October 20, 2021 • By Christine Pasalo Norland

City of Ghosts

Two nonprofits in Los Angeles hosted outdoor events centering the popular Netflix animated series. The first event took place on Friday, October 22, at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM). The second event was hosted by Clockshop and took place on Thursday, October 28, at the Los Angeles State Historic Park. Both events were outdoors, screened episodes, and included a live Q&A with creator Elizabeth Ito.


Originally released on Netflix on March 5, 2021, the animated series follows a group of children known as the Ghost Club. Unlike ghost hunters in every other iteration of ghost stories, Ghost Club members Zelda, cameraperson (and Zelda's older sibling) Jordan, Thomas (who is nonbinary and tells viewers in episode 1 that their pronouns are they/them), Eva, and Peter seek out ghosts in order to befriend them and understand their purpose for hanging around the living. Each episode features neighborhoods, cultures, people, and histories of Los Angeles County not typically centered in mainstream animated shows. It's full of charm, subtle humor, and teaches viewers young and old to have reverence for the ancestral places they inhabit, live on, and visit.


"People who know how the animation industry works are floored seeing City of Ghosts, because they know how hard it is to get anything that different and personal into the mainstream," said Ito on Twitter and Instagram this past April, posts that have since been deleted.


As someone who grew up in Eagle Rock and drove through and around Los Angeles neighborhoods south of the 134 freeway and east of the 10, I recognize the views and the wide concrete bed of the L.A. river featured in the Tovaanger episode (EP4). I know the warmth and familiarity of blocks and corner businesses like those in the Boyle Heights episode (EP1) and Leimert Park episode (EP3). City of Ghosts felt like a love letter to those of us who grew up in the L.A. enclaves that go unnoticed (or worse, avoided) by tourists and wealthier people, and it's that sentiment that has fans from other cities across the nation pining for new seasons that highlight their neighborhoods.


Frustratingly, despite holding an average of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes' tomatometer, as well as an average 85+% audience score, this intimate show that portrays wonder, compassion, community, and humanity as positive and worthwhile traits may only have the one season.

SCREENSHOT OF APRIL 14 INSTAGRAM POST BY ELIZABETH ITO. IT HAS SINCE BEEN DELETED.

"Not a lot of people are aware that I don't actually work for Netflix anymore," wrote Ito on Twitter on April 13, a screenshot of which she shared on Instagram on April 14. Ito's last day at the streaming company was March 5, the day her show came out on the platform. According to subsequent posts on Ito's @kikutowne Twitter account and @ottersnaps Instagram account, Ito experienced being dissuaded by Netflix executives to develop more seasons of City of Ghosts.


"My work is niche, it’s never gonna feel like a blockbuster, and it won’t get those numbers either. I’m ok with that, but it doesn’t fit what they think will make them profits," Ito tweeted on October 16 in a thread where she recounts meeting with Netflix executives and technical staff about the show's metrics. "For all their talk of transparency, it felt hella weird when I started asking questions about what the metrics showed, and what I was being told was what I should try to create next if I wanted to continue being successful at Netflix Animation."

SCREENSHOT OF OCTOBER 16TH TWITTER THREAD BY ELIZABETH ITO. IT HAS SINCE BEEN DELETED.

"They were not super specific, but specific enough about the style of how the show is written, and the reach they were looking for that I knew it wasn’t my kind of vibe anymore," continued Ito. "One question I had since the beginning: if there’s literally never been a show like yours, how could you only use metrics to value it, that for the most part, rely on comparing it to the performance of other shows? There’s nothing relevant to compare it to!"


Based on what Ito has expressed on social media, it appears she faced what many talented and visionary women, and especially women of color, all too often face in such establishments: After proving that we, our concepts, and our work has impact beyond the superficial, we're treated as exploitable. We're approached by a united front of internal leaders and technical specialists intent on making us doubt the validity of what we just accomplished, in an attempt to then co-opt and redirect our energy towards their short-term profits and vanilla agendas.

SCREENSHOT OF OCTOBER 16TH TWITTER RESPONSE BY ELIZABETH ITO. IT HAS SINCE BEEN DELETED.

Nevermind that Ito normalized the involvement of cultural consultants, like Zapotec scholar Felipe H. Lopez for the Koreatown episode (EP6) which featured Zapotec-speaking ghost Chepe who loves Korean BBQ. Nevermind that Ito exposed viewers to the history of the Atomic Café and the impact people of color had on punk and rock & roll with the episode "Bob & Nancy." Nevermind that Ito created a show that was full of detail yet didn't overload auditory senses, a show that embraces space between actions and conversations and breathed with calm despite confronting the unknown.


It seems our only ways forward are to savor what we have in the one season of City of Ghosts and to continue sharing it with people who haven't yet seen it. So be it! If you're able to attend events live these, please mask up and make it out for the chance to watch episodes with Elizabeth Ito and other CoG fans! Please also consider giving a small donation to the nonprofit hosts.


This story has been updated to refer to the events in the past and to include screenshots of the referenced tweets.


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IMAGE COURTESY OF NETFLIX TAGS: ART NEWS, ESSAYS, HISTORY

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