The Magistocrats of ‘Neo Yokio’

Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig’s anime series portrays the perils of Jewish assimilation in high society

By Jonah Lubin|February 1, 2019 12:00 AM


Neo Yokio is a Netflix original quasi-anime, created by Ezra Koenig, frontman [1] of the alternative rock band Vampire Weekend. In its first season [2], the show was a love letter to the lifestyle and aesthetics of the New York elite, stylistically indebted to Shoujo anime, and the lush, aristocratic, genre-savvy Ouran [3] High School Host Club in particular.

The show centers around the life of Kaz Kaan, a young aristocrat totally devoted to the elite sartorial and social life of the eponymous Neo Yokio, a version of New York City rendered in anime pastels. Apparently orphaned (no mention has ever been made of his parents), Kaz lives with his Aunt Agatha while establishing himself as one of the most eligible bachelors in Neo Yokio (there is a billboard in the city’s Times Square with up-to-date rankings). He is also occupied by his job as a demon slayer which, in this universe, is a hereditary profession.

Neo Yokio’s version of the 19th century was riven by a wave of high-profile demon attacks. The city’s mayor, Theodore Corelli, invited old-world exorcists to his city, and offered them a deal: If they fought off the demons, they would be awarded citizenship. The exorcists were successful, and they settled down and started families. They and their descendants became firmly ingrained into Neo Yokio society, constituting a type of elite professional class known as the Magistocrats. Kaz Kaan is a scion of these immigrant exorcists, who became wealthy, but were required to work in order to maintain their status.

As this thumbnail plot sketch suggests, there are strong affinities between the experience of the Magistocrats and the experience of socially elite Jewish New Yorkers. It is also worth noting here that for almost every facet of the show to which I assign a Jewish signification, there exists a black signification as well. In appearance, Kaz is a young black man with pink hair. He is voiced by Jaden Smith, a young rapper, heir to the artistic legacy of his father, Will Smith. While I do not feel I am in a position to discuss the black reading of Neo Yokio, the layering of the signification of the black and Jewish professional elites within the show is fascinating.

The first season had very little to say directly on these topics until the show’s Christmas special Pink Christmas, which raised some fascinating questions about the place of assimilated Jews in elite New York society in a more direct way, which I am still thinking about.

***

Before I go any further, a couple of notes on the name Kaz Kaan. Kaan holds a resemblance to Cohen, the ancient hereditary signifier of the Jewish priestly elite. When I hear Kaz, I cannot help but be reminded of the Khazar hypothesis of Ashkenazi ancestry. This was a theory, usually supported by anti-Semites, claiming that the origin of Ashkenazi Jews was not the Jews of Israel, of the Old Testament, but rather of a Turkic people that converted to Judaism.

Pink Christmas is a frame story. It begins with Kaz, sick in bed, ordering his (robot) butler Charles to tell him a Christmas story. Charles begins the Gospel of Matthew. Kaz stops him quickly, requesting that he tell him a more interesting story, stating that he prefers “original content.” The story proper then begins.

It opens with Bergdorf Goodman draped in gentle snow. The sales clerk, who had appeared in the previous season to help Kaz pick out clothes, and who was customarily referred to only as “Salesclerk,” is getting ready to go to work. He relishes every opportunity to assist the elite in finding exquisite clothing. Though he is subservient, he loves his job and his city, and he is glad to be known as a great knower of the codes of good taste.

Arriving at Bergdorf, the Salesclerk runs into Kaz, who informs him that he has come in order to purchase a gift for the widely publicized Secret Santa event among the city’s most eligible bachelors. In a brutal twist of fate, the recipient chosen for him is his archnemesis, the blond, pastel-clad Arcangelo Corelli. Arcangelo views Kaz with great disdain. At their every meeting he makes reference to Kaz’s somewhat gauche position within Neo Yokio high society: that he is a member of a professional class, forced to work (i.e., slay demons) in order to maintain his position. Often, Arcangelo will make reference to the ethnic features that mark Kaz as a member of this class, i.e., his pink hair and purple eyes. Arcangelo is landed, a completely unadulterated native of Neo Yokio’s elite class. He views Kaz as an interloper.

Seeing that Kaz is in a dire situation, the Salesclerk swears fealty to him, and promises that he will find him the truly perfect gift to give to Arcangelo. Descending to the very bowels of Bergdorf Goodman, the Salesclerk enlists the resident watchmaker for help. When informed of the situation, the watchmaker suggests a gift: a pocket watch given to Arcangelo’s great-great-grandfather, Mayor Theodore Corelli, who, as it happens, was the one who invited the immigrant exorcists (i.e., Kaz’s ancestors) to come to Neo Yokio. Presented with the perfect gift—highlighting the multiethnic cooperation that brought Kaz’s people to the city in the first place—the Salesclerk accepts.

In the meantime, Kaz’s aunt Angelique has arrived from Paris. She is the sister of Aunt Agatha (Kaz’s aforementioned guardian and manager in the demon-slaying game), and the two do not get along. Angelique is disgusted by the consumerism of Neo Yokio, and she makes mysterious allusions to its dark past.

Agatha is a pragmatist, who runs the familial demon-slaying business with precision and professionalism. She takes this legacy seriously. Angelique calls her a mercenary, and is interested in a different aspect of their heritage. She has forsworn the system in which Kaz and Agatha participate, and instead focuses on writing. Even though her accent is French, she represents a different sort of Jew, and lives a different sort of Jewish life. She has returned to the Old World, and has left the Jewish-American life behind.

Kaz’s character is caught between his two aunts. He, like Aunt Angelique, dislikes his family business, but for very different reasons. Kaz resents that he must use his hereditary power, the power that marks him as other, in order to maintain his position within society. Agatha has made peace with this bargain.

***

Angelique’s arrival is followed by a series of events that mark out Kaz’s ethnic identity and otherness. Kaz attends a party, where a psychedelic, demon-derived drug is being used. It renders the user’s eyes a bright pink, similar in appearance to the eyes of the Magistocrats. After being dosed by his archrival Arcangelo, Kaz enters into a void of pure pink, wherein nothing exists but him and a booming voice. When Kaz asks the voice who he is, the voice responds that he is, among other things, fingerprints on a phone screen, and the musty smell of clearance-rack khakis. He is the unattractive, left-behind aspects of the society Kaz holds dear.

The voice tells Kaz that he knows “only the fictions of the marketplace,” and that he must “restore the cosmic balance.” This sentiment is an ancient one [5], aimed at assimilated Jews by Jews and Gentiles alike; i.e., that the market, the one place wherein the Jew may participate in broader society, is a fiction. When Kaz asks him how he is supposed to restore balance, the voice says, “Wake up.”

The next day, while Aunt Angelique is cooking breakfast, Kaz relates to her his experience. She responds, simply, that pink, symbolic of their shared heritage, “is a very profound color.” Kaz tells her that it is out of style.

The Salesclerk arrives to deliver the watch he is to give to Arcangelo. Kaz is grateful, and shakes his hand. They lock eyes, and we see a shot of Kaz’s deep purple eyes, and then a shot of the Salesclerk’s eyes, which are presented very clearly: They are also purple.

The affinities between the Salesclerk and Kaz are now even more clear. They are both descended from those same immigrants called to the city. Both are devoted to the way of life of the Neo Yokio elite. Both are very proud of the systems of knowledge over which they have managed to attain mastery, even though they were invented by the elites of Neo Yokio long before their ancestors arrived—a genteel sensibility that the Magistocrats have been able to understand only through study.

Kaz has an intellectual understanding of the rules of high society, because he has so patiently studied that particular Talmud. But Arcangelo, the totally native, landed social elite, will never truly accept him. Kaz is accepted within high society because he is useful to that society. No matter how good he gets, he still needs to work for a living, and his hair is still pink, and his eyes are still purple. Ultimately, his affinity lies with the Salesclerk.

Yet Kaz still has not realized any of this. He heads off to the eligible bachelors’ Secret Santa event, watch in hand. In a masterstroke of clout-chasing, Arcangelo rejects the gift of the watch. He instead performs a song for Kaz, condemns the consumerism of Christmas, and invites the city to his holiday spectacular. He starts a citywide movement against purchasing Christmas gifts, which leads to Bergdorf Goodman taking great losses. The store then moves to fire their most faithful employee: the Salesclerk.

On Christmas Eve, utterly distraught, removed from the only place in which his social erudition has ever given him purpose, the Salesclerk attempts to jump to his death. As he lands, however, he is possessed by a demon. He enters the same pink space that Kaz did earlier. The same primal Jewish voice sounds forth, calling him “my child,” and tells him that he has more power than he knows. Now gifted with magical abilities similar to Kaz’s, and eyes that glow bright pink, he begins to wreak havoc on downtown Neo Yokio.

Kaz is called in to stop the demonic activity. During this time, Agatha and Angelique begin to fight. Agatha demands that Angelique leave at once, and Angelique obliges. Kaz quells the demonic activity and, still unaware that the Salesclerk was behind it, returns home. But this Salesclerk has realized the power in his identity, and he cannot return to working within the system of Neo Yokio.

***

The next morning is Christmas Day. Kaz goes to the tree to find that Aunt Angelique has left him a present. He opens the box, and finds an obviously aesthetically Jewish symbol, a large scroll with wooden handles. With her gift, Angelique has left him a note. She says that in this scroll (in the narrative it is a copy of her memoir), he will discover his family’s history.

Reading through the scroll, Kaz discovers the secret truth. The Magistocrats, brought into Neo Yokio all those years ago to fight demons, are themselves descended from demons. Their power, the aspect that allows them their social prestige, stems from the very sources that they have been assigned to fight. They are useful, ultimately, because their particular skill set allows them to fight others like them.

Finally confronting the fully demonized Salesclerk, Kaz learns the whole truth. As it turns out, the Magistocrats stem from a lineage that for all of history has been opposed to the ruling class of Neo Yokio. The Salesclerk, or the demon inside the Salesclerk, or whatever combination thereof, tells Kaz that their ancestors made a “wicked deal” to help the elite of Neo Yokio, and that “in exchange they got wealth and class.” The demon tells Kaz that if he kills him, a deluge will spring forth, wiping away the sins of man. He refuses, but Agatha arrives at the scene, and happily obliges. The story ends in a flood of pink. Back in the frame narrative, Kaz is lying in bed. It was only a story, after all.

So, what does Ezra Koenig think about the Jewish-American elite? I don’t know. What I can discuss is what Pink Christmas says.

Pink Christmas points out the extremely uncomfortable position of the Jewish-American elite, which desires to finally be able to be accepted, to be able to taste the most refined niceties of American life, and to be viewed as native. But this has never been possible, because ultimately, the Jew is fundamentally other, and has attained his tenuous elite status only because he is useful. To taste the life of the elite, he must reject fundamental aspects of his heritage, and use his hereditary power for the sake of a group that is not his own.

But Kaz also loves his adoptive society. He loves Gucci and Prada, Bergdorf Goodman, and the Hamptons. He knows the rules of order perfectly, and his taste is impeccable. Kaz lived for a while in comfort, safe in his knowledge of the class protocols that gave him power to move as he pleased. But still, he is a Jew, of whatever kind. And it has now become clear to him that his world is not as simple as it seemed.

***

You can help support Tablet’s unique brand of Jewish journalism. Click here to donate today [6].

Find this story online: https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/279750/the-magistocrats-of-neo-yokio