'Neo Yokio' Creator Reveals How Jaden Smith's Perfectly Absurd Netflix Series Came to Life

Ezra Koenig's animated Netflix series 'Neo Yokio' stars Jaden Smith, Desus Nice, the Kid Mero, Amandla Stenberg, and Jude Law.

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You've never really lived until you've sipped four caprese martinis back to back, then discussed the inevitable implosion of the universe. There's just something about the mixture of tomato, basil, mozzarella (or faux mozzarella), and vodka that really just pushes your innermost existential fuckeries out into the open. The ingredients shouldn't work, but they absolutely do.

And much like the adventurous cocktail favored by its main characters, Netflix's Neo Yokio is a wholly rewarding marrying of bold-on-their-own voices and (for some, anyway) seemingly contradictory ingredients that works on every level.

The animated American-Japanese series centers on perpetually well-dressed "magistocrat" Kaz Kaan (voiced by ComplexCon performer Jaden Smith), who's routinely tasked with nonchalantly taming demons. Kaz is like a ghostbuster, sure; but this ghostbuster most definitely frequents the @four_pins timeline. Smith is joined by Desus Nice, Kid Mero, Steve Buscemi, Susan Sarandon, Amandla Stenberg, Jason Schwartzman, Tavi Gevinson, and Jude Law as a subtly charismatic robot butler tasked with keeping Kaz's best interests permanently at heart.

After binging the series in a caprese-assisted blur, I reached out to series creator (and Vampire Weekend singer) Ezra Koenig and bothered him with some Neo Yokio questions. Peruse the resulting conversation below.

First of all, congrats on the series. I watched it front to back over the span of, like, a day and now I'm delightfully fucked up on the mere thought of caprese martinis. How did you celebrate the launch?
Thank you! We're gonna have a couple premieres and parties in New York and LA. Someone told me there will be caprese martinis there. We'll see. I'm looking forward to me, Jaden, Desus, and Mero all being in the same room together for the first time ever. Everyone has met in various configurations but not all together.

We first heard whisperings about the series back in 2015, which—given recent events—feels like eons ago. Then we finally got some firm details at the top of this month. When, exactly, did Netflix enter the picture?
It was a long journey. The TV business is even more bananas than the music business. Netflix bought the show after we made it at another network. They first bought it in early 2016 but contracts take forever, so we didn't have an official release date until summer 2017.

things are bubbling in the sea beneath 14th street pic.twitter.com/wIHzsnJt5c

— Ezra Koenig (@arzE) June 11, 2015

As you recently addressed on Twitter, there's been a small faction of people—including the fuckface who gave you parentheses—who have taken issue with the series before they've even had the chance to see it. What say you to these wasters of time?
I can safely say that the people who cringe at the colors of the characters on the show or the backgrounds of the people involved will not like it even once they see it. That's getting into much deeper issues than cartoons though. It's funny, [because] with a show like this you get people saying "Fuck that. It's not real anime" but also people saying "Fuck that. I hate anime."

I guess to both groups I'd say, this show is deeply indebted to anime but its own thing too, so who knows? Maybe you'll find something to like in there. We have an entire episode that's a tribute to Ranma ½ and Gossip Girl. I was thinking about that the other day. How many people in the world deeply fuck with Ranma and Gossip Girl? How big is the middle of that Venn diagram? Who knows? Maybe bigger than I think. I really just hope people who like Toblerone give it a chance because that's always been the target market.

I love how the series can serve as both an outsider's love letter to, and an outsider’s parody of, the lives of those in high society. You pulled this off without ever falling into full-on satire. Were you consciously trying to strike that balance? Are you pulling from any real-life (and presumably demon-free) situations for these stories?
When the show started, I thought it might be a full-on parody. I thought each episode would be a parody of a different anime crossed with a parody of some New York nonsense, but as time went on, we started to actually care about the characters and we wanted it to have a lil more heart and compassion.

So many things in the show came from real life. We always tried to dial it back to not roast anyone in particular. We just wanted it to be rooted in reality a bit. I love the surreal and futuristic stuff in the show but really my favorite moments are the mundane elements; the conversations, the espresso getting made, riding on the bus into the city. So yes—there's a lot that's pulled from real life. I put a lot of friends in it for that reason. Nico Muhly has given me fashion advice and dressed me up in Rick Owens, for example.

The show packs in plenty of references, from Damien Hirst to Ralph Lauren pastries. Were there any references you planned to include that, for whatever reason, didn't make the final cut for season 1?
Actually, Dev Hynes had the great idea to do a fashion week episode. I would have loved that. We didn't have enough time in this season but it would be perfect; Kaz at the Ralph show or something. I remember some kind of concept about Kaz going to the New York Philharmonic. That would have been tight. Maybe some kind of harsh performance of Ligeti creates a vortex. I wanted more music references.

Walk us through how you were first struck with the idea that would eventually become Neo Yokio. Did it ever encompass a form other than animation, or was a loosely adult-themed cartoon the goal from the very beginning?
It's a lil hard to remember because it came together in bits and pieces. I always thought Neo Yokio would be a good name for something. I had a vague concept for the characters and I thought it might make sense as a comic or manga. I always liked the idea of doing something in collaboration with Japanese artists. It became real when I met Nick Weidenfeld at Friends Night who suggested we do it as cartoon. From there, we got Production IG and Studio Deen involved.

I'm glad it's a cartoon. That makes the most sense. I also like the idea of a Neo Yokio novel. That would have been sick. Just dropping a 1200-page collaborative novel called "Neo Yokio."

Jaden Smith is a joy here, but the entire cast is quite a feat. How did the casting process come together? Did you just reach out to friends and people you specifically wanted for each role, or was it a little more trial-and-error?
Some people we reached out to directly. [We] also went the traditional Hollywood/agent route to get to other people.

It's very hard to imagine the show without Jaden. Initially, we developed it without anyone attached for the main role. Some people at the studio wanted me to do the voice for Kaz, but that was the last thing I wanted to do. Jaden was always my No. 1 choice.

I'm glad we ended up with a mix of first time actors, people from different mediums, plus the incredible experienced people like Jude [Law] and Susan [Sarandon]. Feels right for this show.

What's your personal favorite of the six episodes in season 1?
Hmm, well I think the show really hits its stride in the third episode. Lexy and Gottlieb start branching out on their own. Nico Muhly shows up. We start to get a deeper sense of the city. Probably that or episode 4, just cuz it's a tribute to my favorite anime and it takes place in the Hamptons.

I love what Dev Hynes (Blood Orange) did with the music in episode 4. Did you just pass him a rough cut of the episode and let him cook over that, or was the music behind that episode more of a collaborative effort?
Dev really just did his thing with it. I sent him a few references but that's it. It all worked immediately. I love this one flute-y sound he used. We made that a motif for the whole episode. I also love that his music gives that episode a unique character compared to the rest. He killed it.

What are your hopes for the future of Neo Yokio? Should we expect another season?
It's funny cuz I've been working on the next Vampire Weekend album for so long now that even though the cartoon is coming out, my day-to-day is full-on music. My mind hasn't been in the cartoon world for a minute. If we can do more seasons, I'd totally be down though. I wanna open up the process and get more people involved with the writing and conceptualizing. I think it could be fun but either way—I'm just glad it's gonna finally come out. I think these episodes stand on their own.

Neo Yokio is currently available via your Netflix account. Watch that shit.

Want to experience Complex IRL? Check out our second annual ComplexCon, a festival and exhibition taking place in Long Beach, California Nov. 4-5. Host committee members include Murakami, Pharrell, Virgil Abloh, Sarah Andelman, J Balvin and Jaden Smith. For more information on performers, panels, and tickets, visit ComplexCon.com.


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