The Terror: Infamy Is a Step Forward for Depictions of Japanese-American Internment

8 minute read

When The Terror: Infamy premieres on AMC on Aug. 12, it will be a welcome rarity: a mainstream depiction of the World War II incarceration camps in which Japanese Americans are actually at the center of their own story.

Over the past eight decades, there have been very few films or television shows about the camps at all. Independent projects from the Japanese-American community mostly garnered small viewerships, while mainstream films got details wrong or prioritized the stories of white characters. (Note: while this chapter in history is commonly referred to as “Japanese internment,” we refer to it here as “Japanese-American internment” or “incarceration” so as to avoid euphemism or an implication of responsibility by Japanese individuals.)

The Terror: Infamy aims to be a corrective to decades of silence and misinformation. The show, which stars George Takei and Derek Mio as Japanese Americans during World War II, depicts their incarceration through the lens of the horror genre, and Japanese ghost stories more specifically, in an attempt to conjure the dread felt by those who were imprisoned. “This is a piece of American history that has been severely under-taught and underrepresented in film and TV,” co-creator and showrunner Alexander Woo tells TIME. “We needed to remind ourselves while making the show that this will be the first time a lot of people will have heard of this.”

While much of the country still knows far too little about this moment in American history, there have been many attempts to tackle the subject on the screen over the years, with varying levels of success. Here’s a look back at depictions of the incarceration of Japanese Americans on film and in television since the 1940s.

Early Propaganda

In 1942, in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, an estimated 120,000 people of Japanese descent, from both the United States and Canada, were rounded up across the West Coast and taken to incarceration camps. Many of them were shepherded at gunpoint onto buses and driven to bleak makeshift outposts across the West; they lived in horse stalls and tar-paper shacks, fighting the sweltering heat and frigid cold of the desert, for up to four years.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the government at the time disseminated footage that downplayed the hardship of life in the camps. “There was a newsreel from the War Relocation Authority that showed bathing facilities, exclaiming, ‘Bathtubs! All the comforts of home!’” Renee Tajima-Peña, a filmmaker and professor of Asian-American Studies at UCLA, tells TIME. “There were all these smiley people that were well-fed.”

The skewed depictions of Japanese-Americans during World War II came not just from the government, but Hollywood as well. The film Air Force, which won an Oscar for Film Editing, insinuated that Japanese-Americans contributed to the Pearl Harbor attacks, while the Three Stooges released a series of films that included Japanese-Americans breaking out of their camps and wreaking havoc throughout the West.

Sympathetic But Flawed Portrayals

As the United States made new enemies over the next few decades — the U.S.S.R., Vietnam and communist regimes in general — the vilification of Japanese-Americans subsided and was mostly replaced by a deafening silence regarding the camps. “Until the ‘70s, I don’t think it was anybody’s real interest to do these portrayals,” says Brian Niiya, the content director at Densho, a nonprofit devoted to the history of Japanese-American incarceration. “Japanese-Americans wanted to largely keep it quiet and move on. As far as mainstream depictions, I don’t think there was a whole lot of knowledge or interest.”

The films that did get made during this era were riddled with issues, from production to reception. When director John Korty began making 1976’s Farewell to Manzanar — a film based on Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s experience in the camps — he didn’t even bother trying to get it made in Hollywood, knowing the story would not get told in the way he wanted. Even when he began the project as a made-for-television movie — long considered a second-tier option — he was met with resistance: executives at NBC pushed for the story to center on a white schoolteacher.

When the film was released, it was met with some praise but also criticism from the Japanese-American community, some members of which said it portrayed them as docile followers and downplayed the racism that led up to the incarceration. The playwright Frank Chin called it “the most despicable, self-righteous, white racist vision of Japanese America in American film.”

Over the next few decades, a handful of incarceration camp movies would emerge from Hollywood that treated the suffering in the camps with gravity and realism. Still, they pushed Japanese-Americans to the edges of their narratives, instead focusing on valiant white men and their Japanese-American lovers. In 1976’s Midway, 1990’s Come See the Paradise and 1999’s Snow Falling on Cedars, Edward Albert, Dennis Quaid and Ethan Hawke took respective turns as noble-hearted savior archetypes who tried to rescue their damsels in the desert.

“It was the sexualization of the Asian-American female and the white love interest that bothered me,” Tajima-Peña says. “Maybe people thought that there were some nice young women in the camps after seeing them.”

Japanese-American Voices

While Hollywood trotted out predictable tales of romance, Japanese-American filmmakers took matters into their own hands, creating documentaries and narrative projects that explored the tragedies of incarceration in depth. Steven Okazaki’s Unfinished Business: The Japanese American Internment Cases, Loni Ding’s Nisei Soldier and The Color of Honor, Keiko Tsuno’s Invisible Citizens and Robert Nakamura’s Hito Hata: Raise the Banner all arrived during the early 1980s, during which a larger movement for redress was emerging across theater, museum exhibitions, art and the legal and political worlds. This wave of activism resulted in the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which granted reparations from the U.S. government to those incarcerated.

Tajima-Peña says that the films of that era, particularly those by Loni Ding, were pivotal in raising awareness and helping to shift the narrative around the camps — at least among their limited audiences. “It was the first time American audiences were exposed to these Japanese-American war heroes fighting in Europe while they’re families were behind barbed wire,” she says.

A Recent Reckoning

However impactful those films were, they were not, and are still not, widely available to mainstream audiences. Over the last decade, the subject of Japanese-American incarceration has begun to pop up more frequently in film and TV, including on a 2013 episode of Hawaii Five-0, a 2014 episode of Teen Wolf and the 2015 movie Little Boy. While they have varied in quality and accuracy, they have helped shed more light onto the camps’ atrocities.

Many of these films and shows, both mainstream and independent, have been buoyed by governmental grant programs, like the California Civil Liberties Program, that give funding to projects about the camp experience and its aftermath. Niiya points to a number of documentaries, children’s books and museum exhibits, among other media, created in the last 15 years as a result.

Assemblymember Al Muratsuchi, who has championed the California Civil Liberties Program and helped secure $3 million in funding for it in 2017, says that the importance of learning about the camps has only increased due to the political climate today. “Japanese-Americans recognize the images of children being held in immigration detention centers as echoes of what they experienced,” he tells TIME. “We have a unique obligation to speak out.”

The Terror: Infamy arrives more than 77 years after the first Japanese-Americans were imprisoned and aims to tell a story about the camps that is both emotionally terrifying and historically accurate. Niiya served as an advisor to the show and says he was impressed by the creators’ attention to detail: “They asked some very, very specific questions, like if any of the camp directors were with the military,” he says. “I’m somewhat hopeful that this will be better than past depictions.”

The Terror has a nearly all-Asian-American cast and creative team, as well as several direct links to the camps: actor Derek Mio’s grandfather was incarcerated, while co-star George Takei lived in the camps himself as a child. Takei has been extremely vocal over the years about his experience, delivering a widely circulated TED Talk and inspiring and starring in a Broadway musical, Allegiance. The Terror co-creator Alexander Woo says that Takei was similarly pivotal while making the show: “A lot of the stories we’re telling in our show are inspired by George’s personal experiences,” he says.

Woo, like Muratsuchi, believes that telling the story of incarceration is not just about redress and historical accuracy, but that it carries an extremely vital importance moving forward. “To have this story silenced is one of the great tragedies of our history,” he says. “It’s hugely important to tell their story so that it doesn’t happen again.”

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