Television

The Terror: Infamy Is Both a Lost Opportunity and an Urgent Artistic Leap

The new season of AMC’s anthology series uses Japanese internment as a backdrop for a more supernatural horror.

Amy Yoshida and Chester Nakayama speak in an internment camp room in The Terror: Infamy.
Amy Yoshida and Chester Nakayama in The Terror: Infamy.
Ed Araquel/AMC

Japanese Americans, or at least the political engaged and left-leaning among them, have been some of the most vocal critics of the Trump administration’s family-separation policy. Activists, including actor George Takei, who spent part of his childhood interned during World War II, have spoken out against the White House’s racist cruelties, comparing the incarceration of Japanese Americans to the caging of children at the border, many of whose parents hoped to exercise their legal rights to claim asylum.

Without doubting the sincerity of those activists, it’s worth noting the tactical shrewdness of their rhetoric, which rescues the trauma of Japanese America’s wartime generations from the historical amnesia we’re all too inclined toward as a nation. The Japanese-American activists of the 1980s, in particular, who won reparations from the federal government for internment recast the pain of their parents’ generation as too instructive to forget. Still, one can’t help wondering how much work there still is to do in remembering this bleak chapter of our past.

That question feels unavoidable with the second season of AMC’s supernatural anthology series The Terror, set largely at a fictional “war relocation center” in Oregon in the early 1940s.
Subtitled Infamy, the season adds horror to tragedy, with an undead monster from Japanese folklore stalking the Nakayama family from Los Angeles to the concentration camp, and eventually trailing after Chester Nakayama (Derek Mio), specifically, from the United States to the Pacific theater. Viewers who come to the show already steeped in the details of the camps will find an abundance of nods to history, but The Terror: Infamy is decidedly not Roots, i.e., a realistic chronicle of history meant to typify the struggles and experiences of a people. Infamy certainly explores issues with wider relevance to immigrant groups, such as the cultural and intergenerational tension between Chester—a brash, American-born, college-educated photographer filled with wanderlust—and his dad, Henry (series standout Shingo Usami)—a cautious but dignified fisherman content to settle in the Japanese ghetto on Los Angeles’ Terminal Island after having already moved halfway around the world.

Even before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Chester and Henry lock horns, especially over the question of how best to deal with racism. But the first six installments of the 10-part season, at least, reveal a show more interested in moody atmospherics and family melodrama than the many injuries of Japanese-American incarceration. Given the scarcity of Asian American pop culture in general and the even greater dearth of mainstream narratives about the centuries’ worth of Asian American history, Infamy feels like both a lost educational opportunity and a vast and urgent artistic leap.

One of the most striking things about Infamy is how relatively little time it spends illustrating the damage wrought by internment. There are the requisite scenes of being abruptly forced to pack one’s life into two suitcases (the maximum number allowed) and the internees never being told where they would be sent or for how long. (“Two weeks,” Chester initially guesses. “Or months. Tops.”) Other details are accurate to the camps, too: Many were forced to sleep in soiled horse stables, and roving floodlights would render privacy, even when using the bathroom, a distant memory. But because the show’s depiction of incarceration hews closely to the concerns of the Nakayamas, who aren’t particularly ideological, Infamy also skips over some essential points, like the distress of rush-selling homes and businesses after FDR issued Order 9066, the key role that white California farmers played in spreading Japanophobia, even the depression many suffered in the camps. And because the monster, in the guise of a kimono-clad young woman (Kiki Sukezane), drives several characters to kill themselves in spectacular fashion, it’s possible that this more personalized and visceral aggression distracts from the rarely fatal but thoroughly dehumanizing violence of the state.

But there’s power, too, in assuming the audience’s knowledge of the subject at hand—an implication that they should already know this history, and fairly thoroughly at that. (Asian American studies majors, rejoice!) A heavily bilingual series (with a splash of Spanish, mostly from Chester’s Mexican-American girlfriend Luz, played by Cristina Rodlo), Infamy rarely stops to explain Japanese concepts or relevant historical details, like the no-no boys or California’s anti-miscegenation laws (which the state Supreme Court would declare unconstitutional just a few years later in 1948). Luz’s Mexican heritage, along with her disgust at seeing young children and even babies taken to the camps from the orphanage where she works, suggests another parallel between Japanese-American internment and more recent federal actions.

Created by Alexander Woo and Max Borenstein, Infamy also features a wonderfully varied range of responses from the Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans in the camps. While Henry hardens against the U.S. government, especially after he’s tortured by the FBI, Chester relinquishes his anger at the blatant racism he’s subject to in order to provide for his family. (It doesn’t feel at all incidental that Infamy makes its Asian American protagonist a romantic hero, given American culture’s decades-long reluctance to see Asian men as sexually attractive.) Chester’s rebellious childhood friend, Amy (Miki Ishikawa), finds herself working for the U.S. military in a secretarial role. A San Francisco native (Christopher Naoki Lee), scoffing at what he deems the complacencies of the small-town Terminal Islanders, attempts to rally the other internees in protest. Chester’s mother, Asako (Naoko Mori), quickly embraces her new community. And Takei, in a small role, serves as a charismatic elder. (Takei isn’t the only cast member with a personal connection to internment: Mio’s grandfather lived on Terminal Island himself and was later taken to the concentration camp at Manzanar.)

Enacting its vengeances in gruesome yet ineffably elegant ways, the monster, too, is slowly but satisfyingly revealed to have its own poignant motivations. The sixth episode, the first half of which is entirely in Japanese, represents exactly the kind of visionary storytelling the show’s premise augurs. And though it must limit casting directors’ choices, it also feels special that all of the Japanese and Japanese-American characters are played by actors of Japanese heritage, culled from at least four continents.

But it also becomes increasingly clear that Infamy is more a family-centric drama than a historical narrative. In fact, most of the supernatural elements could conceivably have taken place even if the Nakayamas had never moved to the U.S., though the inciting calamity is arguably dependent on the separate historical phenomenon of picture brides (another consequence of American xenophobia). Due to television’s reach and accessibility, there’s no mistaking that Infamy will instantly become one of the most widespread narratives about Japanese-American incarceration, and I remain mixed about whether that’s a good thing or not: Is it more urgent to show the trauma of internment, or to, as the series does, focus on how internees coped through dances, baseball games, and, in a fun reversal, movie nights where Japanese actors dub an American movie in comically exaggerated voices? The series doesn’t minimize the internees’ hardships, even if it somewhat underplays them. But it’s also a little strange to see the only major piece of pop culture about Japanese-American incarceration imply that its characters have even scarier things to worry about.