‘The Terror’ Summons the Ghosts of a Real-Life Horror Story
This season, a group of Asian-American writers and actors, including George Takei, revisits the dark history of the Japanese-American internment camps.
By Austin Considine, The New York Times - Aug. 1, 2019
VANCOUVER, British Columbia — The best horror stories tell us something about ourselves. A zombie horde stands in for toxic conformity, a monster for unconquerable grief. But not every scary story is an allegory. One of the scariest the actor George Takei ever heard was a true one about his own life.
He just didn’t grasp the full horror while he lived it.
“For me, it was an amazing adventure, catching polliwogs in the creek and seeing them turn into frogs,” said Takei, 82, describing the three years — from ages 5 to 8 — he spent behind barbed wire in an Arkansas swamp. Never truly comprehending why he was there, he adapted, played with other children, adopted a stray dog.
Life was “butterflies and playing games,” he said. “I learned about the internment from my parents when I was a teenager.”
Takei’s family, he discovered, had been among the roughly 120,000 West Coast Japanese-Americans who were forcibly relocated to a World War II internment camp, the result of racist anti-espionage measures enacted by executive order after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Now, three-quarters of a century later, he has the chance to help bring that story to a wider audience with the AMC anthology series “The Terror,” which is returning on Sunday Aug. 12 with a story set mostly in a camp like the one that imprisoned him. It is a subject that has rarely been central to any major work onscreen, let alone one with a distinctly Asian voice: Most of the cast is of Asian descent, as are the showrunner and two of the directors.
Takei, best known for playing Hikaru Sulu on “Star Trek,” is an actor on the show and a consultant, serving as a rare source of direct knowledge of what the camps were really like. On set, as he worked among the recreated barracks and guard towers, amid the mud and the tar paper, the memories welled up inside him. So, too, did an evident feeling of pride.
“This project is groundbreaking in that the story of the internment of Japanese-Americans is being told on this scale, this scope, for the first time” on TV, Takei said. “It’s massive, 10 hours, 10 episodes and in such depth — the characters are examined in depth.”
As Takei and others noted in several on-set interviews in May, the series, which infuses historical drama with supernatural horror, was a perfect vehicle for conveying such a dark historical chapter of prejudice and paranoia. It also seems fitting for a story that has stayed mostly in the shadows, with only a few major Hollywood exceptions — like “Snow Falling on Cedars” and “Come See the Paradise” — which had white male directors and leads.
Like the first season of “The Terror,” which followed a doomed 19th-century Arctic expedition, the second invites allegorical connections between its central menace and its historical circumstances. In Season 1, the colonialist British crew, led by an arrogant captain, is tormented by a monster after a crew member accidentally kills an Inuit shaman. Season 2, subtitled “Infamy,” is rooted in a folkloric tradition of Japanese ghost stories, known as kaidan; as the prisoners struggle against their captivity and spies in their own ranks, a vengeful ghost comes to camp, seeking justice for past transgressions.
The history, in other words, refuses to stay buried.
“The horror of the internment was harrowing,” said Takei, whose family was uprooted from its Los Angeles home and wound up living on that city’s skid row after the war. Fusing a story of injustice with a literary genre about justice-seeking demons was “an inspired combination,” he said.
“Imagine innocent people — I mean, everything taken from you, our home, our bank accounts, our business,” he added. “The stress was incredible.”
The production was as large in scale as it was in personal importance for Takei and others. For the four-month shoot, the producers assembled a cast of over 150, many of whom had relatives who had been interned. Every actor with a speaking role of a Japanese or Japanese-American person is of Japanese extraction.
“To me, it was really important, because the subject matter is so personal,” said the showrunner, Alexander Woo, himself Chinese-American. “This is a really special production for people who are deeply, deeply, personally invested. These are their families’ stories and, in the case of a couple of people, their own stories.”
The crew built elaborate period sets, including a partial re-creation of an internment camp, complete with barracks, mess hall, infirmary and stockade. Its 10 full-scale buildings, surrounded by guard towers and barbed wire, were outfitted with latrines, searchlights and military vehicles.
And, among those things, there are signs of stubborn resiliency and grace: community gardens, bamboo wind chimes, a birdhouse.
Takei, who still has vivid recollections of his camp, pointed to the crawl spaces underneath the reconstructed buildings as particularly evocative.
“We adopted a stray dog, and he was black, so we named him Blackie, and when something scary happened, he always crawled into the crawl space,” he said. “Those memories came back, seeing the barracks and the tar paper and the strips of wood that kept it attached. It was like I had gone back to Arkansas.”
Takei, who plays a community elder in the series, also hasn’t forgotten the “terrifying” day the soldiers came to drag his family from its home.
He remembers the fear that shook him and his younger brother, the cries of his baby sister. The soldiers marching up the driveway, their rifles armed with bayonets; the house that seemed to shake as their fists pounded the door. He remembers being marched outside with his brother, holding what few small packages they could carry. Their father carried two small suitcases, the maximum allowed per person.
“We followed him out onto the driveway and waited until my mother could come out,” Takei said. “And when she came out, she had our baby sister in one arm and a huge, heavy duffel bag on the other, and tears were streaming down her face. That memory is seared into my brain.”
Takei’s comments underscore a somewhat complicated aspect of the series. At a time when Asian-Americans are finally getting some authentic on-screen representation — more “Fresh Off the Boat” than Mickey Rooney — a truthful depiction of internment on this scale seems overdue. And yet it also resurrects a very painful story that many who lived through it were anxious to forget.
“A lot of that generation didn’t talk about it — it was a shameful period in their life,” said Derek Mio, who plays Chester, an American-born college student from Terminal Island, near Long Beach, Calif., who is forced into a camp with his family and pregnant girlfriend. Mio’s connection to the story was personal, his own grandfather and great-grandfather having lived on Terminal Island when the war began. They, too, had been hauled away to a camp.
“Growing up, I had just kind of heard here and there that our family had some history with the internment camps, but it wasn’t like they were needing to sit down and spill everything about it,” Mio said. “You’re treated inhumanely, and you’re crowded in these tight corners. You have to share the latrine, and it’s just … it’s not something you brag about.”
Woo, the showrunner, said he had wanted to offer a picture of the camps that captured that complexity — both the suffering and the dignity.
“There was extraordinary resilience in the over 100,000 people who were interned,” he said. “It was important to show the entire spectrum of experiences of the people in these camps and not convey it as a place of just monolithic misery.”
The show’s kaidan elements — which Woo described as “creepy stories of the supernatural that often are hundreds or even thousands of years old” — manifest in the Season 2 premiere as a kind of supernatural vigilantism. An abusive husband is blinded after his wife commits suicide. A blackmailing lowlife finds his comeuppance at the bottom of the harbor. The moral balance is righted.
The horror elements, Woo noted, are designed to deepen viewers’ connection to the prisoners’ terror.
“If you want to convey a visceral feeling, horror’s a terrific way of doing it,” he said.
The internment story is ultimately an immigrant story, Woo said, one he hoped all Americans, many of whose ancestors faced discrimination, could identify with. Cristina Rodlo, who plays Chester’s Hispanic girlfriend, is the only series lead not of Asian descent. And yet, as a Mexican actress working in Los Angeles on a visa, she said that a story about detained immigrant families resonated with her as well.
“For us, Mexicans, we’re living it right now — it’s just the same story over and over again,” she said. “It’s insane that we did this 70 years ago, and we haven’t learned anything from history.”
For his part, Takei has made it his “mission in life” to educate people about the camps. He described being active in the civil rights movement and shaking hands with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (“For about five days after that, this hand didn’t get washed,” he said with a laugh.) In 1981, he testified before Congress about the effects of internment on Japanese-Americans. He helped found the Japanese American National Museum, in Los Angeles, so that “when we die off, we didn’t want the story of our imprisonment to die off.”
And then there was Takei’s role as Sulu, a groundbreaking one in the history of Asian representation. In some ways, Woo sees this season of “The Terror” as “a gift to George,” he said, recognizing “what he meant to me and to a whole generation of Asian-American creatives.”
“I’ve often felt a lot of this is to sort of honor what he has considered to be his life’s work,” Woo added. “If I’m going to get a chance to work with one of my heroes, I want to offer my thanks and gratitude.”