Neo Yokio doesn’t add diversity to the world of anime, it creates a perfect picture of tokenism.
Neo Yokio, the Netflix original anime, was a mess. It took itself too seriously to be a parody and included too many disjointed factors to really work very well as a true parody of anime tropes. By now, I’m going to assume that everyone has seen it. Despite its failures in the genre, one thing really stuck out: The main character and his buddies are people of color but this world is very, very white. Neo Yokio doesn’t add diversity to the world of anime, it creates a perfect picture of tokenism.
The creator of the show is Ezra Koenig, who is known most for his work with his band Vampire Weekend. However, much of the hype around the show was created by the attachment of Jaden Smith and his portrayal of the Black lead, Kaz Khan. Although Kaz is featured in nearly every shot — he is the main character after all — all other characters of color, of which there are few, or side and background characters.
Kaz is part of an order of mages in the city and is considered nouveau riche by the other high-class families who made their money in normal non-magical ways. Of course, this concept plays into the real life set up of Black people gaining wealth in single generations due to music, acting, and sports. Their gains in society are deemed “less” because it was earned not by “hard work” or inherited on the basis of a prestigious name, but by “getting lucky.” This is made even more apparent as throughout the series Kaz is shown working whereas his arch nemesis, Arcangelo, seems to have endless time on his hands to harass Kaz.
Although that piece of social commentary was spot on, there are other bits of this show that unintentionally depict problematic stereotypes around Blackness in high society. For starters, the next, most prominent people of color are Kaz’s friends who are also nouveau riche.
Lexy and Gottlieb are voiced by The Kid Mero and Desus Nice respectively, most known for their work on Desus & Mero, the Viceland talk show. Absolutely no disrespect to either of them for their portrayals on this show, but against the backdrop of racial issues, their performance comes off as tokenism more than it does as characterization. These are the characters that bring in the “urban” or “street” aspects of the show, which is unfortunate.
It is also noteworthy that these two are the only people of color close to Kaz at all. His entire family is white or non-Black or Brown POC and he dates exclusively white women throughout the show with the minor exception of a plot that involves a gender-switched Lexy. This excessive whiteness that surrounds Kaz’s character feeds into the idea of exceptional Blackness.
Black people don’t get to just be in high society, we must be the best. Kaz isn’t just a Black guy in this world, he’s the best Black guy. He’s number one (sometimes two) on the eligible bachelor board, he’s who people turn to solve their problems. He is literally magical. He is exceptional.
And no other Black person meets that standard in Neo Yokio.
Of the other Black or Brown people of color that we meet, two are Helenists and literally want to be a white person, one is a nameless shopkeeper, and other three are strippers and a singer. These are not ideal depictions of people of color. It reinforces the idea that alternative Black people want to be white and that we’re only good in the entertainment and service industries. Except for Kaz. Because he’s exceptional.
Watching this show, I get that there’s this idea of parody, of something that is maybe a bit whimsical and zany about it. Of course, no one in Kaz’s family looks or sounds like him because this is a bat-shit magical version of New York where nothing makes sense and the points don’t matter. I get that.
When Koenig and the team of writers envisioned this world, when the Japanese directors and animators came on to give it life, how this show would intersect with race probably wasn’t on the forefront of their minds. Which is why these issues are so glaring.
It’s extremely problematic that Kaz, the magic Black guy, is only seen dating white girls when there is a huge issue with misogynoir in real life. Where the idea that Black men date and marry white women when they succeed because Black women just aren’t good enough.
It is extremely problematic that the notable Black and Brown female characters are shown as wanting to be white or literally masked and used as entertainment. This just reinforces, subtly, that Black and Brown female bodies are made for consumption and not as good as white bodies. It is incredibly problematic that the Lexy storyline in which they move from male to female is played as a joke when Black transwomen are literally dying in the streets.
It’s not enough to simply paint people a color and say you gave us diversity, especially when the diversity that was given is just a reinforcement of negative stereotypes. Neo Yokio shows us tokenism and its dangers at their best. It didn’t give us diversity. It gave us a magical Black man who is as removed from Blackness as much as possible while disrespecting everyone who falls outside of the circle of exception.