The Uneven Historical Horror of The Terror: Infamy

AMC’s anthology series wants to disturb viewers with its depiction of the Japanese American internment. For some, that past will be too familiar to be shocking.

Ed Araquel / AMC

This story contains some spoilers for the first two episodes of The Terror: Infamy.

A woman in a kimono kneels before a mirror in a dark room. She stabs the knot of her black hair with two chopsticks before shuffling outside, down a deserted dock in the early morning. The water is still, offsetting the unnatural cracking sounds emanating from the woman’s ankles and neck. She lurches to a stop and reaches for a chopstick. She raises it high above herself and then, slowly, lowers it into her ear. Her face contorts in pain as the chopstick continues its descent. A trickle of blood escapes one nostril, and the woman collapses, dead.

This is the first and perhaps most viscerally frightening scene of The Terror: Infamy, the second installment of AMC’s historical horror-anthology series. Set during World War II, Infamy follows a group of Japanese Americans who are subjected to the cruelties of internment, all the while being stalked by a malicious supernatural entity. The opening sequence works hard to establish a mood of dread: There’s the pallid gloom of the room; the eerie symbolism of two vertical chopsticks that evoke the ceremonial rice bowl used at Buddhist funerals; the woman’s silence, broken only by the hideous percussion of her bones; the gory climax when she impales herself through the ear.

As the season moves on, though, it fails to sustain the intense and wordless fear so neatly captured in these first moments. Some reviewers have written that the show, while ambitious, is “unwieldy” over the first six episodes made available to critics. Others have argued that the series doesn’t “especially need” a supernatural specter, or have said the show has “more potential as a historical drama.” These reactions all point in some way to the fact that Infamy’s dual sources of terror don’t quite cohere into a single story. Part of the problem may lie in the writing and plotting. But the show—by its very nature as a grim series about the United States turning on its citizens and their families—also seems to offer different things to different viewers, depending on their own proximity to such real-life experiences.

The opening sequence of The Terror: Infamy is the most straightforward horror scene in the show. (Ed Araquel / AMC)

The supernatural horror of Infamy comes mostly from an otherworldly antagonist named Yuko (played by Kiki Sukezane), who is introduced in the first episode. She’s an unsettling yet frustratingly vague menace. Is she a ghost? A demon? Is she a culturally specific villain who requires a basic familiarity with Japanese folklore, or is she more of a typical, vengeful spirit? Even the Japanese words that the older characters use to describe her shift, utterance by utterance—obake, yuurei, youkai, bakemono—as they try to figure out what she is.

Beyond issues of taxonomy, Yuko’s powers are inconsistent. In some scenes, she appears only as a creepy interruption, while at other times, glimpses of her cause characters to go insane or hurt themselves. This isn’t to say that Infamy must define its villain early on in the season, or even at all. (Season 1 of The Terror similarly featured a mystifying monster, but had a better grasp of its main narrative.) And yet, it is hard to take Yuko seriously when it’s unclear how she fits into the story or how she can affect the characters. Even when the series develops her further, Yuko primarily inspires speculation and confusion—an effect that dampens, rather than amplifies, the show’s horror.

In sharp contrast to its treatment of Yuko, Infamy renders the internment in painstaking detail, as if to suggest that this is what should really scare audiences. The forced relocation and detention of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II was shameful, and Infamy depicts the many indignities an entire community suffered. The stakes are high from the first episode, which builds to the events of December 7, 1941. When news about the Imperial Japanese Army bombing of Pearl Harbor breaks, two of the main characters—a young man named Chester Nakayama and his father, Henry (played by Derek Mio and Shingo Usami, respectively)—happen to be at a U.S. naval base to answer questions about a Yuko-related death. The room erupts in chaos around the father and son, who have no idea what has happened; only viewers know what history has in store for them.

The show’s co-creators, Alexander Woo and Max Borenstein, retain this close focus as Chester, his mother, and their neighbors are herded from their homes on California’s Terminal Island. They’re sent first to a tenement-like building in Los Angeles, then to a racetrack to stay in the stables while awaiting processing, and then finally to the desolate camps. With each move, their worldly possessions dwindle. Meanwhile, Henry and his friend Nobuo Yamato (played by George Takei) are separated from their families and held in an unknown location for interrogation. In one harrowing scene, Chester tries to evade the internment with his Mexican American girlfriend, Luz (Cristina Rodlo), only to be captured by the FBI because of a tip. The camera lingers on the face of the informant: a garishly made-up, elderly white woman, her face defiant. It’s obvious who the monster here is supposed to be. Infamy emphasizes the banality of the internment’s evil and the fact that many everyday Americans—caught up in self-righteousness, misguided patriotism, suspicion, and xenophobia—were complicit in what happened to their fellow countrymen.

Derek Mio, who plays Chester Nakayama, acted in a scene that echoed his grandfather’s experience of seeing his own father be taken away for questioning by American officials during World War II. (Ed Araquel / AMC)

Infamy is constructed a little like a bait and switch. The audience is drawn in, via trailers and other promo materials, with the promise of a ghost story that visually recalls popular J-horror works such as Ringu and Ju-on. But for much of the season, Yuko is a muddy and ineffective villain, and it’s precisely this inefficiency that makes the internment itself stand out so obviously as the show’s central evil. Still, the Infamy’s portrayal of the internment raises the question of which audiences will be most terrified by a stark look at this chapter of American history.

For his part, Woo has spoken extensively about Infamy as an exercise in building a sort of horror-induced empathy. He told the A.V. Club that he hopes viewers will “understand the feeling of what it’s like to be in the skin of these people, and maybe by extension understand the plight of what it feels like to be an American but not have America want you.” In another interview, Woo said, “If we do our jobs right, you will feel what it’s like for these characters and feel empathy for them.” These interviews seem to imply that Infamy is aimed at the kind of person for whom the threat of government-sanctioned injustices can be hypothetical or just vicariously experienced. The show attests powerfully to the fact that the U.S. has a long tradition of enacting policies and holding up institutions that target communities of color. But for all too many viewers, it will not be hard to imagine what it is like to live in such a reality.

Infamy’s Japanese American actors and writers have spoken about their personal ties to the internment. As Takei, who was interned as a child, told the Los Angeles Times, “There were no charges, no trial. We were rounded up.” Even the show’s set was familiar to him: “The texture of the strips of wood that held the tar paper intact, the crawl space underneath the barrack ... all those memories came back. The acting wasn’t acting.” Before filming a scene at the Hastings Park racetrack, which was once used to intern Japanese Canadians, the assistant director Jason Furukawa told the crew that his own grandparents had been kept in stables seven and eight. And Mio recalled a scene where his character tries to take the place of his father, who is detained for questioning. “Hearing [the] firsthand accounts of when they first came in the middle of the night and hauled my great-grandfather away,” Mio says, “my grandfather was pleading with them and crying, ‘No, take me instead’ ... We shot that, and it was very emotional.”

Beyond the educational sort of horror offered by Infamy’s faithful rendering of history, there is another, more subtle kind of danger that the show reflects on: the danger of forgetting. Various story lines interrogate both personal and communal notions of home, legacy, and memory. The presence of Yuko suggests the show’s Japanese Americans feel haunted by the country they left behind. Chester regularly argues with his parents over what he perceives to be their Old World ways. Even the internment itself feels like a form of amnesia, one where the state forgets the humanity of its own citizens. In this way, Infamy may evoke a recognizable dread in the Japanese American communities whose past it depicts. For them and for others, the contours of this history may be too familiar for the show to inspire an emotion as shocking—or as alien—as terror.