koenig: I remember exactly when I finished the sound mixing, which is the final touch, and that was January 2016. It was a pretty crazy 18 months to sit on something. The thing is, when we first started writing the show and working on it, it was even before the Democratic primaries for the election. It’s hard to even remember a time when Bernie Sanders and Trump were not really well known political figures, but whatever. It was kind of a crazy time to make something and sit on it but you know, luckily I watched it again and it still works.

It still feels super current.

Ezra Koenig: That’s great. I was just more nervous about, like – you just don’t know, any piece of art is full of so many little ideas and references, and sometimes it can be dramatically re-contextualised based on what’s happening in the world. There’s also a fear of, ‘Is having to wait a year going to make it feel irrelevant?’ So we didn’t have anything too on-the-nose. There are inspirations, but it’s kind of its own little world.

It still deals with themes like politics and fashion bloggers and gender and race. That’s maybe even more relevant now than it was then.

Ezra Koenig: I can see that. As such an anxious person making lots of things, I’m always thinking about the little details and making myself crazy. It’s a little funny to finish something and then have all that time to think about it knowing that I can’t change it. At least in music it’s pretty easy to change things – you can change something up until the last minute – but with a big production like this, involving three countries and all of these different people, I couldn’t change anything. So I could just wait and think about so many of the things I couldn’t change: Does ‘fashion blogger’ sound old-fashioned? Is the word ‘blogger’ out of date? Does that sound like some grandpa shit now?

They’re still as relevant now, if not more so. Someone like Tavi only gets bigger every day.

Ezra Koenig: Good! I felt really strongly about casting Jaden, too. Nobody was against it, but some of the people – some of the higher up people at the network, who weren’t really involved – just didn’t know about him. They were like, ‘He acted when he was a kid,’ and I was like, ‘He’s amazing, he’s the coolest guy on earth!’ By the time we were done working on it, those people were much more aware of him too. Maybe they understood a little bit better.

“There were people who saw the trailer who were triggered by the fact that there was a communist in it, and that we used a diverse background of people. So I have a feeling that the show is not for those people” – Ezra Koenig

You have a lot of British voice actors in the cast.

Ezra Koenig: That wasn’t exactly on purpose – we just ended up with so many British people. I’m an Anglophile, and for me the heart of the show was Tokyo Babylon meets Jeeves and Wooster. There are very specific references to both of those works in it. It makes sense in a show that’s so indebted to the Japanese work and the British work that we would work with a lot of Japanese and British people one way or another, even though the show takes place in New York. Richard (Ayoade) and Jude (Law) were the first English people that we cast. I’ve known Richard for years from directing Vampire Weekend videos back in the day – we’ve been friend for almost a decade now; I think he’s a brilliant director, writer and actor. And you know, with Jude’s voice, he’s a butler, so stereotypically it makes sense for him to be British. Little by little we thought, ‘Will there be an accent in Neo Yokio? Who cares – just let him be British.’

The funniest thing is Alexa (Chung), who plays Jaden’s ex-girlfriend. They’re presumably both from Neo Yokio – they both grew up there and went to high school together – and their accents are fully different! There’s a scene where they’re talking with each other and we realised afterwards that they pronounced ‘Grand Prix’ totally differently. Alexa says it in a more French way – like maybe how a more British person would say it – and Jaden says it in a much more American, upbeat way. On one level it makes no sense. In another, it makes me so happy that all these different people are from the same town.

There’s a lot about communism and capitalism in the show, which I feel like people are talking about that more than ever right now.

Ezra Koenig: Right, that’s another thing! One of my truly favourite things in the show is the Soviet race car driver. It really was quite a weird story. Three or four summers ago, I was in Monaco and they were setting up for the Grand Prix. Monaco basically is an anime location – it’s such a surreal place, the geography and the architecture is so strange, like (Hiyao) Miyazaki created it from a bunch of Mediterranean replicas. So we were in Monaco and I was having a coffee in the morning, and ‘God Save the Queen’ was just blasting off the speakers. This was in the morning, and I guess they were testing the different national anthems. Monaco is like a giant crypt, so there were all of these weird echoes created by these tall buildings that open to the mountain. I was looking out of the window and just hearing ‘God Save the Queen’, echoing through this Mediterranean anime location, and I just had this weird thought: ‘What if this Soviet race car driver won this lap and the Soviet national anthem was playing?’ Also, I love Formula One outfits because they’re so crazy. The entire idea was that everybody else is covered in logos and the Soviet race car driver just comes out, and the car and the outfit is all red with a hammer and sickle. I thought, ‘We’ve gotta put that in the show somehow.’ And we worked really hard to try and incorporate that.

I remembered Kim Kardashian wearing this like long red communist thing and I was like, ‘I don’t even know what’s happening or if we’re right on the money, but I guess I’m glad that’s in there.’ You know, communism never goes out of fashion. As long as there’s capitalism, there’ll be communism.

There were people who saw the trailer who were triggered by the fact that there was a communist in it, and that we used a diverse background of people. So I have a feeling that the show is not for those people. I thought that maybe they’d like it once they’d seen the show, but then I thought about everything that’s in the show and… nah, they’re not gonna like it.

I saw that people were so upset when they saw that there were black people in it and that it talks about gender and all of those things.

Ezra Koenig: It’s wild but, it’s a small group of people. With people moving to outright racism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny, you don’t want to feel like you have to explain anything to them – but there is a part of me that is a people pleaser that just wants to say ‘If you don’t want to watch it, that’s fine, it’s just a cartoon.’ They’re saying ‘Why are they ruining anime,’ and a part of me is like, ‘Well, don’t call it anime if you don’t want to.’

On a very basic level, anime is a Japanese artform that’s designed, written, and produced in Japan – then of course, (Neo Yokio) is not anime. (But) there are so many references to anime, so many tributes and parodies, that I do think there’s a level that an anime fan might appreciate it. But honestly, everything that we reference in the show is from the 80s and 90s, so maybe it’s for an older anime fan – or a younger non-anime fan. Who knows! I have no idea who’s going to be the market for this. And we didn’t make this with one audience in mind.

All six episodes of Neo Yokio arrive on Netflix on September 22