Originally posted Friday, August 9, 2019 by RODNEY HOfirstname.lastname@example.org on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog
In the opening of AMC’s “The Terror: Infamy,” Chester Nakayama (Derek Mio) is a young Japanese-American man in 1941. That alone is not an easy existence.
To make matters worse, he accidentally impregnated his secret Latina girlfriend decades before abortion was legal. Then Pearl Harbor happened and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sent 117,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps, fearful of espionage or sabotage that didn’t really exist.
The show title is amply justified by that shameful situation alone. But the AMC series which debuts Monday at 9 p.m. incorporates a scary supernatural element: a possibly evil ghost force named Yuko based on Japanese folklore.
George Takei, who spent three years as a child in an Arkansas Japanese-American internment camp during World War II, is not only a consultant for the series but also plays a wise elder for the 10-episode season.
Takei has spent decades ensuring the memory of the camps are not forgotten for future generations. He helped fund a Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles after successfully winning reparations from the Reagan administration in 1988. (Each survivor and families of survivors received about $20,000 each.)
The 82-year-old “Star Trek” star said he was thrilled this chapter of American history is being highlighted in a way that will reach a broad audience on AMC. And it’s timed well with the release of Takei’s new graphic memoir about his life in camp “They Called Us Enemy.
“When I share my story of imprisonment with people I consider well informed, they’re often shocked that this happened in the United States,” said 82-year-old Takei, who was in Atlanta last week for the Asian American Journalists Association national convention. “I’m shocked that they’re shocked. The fact many Americans today are unaware this happened is troubling. The echoes of what happened then is happening today on the Southern border.”
Indeed, Takei did not mince words when it came to how the U.S. government is treating asylum seekers from Mexico and Central America.
“It’s a ghastly new low,” Takei said. “At least during our time, the U.S. kept the parents with their children. We’re now tearing infants and toddlers from their parents and placing them in filthy cages with human waste. This really underscores the evil this administration is doing.”
Alexander Woo, the show runner and screenwriter for “The Terror: Infamy” and known for writing episodes of “True Blood,” said when AMC gave him the job to write the pilot script, he wrote a character with Takei firmly in mind.
“I knew how it would sound musically out of his mouth,” Woo said.
Takei, when contacted, naturally said yes. He provided advice and guidance about life as a prisoner in his own country and marveled over the set design.
“The barracks were very authentic,” he said. “In the mess hall, when the space was crowded with extras, the cacophony felt exactly like that.”
One thing Takei recalled pointing out that didn’t seem real: “On set, our plates were right out of Bed, Bath and Beyond,” Takei said. “The real ones were beat up, chipped.”
Woo didn’t blink an eye: he had crew members chip up the plates.
Since Takei was so young when he was at the camp, he didn’t realize the injustice of what was happening until years later. At the time, he considered it an adventure, “seeing bayou beyond the barbed wire. We’d catch these wiggly fish and put them in jars. We’d watch them grow legs, then the tails fell off. Then we realized they were tadpoles and became frogs!”
In retrospect, he is still angry how the U.S. government treated his family and others. Even Japanese-American men willing to enlist in the military to fight for the country had to sign “loyalty” pledges that forced them to “forswear loyalty to the Japanese emperor,” as if they were not loyal to America first. “It’s offensive to assume that,” Takei said. “We’re Americans who were born here”! (About 33,000 Japanese Americans fought during the war and 800 died.)
Woo cared about authenticity in casting as well. Every actor who spoke Japanese on the show is actually Japanese American and the only major non-Japanese character is Chester’s girlfriend Luz, who is played by Mexican-born actress Cristina Rodlo. Pregnant with a child possessing Japanese blood and estranged by her own family, Luz chooses to join Chester’s family in the internment camp, where she suffers her own indignities. (”She was like an alien in a camp of enemy aliens,” Woo said.)
Ultimately, the season hinges on viewers connecting with the show’s primary protagonist Chester. He opens the show as a brash, self-absorbed young man but matures over the ten episodes into an embattled but ultimately more empathetic person.
Woo picked Moi, who he felt could capture the breadth of Chester’s journey. This was not just a show to Mio but a personal connection to his past: his grandfather lived on Terminal Island where Chester’s family fictionally resided.
“Our researcher even found a photograph of Mio’s Cafe,” Woo said.
“The production designer asked for photos of my family and they ended up on set,” Mio said. “My family was literally part of the show.”
Ultimately, Woo did not want the show to be a static recitation of past history. “I didn’t want this to feel safe,” he said. “I wanted it to be intimate, close, dark. I want it to worm into your brain like psychological horror.”
While it’s impossible to gauge if AMC viewers will enjoy this season of “The Terror” anthology, early critical reviews have been positive.
“With its powerful depiction of once-proud families uprooted and separated,” wrote Matt Roush of TV Guide, “the series is gut wrenching enough, even without the scary stuff. And yet by weaving ancient terrors into is all-too-relevant story of prejudice and fear, this fable feels as fresh and original as it is frightening.”
“The Terror: Infamy” debuts Monday, August 12 at 9 p.m. on AMC
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