“The past isn’t over. It isn’t even past.”
Overview (Spoilers Below)
On the first Christmas Eve since the events of Neo Yokio’s first season, Charles tells Kaz a hyperreal Christmastime story. He begins with the story of Richard Ayoade’s sales clerk character named Herbert who was often happily subservient to Kaz and Archangelo throughout the first season. Though the young man is poor, he happily accepts his lot in life as a steward and squire of the wealthy elite. He meets Kaz, who is looking for a Secret Santa gift. Each of the ten members of Neo Yokio’s Most Eligible Bachelor Board competes to see who can give the most lavish present. Kaz and Archangelo are to exchange gifts with each other, and Herbert offers to help him shop. Kaz is called away to pick up his aunt Angelique from the airport and entrusts Herb to shop in his stead.
At the airport, Kaz finds his eccentric aunt who has eschewed the family business to become a memoirist. Compared to Agatha’s rigidity, Angelique has a whimsical sense of fun and curiosity about Neo Yokio and its people. She prefers to take public transportation, giving Kaz time to visit his friends. Upon doing so, he finds out that they are attending a gorgeous Christmas sweater party and are selling their Caprese martini drink in a can. Later, at the party, Kaz is dosed with a new drug made of demon DNA by Archangelo. Unlike the rest of the partygoers, Kaz hears the voice of a powerful demon who tries to compel him with leftist rhetoric.
The next day, Herb shows up at Kaz’s house with a thoughtful gift for Archangelo, a lost family heirloom in the form of a pocket watch that can sense demons. It goes off in the apartment, but Aunt Agatha says that it’s on the fritz. Later at the Bachelor Board Secret Santa ceremony, Kaz goes to present his gift, but he is spurned by Archangelo who uses the platform to hock his Christmas extravaganza concert. Unfortunately, the anti-consumerist message of Archangelo’s sales pitch causes Bergdorf’s department store to lose money, and the store fires Herbert as a result.
Herbert goes to the roof of Bergdorf’s to commit suicide but is instead possessed by the powerful demon (voiced by newcomer to the series Jamie Foxx) who was talking to Kaz earlier. On Christmas Eve, as tensions are reaching a fever pitch between Kaz’s aunts, he is called to Rockefeller Center to stop a possessed Christmas tree controlled by Herbert, unbeknownst to Kaz. Meanwhile, Aunt Agatha defeats Aunt Angelique in a magical duel, and the latter leaves Neo Yokio. After besting the tree, Kaz stops for a hot chocolate and is coerced by Archangelo to appear in his Christmas spectacular.
Christmas morning, Kaz opens his present from Aunt Agatha, and finds a disturbing family history. He heads to Radio City to confront Aunt Agatha and work for the Christmas Spectacular. After being forced to rap, he sees Herbert and chases him underneath the subway, where Herbert confirms that Kaz and his entire family are demons. When humans conquered the demon’s land, they made a deal with a few demons to defeat the rest. These traitors are Kaz’s ancestors. Aunt Agatha finds Kaz, pushes him away and kills Herbert unleashing the demon’s power and drowning Neo Yokio. After that, the story ends, and Charles’ pilot goes to mass, leaving Kaz to consider the weight of the tale.
I didn’t like the first season of Neo Yokio, at all. I thought Ezra Koenig’s attempts to take shots at capitalism through the satire of a hyper-materialistic Asian fusion New York were a waste of a stacked voice cast at best and accomplishing the opposite of what it is he wanted to do at worst. In his effort not to proselytize, he cut his show’s moral center down to only the vaguest platitudes. The result was more of a commercial for some of the most exclusive luxury brands on the planet rather than any sort of earnest engagement in leftist critique.
Now, without the fashion-blogger turned revolutionary Helena St. Tessero (who escaped the city in last season’s finale), where does this leave Neo Yokio? The bachelor board returns, Desus and Mero are still Kaz’s nakedly entrepreneurial friends, and this possibly non-canonical version of Kaz doesn’t seem to be able to articulate his discomfort with his gilded cage any better. I think all of this is actually a huge advantage for the special, which I think—while still flawed—is miles ahead of its predecessor.
Koenig’s first improvement was to make the special a story within the world of the show. This allowed the episode room to make more explicit critiques, as it seemed from the outset like a parable the working-class Charles was trying to teach the over-privileged Kaz. The next, and likely most, effective thing that “Pink Christmas” does is its setting. Placing the story at Christmas furthers the space for pedantry, as most Christmas specials have at least some moralizing, but it also provided a verisimilitudinous backdrop to the avaricious culture that Neo Yokio had been sketching in its last six episodes.
The special also draws into stark relief a few of the show’s supporting characters, who hadn’t been as clearly defined up until this point. Desus and Mero’s Gottlieb and Lexy had been far too prominent and given far too little in the first season, but relegating them to a B-plot pared them down to only their most intrinsic elements, that of clout-chasing hangers-on more concerned with how cool their business is than its success. I think this was always in the DNA of what the show was going for with them, but it took until now for them to pull it off. Similarly, Aunt Agatha’s obsession with her family as a protected class makes much more sense given their newly revealed heritage.
I don’t think all of this lets Neo Yokio fully off the hook, however. While a lot of its anti-capitalist sentiment is expressed more clearly and articulately than it was in the past, the show is still a sales pitch for Gucci, Versace, and a litany of luxury capital’s worst offenders. The show makes fun of music that’s more for show than anything else but features some incredibly bland songs that exist in the awkward space between joke and sincerity from both Koenig and voice of Kaz, Jaden Smith. Furthermore, while the show does a lot of work to clarify their Nuevo Riche metaphor, I don’t think it’s to their benefit.
In the first season, it’s revealed that Kaz and his family are Neo Yokio’s demon exterminators. They have magical powers that no one else has, and in exchange for enough money to put them in the upper crust, they solve the city’s demon problems. They were essentially rat catchers, and the metaphor seemed much closer to the Irish working as policemen than any kind of minority experience. In “Pink Christmas,” it is revealed that the demons are the indigenous people to whatever continent Neo Yokio is supposed to be on. The metaphor, has thus changed, to make Kaz and his family more like Native Americans who turned on their people. This is made especially explicit with silhouettes of European ships descending on the pink land of the demons.
I think there’s a lot here about naming demons as such when they are just the indigenous inhabitants of some land, but the demons call themselves demons, so the normative judgment of demons as “bad” is still internalized. While the metaphor of the first season, seemingly about assimilation into whiteness, seemed more in Koenig’s wheelhouse, the part where he places the blame for the downfall of an indigenous people pretty squarely on the shoulders of the small number of people who betrayed them rather than the invaders themselves is where he loses me. Also, the irony of a story about a family who profits off of marginalized people written by someone who made their name with distinctly African-pop sounds on their first record is not lost on me.
More than anything, this show seems like a pretty accurate reflection of how far into leftist theory Ezra Koenig is getting. It seems like he’s certainly read more than last time, but I’m still not convinced that he was the right person to entrust an anti-capitalist anime series too. If Koenig hadn’t fronted Vampire Weekend, we wouldn’t be talking about Neo Yokio, and it certainly wouldn’t have the embarrassment of riches that it does in its voice cast. What I want for this show is to stop feeling the need to mention the pedigree of the creator, but unless it continues to improve, I don’t think I’ll be able to.