The Terror: Infamy is the Most Important Show On Right Now

The Terror: Infamy's look at Japanese-American incarceration during WWII has many disturbingly timely parallels.

The Terror Season 2, also known as The Terror: Infamy, begins tonight on AMC. It is the second installment in a historical horror anthology series. The first season, which premiered last year, followed (with a supernatural twist) the real-life story of British naval ships H.M.S. Terror and H.M.S. Erebus as they looked to find the Northwest Passage in the mid-19th century, only to perish in the effort.

The Terror: Infamy takes on a subject much closer—geographically, temporally, thematically—to home. Set in 1941 and in the years following, it centers the members of a close-knit Japanese-American community living on California’s Terminal Island fishing community, and what happens to them post-Pearl Harbor after the issuing of Executive Order 9066, which incarcerated an estimated 120,000 Japanese-Americans and Japanese-Canadians in camps in California, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, and Arkansas from 1942 to 1945.

Infamy centers the Nakayama family: young photographer Chester (Derek Mio), his parents, fisherman Henry (Shingo Usami) and his wife Asako (Naoko Mori), and many of neighbors, including Yamato-san (George Takei) as they are rounded up and put in internment camps. Much of the series’ drama takes place in one such camp, marking one of the first times the shameful period in American history has been at the center of a TV drama.

“This is a huge story,” said showrunner Alexander Woo to Den of Geek and other reporters during a set visit earlier this year. “This is a story that happened to 100,000 people … You can watch a documentary and get all of the history of it and it can be very effective and very illuminating, but one thing we can do is tell it on a personal level and, hopefully, the effect of the strategy of using horror, as using the genre as a vocabulary, is that it creates a very subjective style of storytelling.”

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It would be revealing too much to explain the source of the story’s supernatural horror, but I can say it refers to a character played with dread-inducing terror by Westworld‘s Kiki Sukezane, who follows the Nakayama family and their neighbors from Japan to America and to the internment camps, layering a ghost story (or kaidan) onto an already horrific series of events.

“The scenes are written in a very subjective way,” said Woo, “so you are inside of the skin, so to speak, of the characters. You feel what they feel. So, rather than a docu-drama style where you learn all the history, the downside of that is you feel a little bit removed from that, you might feel safe, and I don’t want you to feel safe. I want the viewer to feel the same things that these people go through.”

The series explores the themes of “what it means to be an American, of belonging, and inclusion and exclusion,” said Woo. “We tried very hard for Chester to feel very all-American. He thinks he’s just as American as anyone else. Just goes to the movies, plays baseball, and hangs out. He doesn’t think of himself as any ‘other,’ until his own country tells him that he is.”

The cast of The Terror: Infamy, as you might imagine, is almost entirely Japanese-American or Japanse, which is pretty rare in western fare. (The main cast also includes Cristina Rodlo as Chester’s Mexican-American love interest Luz.) 

“It’s amazing,” said Shingo Usami, the Japanese-Australian actor who plays Chester’s dad Henry. “It’s a dream come true. Being able to tell the story like this with so many talented Japanese or Asian actors was… I almost thought that, that wouldn’t happen in my lifetime and I’ve been working as an actor more than 20 years …  I hope this will continue because there are so many stories to tell still. There are so many great characters to be represented in TV series like this.”

The Terror: Infamy cast and crew have a collective 138 immediate relatives who endured the internment. This includes cast member and series consultant George Takei who, along with his family, was interned in one of the Japanese-American camps when he was a child. For him, as press material sent to journalists states, “this was the largest stage for what he has long attested as his life’s work: an eight-decade mission to keep alive the resilient spirit of the Japanese Americans who withstood one of the gravest injustices in our country’s history.”

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“It’s connected to the stories of a lot of people who work on this show, which makes it really special,” said Woo, giving first assistant director Jason Furukawa, director Lily Mariye, and visual effects producer Ken Kokka as specific examples. “I feel really privileged to be telling this story and be allowed to tell it in this way is really, really exciting. We have people who have a deep, deep emotional connection to it.”

Derek Mio, who plays main character Chester, has one grandfather who lived on Terminal Island, where his character begins, and another grandfather who served as a translator in the Military Intelligence Service, another part of Chester’s story.

“I’m discovering, if you’re Japanese-American at all,” said Woo, who is Chinese-American, “you have some connection, at some point, somewhere, unless your family moved here 10 years ago. So that’s sort of contributed to the feeling for everyone: that this is a super exciting way to tell a story. We’re doing something that makes it worth it because the hours are really long, the work is really hard, it’s really cold out here.”

The scariest parts of The Terror: Infamy, as you might imagine, are not the supernatural horrors it represents, but the real world ones. It’s not hard to make the parallels to today’s America, said Woo, a comparison that the showrunner hopes viewers will make.

“Creatively, I don’t like to approach anything head on. If you want to do something about immigration, I’d rather do it this way because I think it’s much more effective. I would love, you know, in my wildest fantasies, to have millions of people watching it because they want a good scare or because they’re really into Japanese horror or whatever the reason is and getting millions of people to care about the internment and what it’s implications are for the present day.”

The Terror: Infamy begins its 10-episode season on Monday, August 12 at 9pm ET on AMC.

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