In an earlier blog on how the World War II Japanese-America relocation camps figure into my mystery The Big Dive, I referenced the AMC horror anthology, The Terror. Season 2, subtitled Infamy, centers on a shape-shifting demon haunting an internment camp. The very idea of using the camps as a setting illustrates just how much the long-forgotten camps have recaptured our attention in recent years. In this blog, I will share a few thoughts on where the show succeeds and fails to capture the true horror of those camps.
Let me note up front that I’m not a big horror fan. On the other hand, considering the nation’s shameful decision to incarcerate 120,000 Japanese Americans, maybe a television show dramatizing their life in the camps deserves to be coupled with a demon, body possessions, and gruesome deaths.
Without spoiling the show for you, should you decide to catch the season on demand, a yurei, a not exactly Casper-friendly ghost from Japanese folklore, haunts the Japanese fishing community on Terminal Island in California. After Japan attacks Pearl Harbor, and the Japanese living on the West Coast are quickly rounded up into camps, the yurei follows.
The motive behind her nasty work (yes, a she) has nothing to do with the shameful creation of the relocation camps. The camps serve more as backdrop than an integral part of the horror element. That’s one of the show’s major weaknesses, in my view.
But there’s no doubt the show’s creators intended to draw a strong metaphorical parallel: The evil of the forced relocation of American citizens to concentration camps was as evil as any Japanese yurei. (I’d argue more evil, as the camps were a collective xenophobic political decision versus one pissed-off yurei.)
Many involved in the production must have felt the parallel. The grandfather of the lead actor, Derek Mio, was imprisoned at Manzanar in California. The grandfather of one of the show’s directors died at Manzanar. George Takei of Star Trek fame, a consultant and (underused) supporting actor in the show, was himself interned in camps as a child.
Viewers Feel the Deplorable Conditions
For all the show’s faults—plot and character weaknesses, clichéd dialogue, some mediocre acting—I was pleased the show portrays the harsh conditions of the camps and the mistreatment of its internees.
We sense the remoteness of the camps (the story is set in a fictitious camp in Oregon for reasons that elude me). We feel the oppressiveness of the barbed wire and gun towers, cramped quarters, the indignities, the poor food, the searchlights relentlessly sweeping through the barracks at night, the armed guards, poor health care, internees going mad, the deplorably small “reparations” paid to people leaving the camps.
The camp is run, naturally, by a buffoonish, bigoted, sadistic director. I’ll allow them dramatic liberties, but I’ve never read of the real camp administrators being as bad as he is. His bigotry and his ignorance of the Japanese and their culture, however, ring true. We glimpse similar racism, xenophobia, and misguided patriotism from civilian Americans outside the camp.
This misreading of American Japanese is apparent when the show depicts the introduction of the “loyalty questionnaire” I discussed in my last blog. The show does a good job dramatizing what a difficult position the questionnaire, particularly Questions 27 and 28, put the internees in—both with camp authorities and with each other. The show also brings up the all-Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team and divisive debates over whether to volunteer to fight for a country imprisoning you.
In one of the most powerful sequences in the show, the lead character encounters a Japanese POW. Their confrontation explores the issue of conflicting allegiances, even as both are Japanese.
The inability of Americans to recognize these conflicting allegiances is, says the showrunner Alexander Woo, “the mistake that led to the entire internment. Not understanding the difference between the government of Japan and its citizens and your own citizens who are descendants from people from Japan led to all this and continues to be. That’s why people are being told to go back where they come from, even if they come from here.”
Unfortunately, these powerful issues serve only as backdrops to the pervading horror element. If the horror theme captures the attention of younger horror fans unaware such camps existed, let alone their cruel conditions, that's to the good.
Personally, I would have preferred a straight historical drama exploring this shameful chapter in our history. That would have been horror enough.
Have you watched the series? I always appreciate your thoughts and comments.
Bruce Most is an award-winning mystery novelist and short-story writer. His latest novel, The Big Dive, is the sequel to the award-winning Murder on the Tracks, which features a street cop seeking redemption while investigating a string of murders in 1949 Denver. His award-winning Rope Burn involves cattle rustling and murder in contemporary Wyoming ranch country. Bonded for Murder and Missing Bonds features feisty Denver bail bondswoman, Ruby Dark. A free short story about Ruby can be found under Short Stories.