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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Netflix’s 'City of Ghosts' Maps a Better Way to See LA—and Everywhere Else

In a cartoon full of big emotional wallops and tiny pings of heart-stopping narrative specificity, one moment in the new Netflix show City of Ghosts grabbed my limbic system the hardest. The show is about a team of little kids who interview ghosts for a pretend documentary series that not incidentally spins a true history of Los Angeles. In episode 6, the Ghost Club helps a teacher find her friend, a Oaxacan spirit who has run away to hide in a family restaurant in Koreatown. As the kids and their guides troop into the place, the mom who runs it leans over to her daughter to say a few cautious words in Korean about their haunted restaurant.


City of Ghosts, created by a Los Angeles–born animator named Elizabeth Ito, is almost inexpressibly charming, and every episode has a part where I start to cry. This restaurant scene was that. Not because the mom is saying something sad, but because it happens in an LA that I recognize and remember, more so than maybe anything else on TV (even often wondrous Bosch, the hard-boiled detective show which is kind of the exact opposite of this coddled ghost story). I’m just a middle-class white guy who grew up in LA, and City of Ghosts’ multicolored tales of the city aren’t exactly my story—but also they are, or at least they’re the stories of the Los Angeles I loved and miss. I grew up on the edge of Koreatown, and wow, did I recognize the look and sounds of that restaurant, of eating smoky-spicy Korean barbecue in fluorescent-lit mini-malls where every sign is in a different language, of the palmtreed polyglot cacophony that raised me—that you learn to understand what people mean even if you don’t understand the words they’re saying. Los Angeles asks this of all its children.

Now here comes a show that’s a dreamy love letter to all that, a delightful cartoon and most-Los Angeles-y thing ever that also proposes a whole new way to think about cities, ethnicity, and history. You know: for kids.

I mean to get out of the way in a second here, but to just fully disclose, I haven’t lived in LA for three decades. But it still lives in my head. It’s my hometown, yes, but when one of the most significant books of your teenage years is the Los Angeles County Thomas Guide, you start to wonder why LA looks the way it does, and then why other cities don’t. And now that I’m old and live somewhere else, I have shelves full of books and movies about Los Angeles. A lot of them criticize the city for a peculiar kind of amnesia, for abandoning, demolishing, or covering up its past. One of the most famous, The History of Forgetting, locks that thesis right into its title; another, City of Quartz, plays up the fake-gem sparkle of the place. But not everyone in LA has amnesia. It sort of depends on who’s doing the remembering. In just six 19-minute episodes of a streaming kids’ show, Ito and her team have become LA’s rememberers-in-chief. City of Ghosts reframes decades of scholarship by talking to the most interesting ghosts from Los Angeles’ non-white, non-man, non-rich, non-Westside past.

The ghosts are gentle and often mischievous—a Japanese American icon of the 1970s downtown LA punk scene (who was interned during World War II) keeps drinking her daughter’s coffee. A restaurant owner in Boyle Heights just wants the new hipster chef to make the tempura right. Chepe, the Oaxacan ghost in Koreatown, doesn’t want his friend to leave. “When we first started talking about the show at Netflix, people really pegged it early on as sort of like a niche love letter to LA, which is true. But part of me was a little bugged by the idea that it would just be a niche thing,” Ito tells me. “It’s really a love letter to these really, really interesting cultures and communities.”

It’s no accident that City of Ghosts’ LA is a multicultural melange—that the kids are from all kinds of neighborhoods and backgrounds, that one of them is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, that they all draw different, personal maps of the city. The long and knotty history of Los Angeles isn’t just water speculation, oil scams, and Hollywood. It’s about people who lived there before it was LA, and about people whose families came from particular places on the map—the global south, the Pacific Rim. Most of them experienced the worst of what humans sometimes do to each other out of fear of difference, but they still tried to build a city together. Maybe that’s what a city is, fundamentally. The specificities of those stories weave together to make a blanket that wraps us all up together. The stories become a story.

The show’s Star Trekkish approach comes from Ito wanting to make those stories welcoming. “It’s not necessarily just talking about their trauma or the stuff they’ve had to fight,” she says. “It’s the stuff that is enjoyable, that makes it fun for me to hear about. It’s this feeling of wanting to add representation for people. I know people want it, and they deserve it.”

Ito’s delivery mechanism for all that is a hybrid. The show’s characters are finely designed 3D ’toons, but the backdrops and settings aren’t. They’re photographs by the LA photographer Kwasi Boyd-Bouldin, an ace at capturing the city’s architectural idiosyncrasies in clear yellow sunlight and sharp shadows, but each has also been slightly manipulated, tweaked by the animation shop Chromosphere Studios, run by Ito’s husband Kevin Dart. The clouds get blurry, the light gets lightly smog-attenuated, and the backdrops look just a little weird—like LA.

Most of the voices on the show are real people, not actors, telling real stories about their lives. That punk icon, for example, is Atomic Nancy, very real and not a ghost; the haunted theater is the real and beloved Bob Baker Marionette Theater. So all the dialog comes in a gorgeous melody of Los Angeles accents and cadences, edges blurred by Japanese and Zapotec and Korean, by jazzy poetry, the languor of Venice skaters, the phatic “likes” and uptalk that define Angelenos’ vernacular.

Like, you know what I mean? It all adds up to a level of specificity in storytelling about places and their times—like, not just “smell of onions sautéeing in butter” specific but “smell of onions sautéed in butter by your grandfather, in the house where you grew up” specific. The stories are genuine, and the people are real, drawn from stories researched and pre-interviewed by the documentarist Joanne Shen, Ito’s co-executive producer. The places are real. The ghosts are just metaphors.

Ito chalks that up, at least partially, to the influence of the short film Creature Comforts, in which real English people talk about the pluses and minuses of their houses, animated into zoo animals talking about their enclosures. She did similar work on the cartoon Adventure Time, getting people’s real voices instead of their supposedly funnier cartoon ones. “It felt like, that’s what’s making that character funny,” Ito says. “It makes it feel really real in a way that people gravitate toward.”

That idea was the hallmark of Ito’s professional calling card, an animated short called Welcome to My Life, about a teenaged kaiju dealing with racism among human kids in a Southern California high school. Her brother Eric voiced the main character, their parents played his parents, and Ito herself was the unseen documentarist narrator. The animation made it maybe less real, but more true.

When she was spinning up City of Ghosts, Ito brought in Shen to figure out how to up-rez those approaches for a bigger story. Ito and her team made a chart with LA neighborhoods they might want to focus on across the top, and added index cards with the kinds of stories they could tell about them—skate culture in Venice, gentrification in Leimert Park, the spirits of the Tongva along the Los Angeles River. Shen brought back research packets and sometimes recordings of phone calls. “For me, it was just processing all of that and putting an outline together that would be a possible way this story could go, with the particular people where I thought, these are probably our voices,” Ito says. “A lot of it was going out to meet people, making sure they knew who I was, what we were planning to do. I never wanted somebody to get into it and then hear, ‘Oh, you’re playing a ghost, by the way.’ I didn’t want anyone to be like, ‘You made me dead? That sucks!’”

Those real stories get interleaved with real kids voicing the Ghost Club, asking interview questions and furthering the plot. The stories are true; the stories are made-up. It’s the best way to remember Los Angeles I can imagine, and I’ve never seen anything like it. I don’t even know what to call it. So I ask Ito. “The closest word that people use is ‘mockumentary,’ which is a difficult thing for me, because there’s the word ‘mock’ in it, and it sounds like you’re making fun,” she says. “It was really hard for me to describe this show, or even my short, to people. Like, ‘Oh it’s a mockumentary about my brother’? But I’m not making fun of my brother. I just want to get people to care about my brother.”

I think that’s how City of Ghosts’ specificity also feels so much bigger. It doesn’t stop at the political borders of LA County. “In this case I want people to care about these communities,” Ito says. “Maybe like ‘fantasy documentary’? I don’t know. There isn’t an exact term.”

The show’s slightly otherworldly backdrops actually help the vibe, which has the soft ease of 1970s Sesame Street. It’s snuggly. That’s what’ll make City of Ghosts break big, if anything will. “It was difficult to find things that wouldn’t make my son cry or have nightmares later. And I think it was partially writing stuff for him, and trying to think about how I felt when I was a kid,” Ito says. “I think I felt I would really like stuff where the dialog is what’s real and funny about the people around me. For me, there was a desire to celebrate that kids are funny and they say things adults would never say.” Those things turn out to be a made-up celebration of a real city, all its flaws and memories intact, with an eye on the future—even if the vision is a little blurry, from the crying.

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