How George Takei Used His Real Life Story to Help Shape 'The Terror: Infamy'
"If you enjoyed Season 1, you'll get exactly none of it in Season 2," showrunner Alexander Woo warned select members of the press during a roundtable chat at the 2019 Television Critics Association summer tour in Los Angeles.
Woo is referring to The Terror: Infamy, the second iteration of AMC's historical horror anthology series. Season 1, which was simply titled The Terror -- adapted from Dan Simmons' 2007 novel of the same name -- starred Jared Harris (Chernobyl) and gave a genre take on the 1845 British naval expedition of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, two ships that went missing in the Arctic.
For its sophomore showing, AMC is pivoting its focus on the period during World War II known as the Japanese internment, where roughly 120,000 Japanese Americans were taken from their homes, separated from their loved ones, and forced into prison camps. This was all a part of the country's misguided anti-espionage efforts that transpired after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. As President Roosevelt famously said, "It was a day that will live in infamy."
"We had many different kinds of tensions, certainly the tension between the government and the Japanese American community," said The Terror co-star and internment survivor George Takei (he plays an elder named Yamato-san). "But the Japanese American community during pre-War times was an immigrant community, an immigrant generation. There was a tension between the immigrants who brought with them the old country's customs, rituals, and superstitions and the American-born generation that was trying to be -- well, not trying to be… they were -- Americans. And they thought, that's old country superstition. It was a legitimate tension between the generations."
As a child, from the ages of 5 to 8, Takei lived with his parents behind barbed wire in an Arkansas prison camp. It wasn't until his teenage years that he learned the true nature of this childhood "adventure" to the country, and all these years later, the 82-year-old actor still holds onto these vivid memories, which he used to help guide the accuracy of the story, both on-screen and off. "Part of my job was to verify things as I remembered them," he humbly offered.
Derek Mio, who plays the central role of Chester in the show, is the audience's entry-point to this story. Using his own grandfathers, who lived in Terminal Island and through the internment, as inspiration, the opportunity to play this character and tell this story was, as he put it, "the most challenging, but gratifying acting experience I've ever had."
"This is such a crucial time in Japanese American history," Mio continued. "Because when the war breaks out, we look like the enemy. So the fact that we look like that… we were of Japanese ancestry, but we're Americans, it just makes it that much more conflicted."
Paying attention to authenticity and facts were of the highest priority here, as the show not only is exploring an underrepresented time in our nation's disturbing history -- this is, in fact, the first time the internment is being told in such a medium -- The Terror pays homage to the beautiful intricacies of Japanese culture and the survivors of this atrocity.
While the Japanese internment is a horrific enough subject to deal with, this season injects a genre element into the mix, once again. This time, the spooky threat comes in the form of that "old country superstition" Takei made reference to. The stories of obake and bakemono from Japanese folklore warn of vengeful shapeshifting spirits that can haunt the living. As Woo explains, the ghost in The Terror: Infamy "is otherized within this community of people who have been otherized. Yuko's an enemy alien in a place full of enemy aliens."
"I grew up learning about obake and bakemono, but I was a kid and you don't accept anything that your parents or grownups tell you," Takei explained. "But then as I grew older, I learned what it was. It came from Japanese superstition. But under the circumstances of the imprisonment, the immigrant generation goes back to what they grew up with."
The separation of families and citizens from their rightful community, along with the combination of paranoia and trust issues, permeate the whole tale, making us pretty confident that this spirit is the physical embodiment of all this -- a manifestation of the problems that arose in a country at war, and on the brink of an identity crisis.
"You know, the American-born generation says, 'Oh, that's superstition,'" Takei continued. "But that builds a tension between the generations, particularly in families. So in The Terror: Infamy, we incorporated it. Some people think that the ghost tales were imposed just to create that tension and drama. But it's organic to the story."
For decades, Takei has made it his life's work to bring the stories and struggles of the Japanese American community to life. In 1981, he helped found L.A.'s Japanese American National Museum. Allegiance took his family's internment story to the Broadway stage in 2015. With the release of his new graphic novel, They Called Us Enemy, it's clear that the actor/activist is staying true to his mission, which, as he explains, is "to raise the awareness of this chapter of American history, so that Americans are mindful of this history. And as more Americans grow with this knowledge, we hope that events like what's happening in our name, in the name of America, and on the southern border, can be stopped."
"This show could have been done 30 years ago, or 50 years in the future, and still will have relevance," Woo said. "Because the immigrant experience is one constant cycle of coming to a country with hopes and dreams, or wanting to escape to sanctuary. Sometimes it embraces you, and sometimes the country does not embrace you back."
When done right, horror can be the perfect vessel to show us the best and worst of ourselves. And sometimes, it can even teach a valuable lesson or two along the way. "I don't think we're out to educate, we're out to thrill audiences," Mio explains. "But, if underneath all of that, there is the reality of what happened, and what is happening. It can resonate with you, stick with you, and make you think later on and to have that empathy for others. I think that's a fantastic thing."