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Exclusive: George Takei on The Terror: Infamy and horrors real and imagined

George Takei plays Yamato-San, a wizened elder who tries to convince Chester the Japanese spirit world is strong and exists among them
George Takei plays Yamato-San, a wizened elder who tries to convince Chester the Japanese spirit world is strong and exists among them. Pic credit: AMC

One of the very best things you will watch this summer on television will be the sophomore season of AMC’s anthology series, The Terror: Infamy coming in August.

The reason being is that it combines historical fact presented with a veil of fascinating horror elements from Japan.

It is all underscored with intense gravitas by one of the star’s own life experiences. George Takei was a five-year-old child when his family was taken away, first to filthy Santa Anita race track horse stalls in a waiting period prior to their permanent placement in an Arkansas camp far away from their home in California.

Mr. Takei spoke with me at the recent Television Critics’ Association press tour on the heels of his San Diego Comic-Con appearances where he talked at great length about all of this, his role on Infamy and his new graphic novel They Called Us Enemy.

George Takei first became a star on television, playing Hikaru Sulu on Star Trek: The Original Series. He has since become a social and cultural activist along with his creative endeavors of acting and writing. And at the age of 82, he shows no signs of fatigue and shames men half his age in his overall health and work ethic.

But his role on The Terror: Infamy coinciding with his new graphic novel They Called Us Enemy are no coincidence.

The effects of the internment his family suffered through are still with him, and he shared with me how the fracture in his personal timeline was far-reaching even after the camps were disbanded.

Clarifying his own personal experience, he added: “I grew up in two internment camps and I consulted on the authenticity of the ‘Infamy’ characters, the historic issues …and just because the war ended, our being released wasn’t the end of the story.”

“The real horror for me as a child began when we were released [back to California]. Housing was impossible. Our first home was on [Los Angeles] skid row and the chaos and the smell and that ugly, scary, smelly people staggering around. And fighting constantly…the sirens going day and night.  I started school and the teacher kept calling me the ‘Jap boy’ and never called on me, but I raised my head so I quit raising my hand. I mean the hate was intense.”

Unlike the first run of The Terror last summer, the action and basis for this new story will be landlocked, not at sea.

To appreciate where the storytellers, executive producer Ridley Scott, co-creators Alexander Woo and Max Borenstein and DP John Conroy take us, you must revisit a dark past of American history and also know some basic Japanese horror elements.

America had their own version of concentration camps during the WWII years, this shameful era of Japanese-American internment camps commonly are often times incorrectly referred to as “Japanese internment camps” according to star and show consultant George Takei. He became visibly upset when clarifying this terminology.

He said: “When they use the term Japanese internment camp, that really drives me up the wall because anyone who knows common English would know that Japanese internment camps would be run by the Japanese government. We are American citizens of Japanese ancestry, ordered by the President of the United States to be imprisoned in the United States in 10 isolated prison camps, concentration camps, guarded over by the US military. These were American concentration camps for Americans of Japanese ancestry…Japanese internment camps drive me crazy.”

Though not intended for a Final Solution as the German camps were, they did their damage and incarcerated actual American citizens.

A close up of the cover of George Takei's graphic novel, They Called Us Enemy.
A close up of the cover of George Takei’s graphic novel, They Called Us Enemy. Pic credit: Top Shelf Productions

The graphic novel details his experiences in a format for a new generation to learn from and have their eyes opened – and Mr. Takei is acutely aware of how timely his book and this TV series have never been more timely.

“What we have is this endless cycle, the repetition of this kind of horror, injustice being inflicted on minority people. And we see it again today on our southern borders. But we’ve reached a new, grotesque low.”

Unlike the people of the southern border, Mr. Takei noted the Japanese American plight was different. He said: “We were together with our parents. Our families were intact. What we see today now is this incredible inhumanity of children being torn away from their parents and some being scattered in the outer far reaches of the United States from where they were torn away…I hope this show, The Terror Infamy will remind people that it is still existing today…And to expand this internationally, in China, the Uyghurs, Chinese Muslims, are being imprisoned in the as they call it, ‘re-education camps’. They are concentration camps…another horrific atrocity being carried on in another part of this world.”

On this run of The Terror: Infamy, we meet Chester Nakayama (Derek Mio) an all-American kid and budding photographer who finds himself the object of unwanted attention from yuurei (sometimes also spelled yurei) a grudge-holding (usually female) Japanese spirit on a mission to exact some revenge, but why?

Chester lives with his family on Terminal Island when the political tide turns just as it appears a bizarre haunting is all around them, as talk of the yuurei and the “bakemono,” or shapeshifter spirits are feared to be among them, traveling all the way from Japan. Chester is fully Americanized, a modern college kid and does not understand or accept any of this on the outset.

As the oddities and chilling encounters begin to add up, Chester is given an education of sorts in the old country ways by the women and one particular character-that of Takei’s Motohiro Yamato, or Yamato-san.

Yamato-san regales his Terminal Island neighbors and fishing mates (including Chester’s superstitious father) his “big fish” tales and glory days stories of his youth. But Yamato-san is no side dressing in the cast, his presence in the story is poignant.

Takei said: “My character’s name is Motohiro Yamato and others call me Yamanto-san. San is an honorific. He was the captain of his own star ship [laughs] I did become a star ship captain!  But in this project, The Terror, [Yamato-san] is a fishing ship captain of his own fishing ship.”

The presence of respected elder Yamato-san is critical as he explains much of the mythology of the inexplicable that is happening to their community to Chester ahead of the initial roundup by authorities.

Describing who Yamato-san was in the scheme of the cast, he said: “When he [Yamato-san] came to America, he was a robust athletic young man and now he’s retired, and he spends his life as a raconteur…regaling everyone with a tale of his youthful exploits.”

He added: “Yamato-san caught a great big huge tuna, [he] got it onboard the ship. It was flipping and flopping and rising up. And so I [Yamato-san] wrapped it and punched it and dressed it down and I got the reputation for being the tuna-boxing champion of San Pedro, and I’m proud of that.”

Things go south for anyone of Japanese descent quickly when the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor.

From his recollections, he said of those days: “When Pearl Harbor happens, we’re all rounded up and sent into temporary Department of Justice detention camps. The internment camps came in the second wave, but right after Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 8th, and 9th, the FBI swooped in and swept up all of the so-called leaders of the community. These so-called leaders of the community were Buddhists ministers, Japanese language teachers, judo instructors, the President of Bonsai Association…really ominous and threatening people.”

The first stop for Japanese Americans were the Justice Department detention camps. It became obvious the memories of these orchestrated actions still weighed emotionally on him.

Mr. Takei said: “And on February 19th, President Roosevelt signed executive order 9066 and that began the internment process and camps were being built, but they started rounding us up and the camps weren’t ready. So in the case of people, the Los Angeles area, we were taken to Santa Anita Race Track and they built a chain link fence around this once glamorous race track with wires on the chain link fence.”

He added: “We were offloaded from trucks and herded over to the stable area. And each family was assigned a horse stall, still pungent with the stink of horse manure. For my parents to take their children and crowd into this horse stall where the animals lived and make that our home… But for me, as a five-year-old kid, I thought it was fun to sleep where the horsies sleep! If you breathed deeply, you could smell them, you know?”

Mr. Takei’s overall intent – other than entertaining – is educating.

He said: “My mission in life was to raise the awareness of this chapter for American history. And, to this day, I’m always shocked when I share my childhood imprisonment with people that I consider to be well-informed people and they’re shocked. They’re shocked. I’m shocked that they’re shocked that they don’t know anything about it. Because so many people don’t know about the internment of the Japanese Americans.”

The Terror: Infamy also stars Derek Mio, Kiki Sukezane, Cristina Rodlo, Shingo Usami, Naoko Mori and Miki Ishikawa.

The Terror: Infamy premieres Monday, Aug. 12 at 9/8c on AMC.

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