A GHOST STORY
‘The Terror: Infamy’ Conjures Familiar Horrors from America’s Racist Past
The second season of AMC’s horror anthology series uses a Japanese internment camp as the setting for a haunting, conjuring a timely ghost story.
Early in December 1941, the United States government descended with terrible speed upon the Japanese immigrant community. By executive order, families were rounded up, forced to leave their homes and belongings, and confined within inland internment camps. Surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards, assailed by rampant disease and demands for loyalty oaths, Japanese-American citizens languished through much of the war.
This is the setting of The Terror: Infamy, the uneven second season of AMC’s cult-hit horror anthology. Like the first season, Infamy combines traumatic historical events with a healthy injection of supernatural menace. But where the first season was an exercise in Arctic survival horror, Infamy mixes the trappings of wartime history with elements of Japanese ghost stories. While it never attains the delicate bleakness of the first installment, Infamy has ambition to spare and plenty on its mind: immigration, assimilation, and the question of how to handle history that (literally) won’t stay buried.
The show opens in 1941, as the mysterious death of a local herbalist ripples out among the close-knit community of Japanese-Americans on California’s Terminal Island. Among those affected is the young Chester Nakayama (Derek Mio, giving an understated and charming performance), the child of immigrant parents and an enthusiastic photography student. The last time Chester saw the dead woman, she was handing him a mixture that would help his secret girlfriend Luz (a haunted Cristina Rodlo) have an abortion. Chester’s parents, including the traditionally minded fisherman Henry (a taciturn and watchful Shingo Usami) don’t know about Luz and hope Chester will stick around the island community, an idea he clearly chafes at.
Matters in the community, in other words, are tense. But worse is afoot than the palpable suspicion the white islanders hold for their neighbors. Chester’s photos of the dead woman’s funeral show people in the crowd with strange, smeared faces. Her abusive husband is found blinded, claiming something made him stare into the sun until his eyes burned; a drunken canary worker bullying the Nakayama family turns up dead in the fishing nets of the family boat. And a mysterious woman named Yuko (Kiki Sukezane, eerily tender) keeps turning up in odd places, watching Chester with a hungry intensity. If you ask an old timer like Yamato-san (a magisterial George Takei) something from the old country is stalking the people of Terminal Island, a malevolent force of bottomless yearning that can hide behind any face. When the American government rounds up the people of the island and sends them off to an internment camp in the Oregon forest, it soon becomes clear that their uncanny pursuer has come along for the ride—and that the secrets it holds could tear the Nakayamas apart.
Co-created by showrunner Alexander Woo (True Blood) and Max Borenstein (Kong: Skull Island) Infamy is among the most sustained depictions of Japanese internment in popular culture. Notably for a prestige television project, the cast is almost entirely made up by actors of Japanese descent, some of whom have families that lived through the internment. Derek Mio’s grandfather lived on Terminal Island and ended up in a camp; George Takei, who helped produce the show, famously grew up in an internment camp and help consult on the particulars. Takei in particular has not been shy in discussing the political relevance of the show. Certainly the timing—a narrative about the government persecuting and confining members of a minority group due to racist fears—has modern resonances with the concentration camps taking shape on the Mexican border.
But those tuning in to Infamy looking for a direct parable for the modern day may be disappointed: the show largely eschews explicit connections to modern policies. Infamy touches lightly on various aspects of the prisoners’ experience. There are tightly packed bunkhouses divvied up between families with sheets hung to mark space; disease and lack of adequate medical care; constant pressure to prove their loyalty to a government seemingly dead-set on persecuting them; moments of resilience, community and celebration. But these occasionally feel like ancillary details or particularly involved bits of set dressing. More than anything, the internment camp feels like a setting for a haunting rather than something intimately connected with it. Its barbed-wire fences keep everyone packed in, unable to escape either the supernatural force that stalks them or the ambiguities and buried pains of their own pasts.
The show feels much more focused on its characters’ experience of slipping between cultures, whether intentionally or not. Chester himself has a bit of a haunted look even before the entity sets its sights on him: he is a young man slightly out of step with both his parents and his peers, forever on the outside looking in. As a Mexican-American girl, Luz is legally forbidden from marrying Chester, and struggles to find her place among the Terminal Island community. Amy (an instantly winning Miki Ishikawa), a friend of Chester’s, seems relatively at ease in her Americanness when the show begins—and yet finds herself in the unenviable position of having to navigate between the Camp administration and her fellow prisoners.
It’s this persistent current of otheredness—people trying to work out their place in a world thoroughly hostile to them and their interests—that gives the ghost story at the center of Infamy its absorbing bite. It’s a multifaceted and complex haunting that the show takes its time unraveling. While the spirit plaguing the Nakayamas is drawn from the kaidan—ghost stories—of traditional Japanese folklore, its actual motives and identity are much more deeply rooted in the historical details of the Japanese-American diaspora, where the petty cruelties and indignities within the community can be just as damaging as those from outside. The result is a perfect foil to Chester Nakayama and his family: a force of pure rage, hunger and trauma, the buried past clawing its way up out of graveyard dirt.
There’s a strength of character and a conceptual meatiness to Infamy that belies its occasionally on-the-nose writing and somewhat erratic pacing. Still, for a show branded The Terror, it must be said: the show is not actually particularly scary. While it borrows some of the visual language of J-horror, and has a few admirably tense and gross images (and some wonderfully gooey practical monster effects), its best horror moment in the early going is also its first scene: a Japanese woman dressed in a formal robe stumbles along a pier on California’s Terminal Island, her limbs seemingly moving against her will, before killing herself with agonizing slowness by means of a chopstick through the ear. It’s a shot of pure tension and body horror; unfortunately, the show doesn’t manage to match it again in the early going, though not for lack of trying: ostensibly spooky events crowd the early episodes, but are hamstrung by occasionally lackluster direction and a seeming unwillingness to let an eerie scene play out and build.
But eventually, something wonderful happens: the show manages to knit its ghost story and historical setting together. The standout fifth episode, “Shatter Like A Pearl,” follows a gripping interrogation that keeps springing off in unexpected directions, digging into the ways that contact between Japan and America has changed people on both sides of the sea and both sides of the war. It’s the sort of emotional and specific storytelling that makes The Terror: Infamy worth watching, even when its pulpier thrills don’t quite land: some secrets can’t be buried, and things we wish we could forget can’t always be laid to rest.