The forced relocation and imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II has been the subject of sporadic coverage in the arts over the decades. Often it’s been addressed incidentally, not as the main thrust but part of the backstories of such films as Bad Day at Black Rock or The Karate Kid. Big-budget works directly about this subject aren’t common; one notable example, the stage musical Allegiance, received a muted response from critics and audiences. Like slavery, it’s a piece of history America is loath to recall, and there have been comparatively fewer people to agitate for better representation (both specifically for Japanese Americans and for Asian Americans more broadly).
But we’ve seen an increase in Asian representation in American TV and film recently. And the ongoing revelations over America’s modern-day concentration camps for migrants have resurrected the specter of Japanese American internment (sometimes in morbidly on-the-nose ways). It’s against this backdrop that the AMC TV series The Terror has made these events the subject of its upcoming second season, subtitled Infamy.
The Terror was originally meant as a one-season show, based on the 2007 Dan Simmons novel of the same name. Adapting the book, the first season followed a fictionalized version of the doomed Franklin Arctic expedition of 1845, injecting supernatural horror into the known history. Along with starvation and hypothermia, an ancient demon stalks the hapless crew of the two British ships. After garnering high critical praise and good ratings, it was decided that the show would keep going as an anthology. Each subsequent season would similarly tackle a historical event by infusing it with heightened horror elements. In Infamy, a Japanese American community in the 1940s is plagued not just by the racism around them, but also from within by a literal ghost from the past. In the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack and Executive Order 9066, they are rounded up and shipped off to “relocation centers,” and their struggle to cope is intensified as the malevolent spirit begins possessing people to murder them. Main character Chester Nakayama (Derek Mio) finds that the spirit seems to particularly fixate on him, following no matter where he goes, and attempts to figure out what it is and what it wants.
Like with the first season, Infamy‘s production staff undertook extensive research to properly replicate the period. This shows not just in the meticulous replication of locations and costumes, but also in how it explores more obscure parts of an already somewhat obscured history. The characters live on California’s Terminal Island, which before the war was home to a robust Japanese American community that was dissolved by the internment, their homes destroyed after their “relocation.” The show could have easily featured better-known centers of Japanese American life, such as in Downtown Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Hawaii, but this focus emphasizes the irreparable aspects of this injustice.
George Takei, who as a boy was imprisoned at the Rohwer and Tule Lake camps, served as a consultant for the writers in addition to acting in the series as Yamato-san, a respected elder. (He previously helped shepherd Allegiance to the stage, and also acted in multiple productions of the musical.) Takei’s graphic novel memoir of this period, They Called Us Enemy, was also recently published, and some interesting commonalities beyond the obvious historical beats emerge. Both the book and show feature scenes in which imprisoned families watch silent films with the accompaniment of benshi — live narrators. In both cases it’s a wonderful detail, culturally specific and highlighting how these people made the best of their circumstances. In The Terror, it’s also a respite from a story that grows increasingly grim, both as the lurking spirit becomes bolder and as the authorities turn in the screws on the prisoners with a catch-22 “loyalty survey.”
In The Terror’s first season, the supernatural served a potent allegorical purpose. The monster attacking the British expedition was a physical embodiment of the land itself rejecting their imperialist incursions, demonstrating that their supposed technological and cultural superiority was no match for the sheer might of the elements. Against such a force, the way the characters react then forms a heady rumination on mortality. The metaphor in Infamy is more slippery. The ghost tormenting the Japanese Americans seems a separate entity entirely from the societal forces that are set against them. Yet as more is revealed about its backstory, an interesting thread emerges about how assimilation (or a perceived failure to assimilate) can become its own active force in the lives of immigrants and their descendants. Historically, a common American perception of Asian immigrants has veered wildly from suspicion that they are completely unable to assimilate (a prejudice Takei covers extensively in his memoir, before then drawing a line to how the same view is applied to Muslim and Latinx immigrants today) to the later stereotype of the “model minority.” The Terror makes this the heart of the hostility surrounding its characters, an atmosphere more unnerving than any ghost. (This review is based on viewing the first six episodes out of a total of ten, so a clearer message may emerge as the series progresses.)
It’s interesting that it took these genre trappings for a new major project about this episode in history to get off the ground. The Japanese American internment could just as easily have made for a straight period piece — it’s certainly dramatic enough on its own. Generally, Asian American history has not been seen as enough of a draw for blockbuster entertainment, so it may be that this is the best “hook” available to bring in audiences who may be perceived as not otherwise caring about this topic. Whatever the case, this approach also offers possible advantages, with the lurid horror elements making their own indelible impression, and also contrasting with the mundane horror humans can inflict on one another without any supernatural help.
The Terror: Infamy begins airing August 12 on AMC.