I never thought I would like a show with no stakes, no real plot or conflict. Nor did I think I would enjoy a show that was just a lot of interviews.
But City of Ghosts changed that.
This adorable, beautiful show is like a hot bowl of chicken soup; it’s pure comfort and warmth.
This show is easily one of the best premieres of 2021. Calling it now; this is going to make my Top 5 list in December.
The show was created by Elizabeth Ito. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because she’s a veteran of the animation industry working on everything from Adventure Time to Sponge on the Run.
She also created the short, Welcome to My Life which is a spiritual predecessor to City of Ghosts. So even though I wish we got to see more of T-Kesh, I can’t say I’m disappointed with what we ended up getting.
The premise of City of Ghosts is very simple; four kids – Zelda, Thomas, Eva, and Peter – are members of the Ghost Club. They go around their home city of Los Angeles interviewing people and ghosts about their lives. Topics discussed include food, music, gentrification, Japanese internment camps, colonization, and food. (Food plays a big role in the show. I got hungry just watching it)
The show treats the subjects discussed with sincerity and importance while keeping the discussion at a level children can understand and adults can appreciate. In the end, it’s a love letter to L.A. and all the different people and cultures that call it home.
Much like Welcome to My Life, City of Ghosts puts cartoon characters and objects against a live-action backdrop. All the city backgrounds are actual photos of L.A. and some of its most famous landmarks.
The character designs are soft and round but are all easily distinguishable from each other. The ghosts all have unique designs – from the classic ghost look to human-looking with bright, spiky hair.
The juxtaposition between the animation and live-action isn’t jarring. Somehow, Ito manages to make it look natural, which takes an impressive amount of talent.
Every little detail is displayed with care. Everything feels natural, warm, and comforting from the interior of the Japanese café in the first episode to the poetry studio to the library. It’s just amazing.
Much like its predecessor, it’s very, very obvious that a lot of hard work and love went into this short to give it a unique feel, and to get its message through.
Diversity and Inclusion
I’ve talked a lot about diversity on this blog. Like a lot. I think representation is important and necessary in creating good media.
People, especially kids must see themselves and their cultures displayed authentically. And it’s good for kids to see other cultures, religions, and groups presented authentically.
All too often when presenting a new culture, shows and movies tokenize them. These pieces of media become a member of the “Very Special Episode” club rather than just an interesting piece of media. And usually, it’s usually not the best representation – but it’s often the only one people have.
Luckily, that’s not the case with City of Ghosts.
None of the main characters are white. We don’t know their exact ethnicity – but it doesn’t matter. They’re all people of color, which is a rare sight in children’s animation. And one character, Thomas. is introduced as using they/them pronouns. No big deal is made about it. No explanation about pronouns is given. Thomas just…exists. Which is awesome.
Thomas is probably the first main nonbinary human character I’ve seen in a kids’ show.
So many different cultures are presented in the show – and sometimes they’re mixed together. We see Japanese people running Japanese restaurants and an Oaxacan alebrije enjoying Korean barbecue. We meet a child who is part Tongva, a people indigenous Los Angeles. There’s also skateboarding, vegan food, poetry, and punk music.
The show introduces all of these different people and cultures as interesting and all the things that make Los Angeles so great. The cultures aren’t whitewashed or toned-down. The Tongva episode has ancestors instead of ghosts and Chepe, the alebrije is clearly introduced as such.
In both of these episodes, the people’s native languages are introduced: Tongavaar and Zapotec. Both of these languages are ones, outside their respective communities, don’t get a lot of attention. It’s really interesting how naturally these languages are introduced into the setting and how the audience is given so much information on them without exoticizing them.
I learned about the history, culture, language, and food of all the different people who appear in the show. And that’s always a good thing.
I hope in future seasons, we get to see more of L.A. and the people who live there. I also hope we get to see Ghost Clubs in other cities doing their exploring. And we get to learn about those places.
Natural, is the only way to describe this show’s tone. While overall, it’s comforting – everything about the show feels real and authentic, despite its animated nature.
The dialogue is full of people stumbling over their words, thinking, and long trailing sentences. The child characters are voiced by actual children. There are accents. There’s hesitation….It really feels like a real group of kids going out and interviewing people.
And it’s partially because…they are!
Many of the characters are voiced by everyday residents of L.A. Some of the characters take on the real names and professions of the people behind their voices.
“A lot of what our characters say is just true to themselves and their own lives. In the Leimert Park episode, there’s a part where the drummer ghost has this moment between him and our Ghost Club member character Eva where she’s writing a poem and, during a recording session, at a part that wasn’t supposed to be recorded, he looked at a notepad and said jokingly, ‘I’m an expert at reading rapper chicken scratches, let me see that.’ But we recorded it and I was like, ‘We have to use that,’” Ito told Animation World Network.
This is interesting to me. This something that isn’t done in most fictional shows. Usually, you’d take the interview – transcribe it and then give it to a professional voice actor and get rid of all the filler words and pauses, so it sounds professional.
I like how the show embraces its premise while making the idea of ghosts feel like a normal and natural part of life. I like how the children are allowed to be children in every sense of the word. The show doesn’t try to make them sassy, too smart, or too grown-up. They’re just little kids doing what they love.
They use a kiddie tape recorder, a brush for a microphone and I assume a simple phone for filming. Not that their camera choice matters. Because this is exactly how a bunch of young kids but slightly precocious kids would run a club like this.
I like how it’s obvious that they have somebody filming during the show- Zelda’s brother – even though he doesn’t get to participate much. It’s nice that Jordan, who isn’t an official member of the Ghost Club, is still there for his sister.
Though I know the show is about L.A. and its history more than the characters, I would love to see the characters interact more with each other, and so I can understand their dynamic. They feel so well-rounded and interesting that I can’t help but want to know more about them and how they met and formed the Ghost Club and why.
And as a journalist, I loved how they presented this kind of community journalism and storytelling that the kids are doing. I hope more kids get inspired to seek out stories from their community and the history of their cities because of this show.
All in all, this is an excellent piece of media. It’s something that I didn’t know was missing from my life. Elizabeth Ito has a real talent for taking the mundane and making it interesting, calm, entertaining, and accessible.
That’s not something most showrunners can do.
I have seen very few projects where the amount of love and passion put into the product is so obvious. I know all artists put their blood, sweat, and tears into their work, even if it’s not their favorite thing – but this is one show where it’s particularly obvious.
I can’t recommend it enough.
Year of Release: 2021
Length: 6 episodes, 18 -20 minutes
Creator: Elizabeth Ito
Executive Producer: Elizabeth Ito, Melissa Cobb
If you liked this review read: “Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken” is a masterpiece
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10 thoughts on ““City of Ghosts” is chicken soup for the soul.”
Wow, that sounds amazing for a show to feature that much effort with respectful ethnic representation. I certainly haven’t had shows like this when I was a kid. This stuff really matters for those who didn’t have many protagonists who normally don’t look like them and there’s a lot of respect with not trying to make anyone a token character of an ethnic group. City of Ghosts also sounds like this beats the crap out of the Deggans Test which is a huge plus.
What’s the Deggan’s test?
The Deggans Test or Deggan’s Rule is a litmus test that refers to racial representation and characterization in movies or stories like how the Bechdel Test is for female characters and representation. For something to pass, they must meet two guidelines.
1: There needs to be at least 2 non-white characters.
2: The plot is NOT about race or ethnicity.
Not surprisingly, over half of movies and TV shows fail that test. There’s also an addendum which changes depending on the country of origin of where the piece of media came from. Using Japan as an example, an anime like Naruto would fail in that standard (Japanese characters), but Planetes would pass since it has a diverse cast of characters for example.
Ah sounds interesting.
Very much so. I first heard of that litmus test a few years ago and it just blew my mind even though part of me wasn’t surprised with most movies failing. From a mainstream movie standpoint, some examples that would pass the Deggans Test would be Lilo & Stitch, the Power Rangers remake movie, and Black Panther for example.
Thanks for informing me. I think this show definitely passes it – and it’s still an excellent display of diversity if it doesn’t totally in my opinion. It’s very informative
No problem. This looks like a show that would pass that test from how you described it. It’s encouraging knowing a cartoon like this exists for impressionable viewers who could use that kind of positive representation.
I love your title and can only agree with all of the points you made. I for one would group it in with the recent media trend called “Nicecore” (coined by David Ehrlich). It’s seriously such a good show, so thank you for putting a spotlight on it.
Nicecore! I like that.