Set on the eve of Pearl Harbor — and, more pertinently, the mass internment of Japanese-Americans in the aftermath — there’s an eerie timeliness to the new season of horror anthology The Terror.
Beginning with a woman’s inexplicable suicide (and a number of supernatural occurrences best left un-spoiled), the story centers on a small Japanese-American community on Terminal Island. The premiere episode is rife with omens and unsettling atmosphere, not to mention family secrets. Though amidst its questions of guilt, repression and cultural (un)belonging, the series also picks its historical moment with uncanny precision.
One scene in particular drives the relevancy home entirely by chance: scorned fishery foreman Stan Grichuk (Teach Grant) threatens to turn Japanese-born employee Henry Nakayama (Shingo Usami) over to the authorities out of spite, on the grounds of failing to properly register his fishing vessel so he wouldn’t be considered a spy. This, despite Henry having acted on Grichuk’s own orders. The subplot bears a resemblance to the Mississippi ICE raids just last week, where the owners of several chicken processing plants had over 600 Latinx workers rounded up despite being aware of their immigrant status during their hiring.
The point of the show’s politics could not be more apparent, though its personal storyline is a supernatural mystery that’s yet to be reconciled with its backdrop. Granted, the first hour of any modern series is rarely expected to provide all the answers. But the show’s genre setting, while occasionally startling, doesn’t yet carry the same intrigue as its historical one.
Photographer Chester Nakayama (Derek Mio), Henry’s American-born son, finds himself torn between worlds: family and career, Terminal Island and mainland U.S.A., Japanese and American. He’s the lynchpin for the show’s focus on American identity and its evolution in the 20th century, and Mio fits awkwardly into both his Japanese family dynamic and with his American friends. He’s a perpetual outsider.
It’s through Chester’s perspective, and through the photographs he develops, that the show’s spiritual horrors begin to come to light. The Japanese-born characters speculate thatbakemono, or shape-shifting spirits, have followed them across the Pacific. The American-born characters are less convinced, but whatever’s targeting the denizens of Terminal Island doesn’t seem to discriminate.
The Terror: Infamy Photos
The Terror: Infamy Photos
However, the show’s supernatural omens pale in comparison to ominous historical hindsight. The Terror: Infamy isn’t coy about where it’s headed — the opening credits prominently feature Japanese internment camps — and so the omens that hit hardest are the ones grounded in the characters’ physical reality. Giant blades at Henry’s factory obscure the frame; guns and Naval uniforms feature prominently in the backdrop; scenes of isolation are foregrounded by liquor bottles, and the dirty-soft focus creates a voyeuristic feel. We’re peering in on parts of history America would rather sweep under the rug — a history painted in gloomy shades of beige and brown, where a happy future feels unlikely.
While younger characters like Chester, his secret girlfriend Luz (Cristina Rodlo) and family-friend Amy (Miki Ishikawa) keep their eyes on the future, older, more world-weary folks like Henry and community elder Yamato-san (George Takei) harp not only on caution and family traditions, but on the weight of history itself — as if the deadly tragedies suddenly befalling their community are some sort of vengeful embodiment. The historical premise is set to be explored in the weeks to come (spoilers for real events:the FBI rounds up Japanese-born men toward the end of the first episode) and by the look of it, the Japanese-in-origin horror elements will be mined more deeply too. Whether these two disparate elements will ever come into contact, or be bound logistically, remains to be seen. Though what’s clear from the outset is that they’re woven together thematically.
The characters speculate that the unseenbakemonois a vindictive presence, killing and blinding Japanese people who’ve committed sins. Whether or not they’re correct, the cruel weight of a past unrecognized is embodied by the show itself. Several people associated with The Terror: Infamy are opening up old wounds through their mere involvement. Derek Mio’s grandfather lived on Terminal Island and was interned after Pearl Harbor. The grandfather of Episode 1 director Josef Kubota Wladyka survived the A-bomb in Hiroshima. Episode 5 director Lily Mariye’s whole family was interned at Tule Lake; her father’s family died in Hiroshima; her grandfather died in the camps. And George Takei was taken to the camps when he was five years old.
The show is distinctly Japanese, more so than anything on American television. About a third of the spoken dialogue is in Japanese and there’s haunting verisimilitude in every detail, from the tiny rituals surrounding death and spirits, to the way characters navigate shame and unspoken emotional repression. The show is also distinctly American, and thus distinctly Japanese-American, in the way it mirrors these personal repressions with the repression of history itself, from the characters’ personal histories, to the political history unfolding on-screen: A history too often swept under the rug, and a history now resurgent.
Infamy, the second season of horror-anthology show The Terror, takes a bold new direction despite its initial imbalances. Set on the eve of Pearl Harbor and Japanese internment, the series brings together a stellar lineup of actors and directors with personal connections to its historical setting. As a mysterious evil sweeps through the Japanese community on Terminal Island, World War II-era racial tensions come to a head in a story of guilt, regret and confronting the weight of history. This is a gloomy, atmospheric first episode that shows an immense amount of promise.