Growing up, fourth-generation Japanese American Elizabeth Ito didn't quite fit in. She went to a mostly white and Latinx school in Santa Monica, with a meager Asian population. The only friends she had that had similar backgrounds were a half-Chinese best friend as well as another Filipino friend.
She talks further about her experience at school with a post on her website, "I remember getting teased for my lunches, and the standard racist kids jokes about Asian people. The eyes, the questions of origin, condensing us all into 'Chinese,' the funny mimicking-language-esque slurs. At the time when it was happening, it was painful and confusing, but I buried it. I tried not to draw attention to what the structure of my face couldn't hide. I figured out that it was easier when someone asks, 'What's your favorite food?' for you to say pizza because that's what all kids say, and that's what all white kids like. I don't want to have to explain to my class what soba is. Cold noodles with dry seaweed on top, dipped into a cup of salty, slightly fishy sauce, to third-graders? FORGET IT."
She then went home to Crenshaw, a neighborhood where her bike-riding companions were all Black.
Ito lived in a Los Angeles not usually portrayed in mainstream media, a nexus of different cultures and realities. Rather than act out or speak up for herself as she experienced teasing or bullying in school, Ito processed her feelings and the world with lines drawn on paper. "It was the best way I knew to express my feelings, both good and bad," she told Fülle Circle Magazine. Even as a child, Ito didn't actively defend herself, preferring instead to let out her feelings through graphite.
With these early experiences of difficult relations in Los Angeles' complex cultural make-up, empathy for othered communities and lifelong inclination for telling stories through drawing, it's no surprise that Ito came up with a hybrid documentary-style animated series that rings true for those who have long made Los Angeles their home.
"City of Ghosts," a Netflix series premiering March 5, is a funny and heartfelt look at Los Angeles through the eyes of five children — the Ghost Team members — from different neighborhoods and backgrounds: Zelda of Boyle Heights, Thomas, Eva of Leimert Park, Peter of Koreatown and Jasper of the Tongva tribe, who really belongs in all of Los Angeles. Throughout the six 20-minute episodes, flashes of familiar Los Angeles scenes shot by street photographer — and KCET contributor Kwasi-Boyd Bouldin — and treated with an animated finish by boutique design studio Chromosphere, flicker onscreen. Mariachi Plaza Metro station's stained-glass canopy, Vision Theatre's Art Deco spire in Leimert Park, even the city's colorful, graffiti-laden back alleys are just some of the signposts for true Angelenos in the series.
Like scrappy Ghostbusters sans ecto-containment units, the Ghost Team speaks with people and ghosts from all over Los Angeles to figure out the intricate reasons for their hauntings as Zelda's big brother Jordan makes an amateur documentary of their adventures. While making friends with ghosts, the children also gain a new understanding of a city they thought they knew, like Boyle Heights' Japanese history, Leimert Park's musical community consciousness or L.A.'s Indigenous past.
Ito says the idea to incorporate the supernatural came because of a ghostly experience she had as a 6-year-old. She was in the bathroom when she thought she saw the ghost of her great-grandmother. "Yeah, I was scared," said Ito. She cried out for help, but from his bedroom, her father replied, "Just go back to bed." And so she did.
It was an anti-climactic ending to what could have been the start of a horror story, but for Ito, it was the beginning of a promising creative career. The next day, her father approached her and asked "What happened? What did you see?" and, eventually, corroborated her story by saying he too saw something earlier that night as well.
"I was telling a friend, it means so much to be believed by your parents. They didn't treat it as like, 'What? That's insane?' It's more like, 'Oh, tell me about it,' so now, it's easier for me to make a show about a lot of these things because I was never told, 'I don't believe you about this thing you think you saw.'"
Ito, a 15-year veteran of the animation industry and an alum of animated projects such as "Adventure Time," "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2" and "Phineas and Ferb," says a second catalyst for the animated series were L.A. haters. "When [I] hear somebody say, 'Oh, I hate L.A. or I didn't like it there, it feels really shallow … I think … 'You probably don't know a lot about what it really is because it's too deep to be able to just sort of brush it off' like, 'I don't like it here,'" said Ito.
City of Change
To make "City of Ghosts," she also drew on the realization that the Los Angeles she grew up in isn't quite the same as it is today. "I noticed that the city has changed so much, so a lot of neighborhoods that were a certain way when I was little were not that way anymore," said Ito. This urge to capture deeper stories of communities that were gradually being overwritten was the second catalyst for the series.
Not only did Ito witness changes in Crenshaw, where she lived, but she was also privy to a lot of neighborhood dynamics. She went to school in the Westside, had grandparents in Mid-City and in West Adams. Her mother attended church in Koreatown and her father's family Buddhist temple was in South Central. Her experiences throughout different parts of Los Angeles gave her a front row seat to the city's multicultural makeup and its changes over time, and she noticed with fascination how communities of different cultures comingled to produce some surprising — and quirky — traditions. For example, Ito's family always gets tamales from La Mascota in Boyle Heights during the holidays despite being Japanese American. "[My father] grew up part of the time in the East L.A. area," said Ito, who now lives in Eagle Rock. "I remember asking him, 'Do you feel like living in East L.A. contributed to some of this cultural stuff that isn't really Japanese, but it's still a part of you?'" Ito's father didn't quite know what to make of her question and simply replied, "No, I don't think so. We just kind of did our thing." After some prodding, Ito's father eventually conceded saying, "Oh yeah, that's what people in the neighborhood did."
The way culture shifts between people was intriguing and something she explores in the series. "I want to be able to talk about that," Ito thought at the initial stages of "City of Ghosts." "I don't necessarily want to talk about gentrification from the angle of the hottest issues, but more like what stories are we losing by not focusing on deeper things in the community?"
A Sort of, Kind of Documentary
In telling Los Angeles' stories, Ito stretched animation in an unusual direction using elements of documentary-style storytelling. She was guided through the process by Co-Executive Producer Joanne Shen, whose credits include work for PBS, National Geographic and Al Jazeera America. Shen's experience in documentaries allowed them to pursue storylines not entirely made up in a writers' room, but pieced together with long interviews from L.A.'s community members.
To build their first episode on Boyle Heights, Ito and her team spent months looking through articles — including writer Mike Sonksen's KCET article on the last Japanese restaurant in Boyle Heights — listening to podcasts and casting a wide net to help them find people to speak to and places to explore further. Cracking that first episode was crucial to finding a groove with the rest of the series. Ito and Shen also had help from Story Consultant Jenny Yang, who according to Ito was "the type of writer you would find in 'The Daily Show," able to fuse comedy with real news. Yang also has a background in urban planning from UCLA, which made her well-versed in the dynamics of the communities they were trying to tell stories about.
The original storyline for the Boyle Heights episode revolved around a white chef opening a restaurant, but after reading loads of material and even finding inspiration in "The Migrant Kitchen," it evolved to feature an Asian chef opening a new restaurant in Boyle Heights with Isa Fabro voicing Chef Jo, the new "interloper" Asian proprietor. "Making it a little bit smaller, made [the story] feel better and it felt like we could figure out who those voices were," Ito said.
The team then pieced together portions of Fabro's interview, where she talked about her reasons for getting into the food business and her experiences in the culinary industry, as well the voices and remembrances of Top Chef Kuniko Yagi and Otomisan's Judy Hayashi, to build a fictional story based on real biographical details supplied by the interviewees. Hayashi, for example, grew up eating Japanese home cooked food at the Fuji Café, which was next door to her mother's dry cleaning shop — a detail that's included in the first episode of the series.
The rest of the episodes received the same type of care, with the team finding real people and situations. It was never easy. Ito said one of the most challenging episodes to make was "Tovaangar,"for which the team explored Los Angeles through the eyes of the people who have been here for thousands of generations, the Tongva.
In the episode, the Tongva voices of educator Craig Torres, artist Mercedes Dorame, poet Megan Dorame and the young Honor Calderon were crucial to telling the story not only because of their voices, but because of their ability to speak the Tongva language. "In making that episode, it was really interesting to learn about just how it feels to be in a culture where people talk about you as if you're extinct, but you're still around. It's been a fight to keep your language and culture from dying out because people have been actively trying to eradicate it for centuries," Ito said.
Weird Ways to Tell Difficult Stories
This isn't the first time Ito has tackled difficult things using a notoriously fluffy medium. One of her most noted projects was her award-winning short film, "Welcome To My Life," which was the lead that landed her on Netflix's doorstep.
The film short first started as a senior year project at CalArts where she majored in Character Animation. She developed it further with Cartoon Network, where it was released on the network's YouTube channel. It has garnered 5.5 million views to date, making it the second most viewed Cartoon Network short in history. It also won the Audience Award for children aged 12 to 17 at the New York International Children's Film Festival and won Best Film for Children at the Zagreb World Animation Festival.
"Welcome To My Life" tells the story of T-Kesh, an affable, laid-back monster trying to fit in at his high school, despite some obvious differences in physical attributes with his fellow human classmates. Ito resisted the idea of telling the metaphorical story of the minority, but in creating a short, which she based on her younger brother, it seemed it couldn't be avoided. Despite its activist message on racism against minorities, the short bears Ito's understated approach to big, heavy topics: Genuine, funny and quirky-different in a good way.
Weird has been a through line in Ito's work, and that is exactly as she likes it. "I tend to like things that are not generic," Ito said. "I usually lean into weirdness whenever possible. Like whenever you're given that permission to do something that somebody might not normally do that way, those are the things that I like to work on."