AMC’s “The Terror: Infamy” is absolutely horrifying for two reasons. First, it’s about a malevolent spirit that violently murders people.
And, second, it’s a scrupulously accurate re-creation of innocent people of Japanese descent — two-thirds of them American citizens — who were interned in camps for no reason other than their ethnicity. The period piece begins just before the United States enters World War II in 1941, and ends in 1945.
“It’s [a] reminder that that could happen again today — that it is happening again today on our southern border,” said George Takei, who’s both a co-star and a consultant on the 10-part series. “We don’t want people to forget — including the people of Utah, where one of the camps was located.”
More than 11,000 people were interned at the Topaz camp, just outside Delta, between 1942 and 1945.
“It is a singular opportunity,” said Takei, the “Star Trek” star who’s spent years making speeches and writing books; who helped found the Japanese American National Museum; and who helped develop a musical about one of the worst violations of civil rights in American history. “Never have we had 10 hours spread over a 10-week period to tell the story. And that luxury of time affords us the ability to go into detail on the specifics of the events that occurred.”
“The Terror: Infamy” premieres Monday at 9 p.m. on AMC.
The narrative centers on Chester Nakayama (Derek Mio), who lives with his family on Terminal Island, Calif., when the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor. (The show’s title reflects President Franklin Roosevelt’s “day of infamy” speech, declaring war on Japan.) Chester, his friends and family are rounded up and shipped off to an internment camp — some would say concentration camp — followed by that malevolent, murderous spirit.
“Which is organic to the story,” Takei said, “because this is not just the tension between the government and us, but it’s also the tension between the generations.”
The older generation believes in and fears the Japanese spirit; the younger generation thinks it’s just a superstition. And, yes, there is graphic violence in “The Terror: Infamy” — both horror scenes and war scenes.
But the real horror is that people who had done absolutely nothing wrong could suddenly be treated like enemies of the state and locked up in camps. More than three-quarters of a century later, Takei remains emotional when he talks about the day — just after he turned 5 — when he was roused early in the morning, and he and his younger brother “suddenly saw two soldiers marching up our driveway, carrying rifles with shiny bayonets on them. They stomped up the porch and with their fists began pounding on the door. I remember that as almost shaking the house. It was a terrifying sound.
“My father came out, answered the door, and literally at gunpoint we were ordered out of our home.” And “tears were streaming down” his mother’s face while she carried his infant sister.
Not only were Takei and his siblings American citizens born in California, but so were his parents. But they were, nonetheless, interned at the Rohwer camp in Arkansas.
“I remember the barbed wire fence, the sentry towers with the guns pointed at us, the searchlight that followed me when I made the night runs to the latrine,” he said. “They had three layers of barbed wire fence and a half a dozen tanks patrolling the perimeter. They belonged on a battlefield, not guarding outraged American citizens unjustly imprisoned.”
And Takei is outraged at what he sees as repeat of that as the Trump administration locks up undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers.
“Oh my, yes,” he said. “In some ways, that’s even worse. With us, the children were intact with our parents. We weren’t torn away. This is a new low on the southern border where children — infants — are torn away from their parents. ... This is a genuine horror story, not a movie, that’s going on on the southern border. It is not only eerie, but it’s chilling.”
That sense of outrage and injustice pervades “The Terror.”
“Hopefully, you can see that these are people just like anyone else,” Mio said. “They might not look like your traditional television cast, but they’re human. They have families. They have loved ones and they’ll do anything to protect them.”
The attention to detail on the set was “the thing that impressed me most profoundly,” Takei said. “When I saw the replica of the internment camp they built in Vancouver, British Columbia, I immediately recognized it. ... The mess hall, the look and feel of it, the cacophony, the noise and the crowding at the feeding trough. The look of everything was so authentic. It really took me back to my childhood.”
And Takei made his own contributions to that authenticity.
“The first day we shot in that mess hall, he said, ‘These dishes aren’t chipped enough,’” said co-creator and showrunner Alexander Woo. “So we went and chipped a bunch of dishes so that we could have it completely authentic.”
“The Terror” is also deeply personal for Mio, whose family lived on Terminal Island and were rounded up and interned.
“It’s a once-in-a lifetime role for an actor to play ... a character that is pretty much a composite of my grandfathers,” Mio said.
As he researched the role, he talked to his grandfather’s sister and an aunt. He found testimonials of Terminal Islanders — including one about about how his great-grandfather was taken away by the FBI while his grandfather pleaded with them to take him instead — which plays out in “The Terror.”
“When we shot that scene, it was hands-down the most emotional experience I’ve ever had acting,” Mio said.
And Takei and Mio were far from the only ones with a personal connection to the story.
“We did a little count,” Woo said. “There were 138 immediate relatives of our cast and crew who were interned.”
Including an extra — a man in his 60s — who is in a scene being forced to board buses carrying whatever he could in suitcases — “the exact same place his parents were 75 years ago,” Woo said.
“It’s one of probably a hundred stories we could tell of why this show was so special to us, this project was so special to us, and one that probably none of us — certainly I — won’t ever get to experience again in my career.”