“It turns out that [showrunner and co-creator] Alexander Woo is a neighbor of mine,” Takei says. “He lives about five blocks away from me and said he wanted to come over and talk to me about something. So he came over and told me about this project that he’s working on.”
The second season of “The Terror,” which premieres Aug. 12, is set during World War II in an internment camp for Japanese Americans. Takei, who plays a fisherman who’s being held, lived through the internment as a small child along with his family. He has gone on to become a vocal advocate for the Japanese American community and preserving the story of the internment through interviews, his Broadway musical “Allegiance,” his work with the Japanese American National Museum and his recently published graphic memoir, “They Called Us Enemy.”
“Alex said, ‘We’d like to have you as a consultant on this.’ I said that I would be more than happy to participate, and then he says, ‘You’re also an actor, aren’t you?’” Takei says with a laugh. “He started sending me script after script, and the horror story part is so gripping.”
The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II is a dark, and therefore seldom discussed, part of American history. This grave injustice has been documented across various media over the years, but never before on American television has it served as the backdrop for an entire season of a series.
And it resonates today. Takei compares his own internment to the Trump administration’s policy of separating the children of immigrants from their parents at the southern border. “The current situation is a new low,” he says. “I was a child of 5 when I went in and 8½ when I came out. We were always with our parents. Now, children are being scattered to the far hinterlands. That is deliberate, conscious evil. It’s really unbelievable what’s happening now. I don’t know what kind of person I would be if I had been separated from my parents.”
After the first season of “The Terror,” AMC began soliciting pitches for a second historical horror story. Max Borenstein came to the network with a pitch for a narrative set within an internment camp. But when he was unavailable to write the pilot or run the show, AMC brought in Woo, whose TV credits include “True Blood,” “Sleeper Cell” and the TV movie “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”
The new season looks to build on the success of Season 1, which was based on the Dan Simmons novel “The Terror,” about a real-life failed Arctic expedition in the 1840s. That season was well-received by critics and audiences alike, averaging 2.1 million viewers per episode in the Nielsen live-plus-seven numbers.
“The model for ‘The Terror’ is to take a piece of history that people know something about, but isn’t overly familiar, that we can dramatize in a new way and that lends itself to a supernatural overlay,” says David Madden, AMC Networks president of programming for entertainment networks. “That combination of first-class storytelling and stories that work as terrifying horror genres — that is right in our sweet spot.”
Woo was initially reluctant to sign on for Season 2 because he is not Japanese American, but changed his mind when he explored certain elements of the script.
“In reading what Max wrote and in spending some time with reading the histories of people who lived through the internment, I recognized that there was a more universal story to be told here, a very universal immigrant story,” Woo says. “That’s the story of my family that I explored throughout my career as a playwright. I explored notions of American-ness through an Asian American lens, usually with some strange offset, but I had never had the chance to do that in my television writing.”
And then there is the subtitle, “Infamy,” which holds multiple meanings in this context. It is first a reference to FDR’s famous “Date of Infamy” speech following the attack on Pearl Harbor. But as the season continues, it takes on new resonance.
“Here we’re using ‘infamy’ to refer to an act perpetrated by the United States upon its own people, the great majority of whom were American citizens,” Woo says. “Then on a much more personal level, our characters are all circling around an act of great infamy in their lives that we dance around in the early part of the season.”
That dance forms a juxtaposition between the horror of a ghost story and the horror of innocent people unjustly imprisoned by their government. Drawing on the history of the internment as well as Japanese folklore and cinema, the second season follows a group of Japanese Americans as they are taken from their homes by U.S. soldiers only to be pursued by a supernatural presence bent on inflicting suffering and death.
Takei says that he took writers from the show to the Japanese American National Museum so that they could see artifacts and photographs from the internment to give them a better sense of what life was like inside the camps. He also contributed recollections from his own past that made it into the series, such as a scene involving movie night at one of the camps.
Two other rarely discussed parts of the internment also factored into the writing. The first was the so-called loyalty questionnaire administered to the internees. According to Takei, questions 27 and 28 caused tremendous turmoil. Question 27 asked if internees would be willing to serve in the U.S. armed forces, while question 28 asked if they would swear allegiance to the United States and forswear any fealty to the emperor of Japan.
“They presumed that we had an inborn racial loyalty to the emperor,” Takei said of question 28. “We’re Americans! We had never even thought of loyalty to the emperor, let alone professed loyalty.”
And while thousands of Japanese Americans went on to serve in the segregated 442nd Infantry Regiment of the Army — still the most decorated unit in U.S. military history — many refused to serve unless they and their families were freed from the camps.
“This was a gutsy, principled, American stance,” Takei says. “For this, they were tried for draft evasion, found guilty and sent to Leavenworth federal penitentiary. They are just as heroic as those who fought on foreign battlefields.”
The battle did not end there. “Infamy” deals also with the resettlement of Japanese Americans immediately after the internment.
“A common perception is that after the camps were closed, the internment and the trauma were over,” Woo says. “In fact, for many Japanese Americans it was more difficult coming back because they were coming back to a country that was still at war with Japan. They had lost their homes and possessions, so they were coming back with nothing except $25 and a one-way train ticket.”
This season is also unique because of its cast, which is composed mostly of actors of Japanese descent. While there are countless examples of stories of underrepresented people in media being told from the perspective of a white protagonist, Woo wanted this one to feel like an exploration of the internment through the eyes of the people who lived it.
“If you’re going to take a personal approach, you need to see it through the lens of a Japanese American protagonist,” he says. “We were only able to do this because we insisted on our lead characters all being Japanese Americans.”