AMC's 'The Terror: Infamy' brings the horror of Japanese American internment to life

“It’s a story of Japanese Americans, but it speaks to anyone who is a part of an immigrant family or has been touched by the immigrant experience," showrunner Alexander Woo said.
Image: The Terror
Naoko Mori as Asako Nakayama, James Saito as Wilson Yoshida, Alex Shimizu as Toshiro Furuya in "The Terror," season 2.Ed Araquel / AMC

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By Taylor Weik

Derek Mio is no stranger to the horror genre. The actor, whose past credits include a recurring role on the ABC Family series “Greek” and a lead role in the PBS Special “Day of Independence,” appeared alongside Constance Wu in “Spooked,” a Hulu show about a team of ghost hunters. But that was paranormal comedy.

When Mio discovered he’d landed the lead role as Chester Nakayama in AMC’s anthology horror series “The Terror,” which would document the history of Japanese American incarceration during World War II, he immediately knew it would be a much more intense experience.

“When I learned the show was following a group of Japanese Americans from Terminal Island, I was shocked,” Mio told NBC News. “My grandfather grew up in Terminal Island, then was sent off to Manzanar, one of the camps, during the war. This was absolutely personal.”

“The Terror: Infamy,” which premieres Aug. 12, is the second installment in a horror series that weaves monsters and ghosts into the telling of historical events. The first season chronicles the demise of two real-life British warships, Erebus and the Terror (which the show is named for) as they become trapped in ice while attempting to chart the Northwest Passage, never to be heard from again. While historians today hypothesize the crew died onboard due to lead poisoning and starvation, the show brings in an elusive creature that stalks the men in every episode.

The Terror, Season 2.Ed Araquel / AMC

While there is also something haunting the Japanese American community on Southern California's Terminal Island in “The Terror: Infamy,” the similarities end there. While the Naval expedition in the first season braves the natural elements in a foreign land, the characters in “Infamy” fight for their right to exist in a country that has always belonged to them.

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“Infamy” refers to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 — “a date which will live in infamy.” The bombing led to widespread discrimination against Japanese Americans, including the passage of Executive Order 9066 in 1942, which allowed for the incarceration of more than 110,000 Japanese Americans in prison camps along the West Coast. Because many of those incarcerated were American citizens, the order directly violated their constitutional rights.

For many members of the cast and crew, getting the opportunity to film a piece of American history that was so personal was a rare and emotional experience. Co-creator and showrunner Alexander Woo had spent the past 16 years writing for television shows like “True Blood,” but knew he wanted “The Terror” to be the first project he helmed.

“All the stories and plays I used to write were about Americanness told from an Asian American perspective, so I saw this as an amazing opportunity to tell a profound immigrant story,” Woo told NBC News. “It’s a story of Japanese Americans, but it speaks to anyone who is a part of an immigrant family or has been touched by the immigrant experience.”

The show is premiering at a relevant time in the United States: In June, the Trump administration announced plans to use Fort Sill, an Army base in Oklahoma and former internment camp for Japanese Americans, as a temporary housing facility for migrant children. Since then, numerous protests against the facility and migrant detention have taken place both at Fort Sill and around the country. Many outspoken activists have been Japanese Americans, some of whom have wielded signs bearing the hashtag “#NeverAgainIsNow.”

Lee Shorten as Walt Yoshida, Derek Mio as Chester Nakayama, Hira Ambrosino as Fumiko Yoshida in The Terror, Season 2.Ed Araquel / AMC

George Takei, the actor known for his role as Hikaru Sulu in the original “Star Trek” series and a prominent activist who has spoken out against the use of detention centers in the U.S., is part of the cast in “The Terror" and has a personal connection to the show’s storyline. Takei’s family was incarcerated in Rohwer, Arkansas, and later transferred to Tule Lake when he was 5. He has devoted his adult life to raising awareness of Japanese American incarceration.

“I’m still surprised to this day when I come across people I consider well informed, but who are shocked when I tell them I grew up in the camps, because they’d never heard what happened,” Takei, who plays a Terminal Island elder in the show, told NBC News. “‘The Terror’ will be a groundbreaking telling of this chapter of American history, because no other film or television series has explored and dramatized this so powerfully, and on a massive scale. This will reach so many more people.”

In order to render the show as historically accurate as possible, the writing team visited the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles to learn more about the lives of Japanese Americans in camp. They observed the museum’s scale model of a camp barracks and studied items pulled from the collections archive including wooden bird carvings, which internees would make in camp to pass the time, and which symbolized the freedom they yearned for behind the barbed wire.

Japanese American writers, historians and organizations like Densho and the Go For Broke National Education Center were consulted, as well as Takei, who pulled details from his memory, such as the fact that the cooks in the mess hall at camp all wore cloth headbands called hachimaki. The crew also constructed a fictional camp with full barracks and a mess hall on their set in Vancouver, Canada.

Though the spirit that haunts Chester and his community as they move from Terminal Island to the camp isn’t real, the writing team also did extensive research on kwaidan, or Japanese ghost stories. For Takei, the infusion of horror with the incarceration experience of the Japanese American community is organic.

“The issei, or first generation, brought these ghost stories and superstitions with them to America,” Takei said. “There’s another layer of horror added to the existing horror and helplessness these people felt being unjustly imprisoned.”

For Woo, employing the horror genre is a way to make the story feel more real to the audience than a history book with black and white photos can.

“The beauty of television is being able to develop a connection between the viewer and characters on screen,” Woo said. “We’re using the vocabulary of ghost stories as an analog for the horror of this experience. It’s easy to sit back and say, ‘that was 75 years ago, it won’t happen again.’ But we want viewers to emotionally plug into what Japanese Americans must’ve been feeling as if it was happening now.”