SDCC 2019: 5 Reasons Why ‘The Terror: Infamy’ is Relevant Television

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The ‘The Terror: Infamy’ Panel at San Diego Comic Con 2019. The series premieres on Monday, August 12th, on the AMC Network. Image credit: Patricia Vollmer

One of the highlights of my SDCC experience last month was to receive an invitation to attend the press conference and panel celebrating the AMC Network’s upcoming season of their anthology series, The Terror: Infamy.

The Terror was optioned for television from the 2007 novel by Dan Simmons. The first season on AMC was wholly adapted from the original novel, which followed a British ship crew trapped in the ice on an expedition searching for the famed Northwest Passage. There is…something…chasing the crew across the ice, lending a horror genre to the series.

Season 2 premieres Monday, August 12th on AMC. I had the chance to see the first several minutes of the first episode during the cast and crew panel at SDCC…I’m very excited to see more of it starting Monday!

The Authenticity in Creating This Season Is Amazing

The cast and crew are serious about giving audiences an authentic experience during this season of The Terror. This isn’t just with the visuals, either. Here are some examples of the authenticity viewers will see.

First of all, the accents the main characters have will be native to what the residents of Terminal Island, California (where the characters will start the series) actually would have had. The Terminal Island Japanese immigrants came from the (now) Wakayama Prefecture. They have a distinctive accent, which the crew sought to replicate in the series. It was mentioned in the cast panel that someone with the accent was found to coach the cast members, and even for the native Japanese speakers, such as star Kiki Sukezane, it was hard work to convert accents. George Takei likened it to having to switch between southern American English and New England American English.

The settings are also authentic. During the press conference there were numerous references to the beautiful costumes (designed by J.R. Hawbaker and Tish Monaghan, the latter of whom is well know for her involvement in the Twilight film series). In addition, series co-creator Alexander Woo referred to the ambiance he is trying to create with the setting:

…The only thing that I said to them [was], “when you think World War II people think drab.” I mean I just kind of wanted it to not feel drab, I want it to feel alive. And in my high in the sky fantasies it would the kind of show that you see just a frame of it and you know exactly what it is, the way you see a frame of The Sopranos or a frame of Mad Men and you know what it is.

For the Diverse Cast, This Series Is Personal

Riding the tide of the recent success of Crazy Rich Asians, The Terror: Infamy has an authentic cast of Japanese descent. The show also stars Cristina Rodlo, playing a Latina nursing student who develops a forbidden romantic relationship with leading man Derek Mio. Many of the Japanese-descendent cast had relatives interred in camps throughout the U.S. and Canada, including Mio, whose grandfather was from Terminal Island and then was sent to Manzanar and of course we are familiar with George Takei’s personal experiences in a camp in Rohwer, Arkansas as a child.

There were multiple accounts during both the press conference and cast panel of some very personal emotional experiences during filming. Co-creator Alexander Woo told two accounts during the press conference. First of all, one of the background actors was expected to be filmed with suitcases in hand, walking into Hastings Park in Vancouver, British Columbia, where the scenes of the Terminal Island residents temporarily awaiting transport to the internment camps were filmed. Well, it happens that Hastings Park — a horse race track — was where the Japanese Canadians were processed in British Columbia before heading to their country’s internment camps. The actor knew exactly where his parents stayed, and said it was a very emotional experience to be filming the exact thing that his parents had done nearly 75 years before.

Woo also told us about an account that emerged from some pre-production research. He happened across a photo of Terminal Island that included a business called “Noe’s Café”. There was an actor who auditioned named “Noe” and the cafe was his grandfather’s.

During the press conference, it was clear just how personal this project is for him.

It was a harrowing time for my parents. Their bank account was frozen. Their life savings was taken away from them. They were placed on a curfew. They had to be home by eight o’clock and stay home until six AM. Imprisoned in our homes, straight-jacketed financially, and then they imprisoned you. For no good reason other than you look like the people the bombed Pearl Harbor. And you’re imprisoned.

But that was not the end of it. Constant, horrible goading with outrage. When Pearl Harbor was first bombed, young Japanese Americans, like all young Americans, rushed to their recruitment centers to volunteer to serve in the U.S. military. This act of patriotism was answered with a slap in the face. They were denied military service and classified as enemy alien. They were neither. They were patriots. Volunteering to possibly die for their country. And to call them the enemy made no sense at all. And equally senseless was to call them aliens. They were born here.

Kiki Sukezane — who is “The Terror” — herself is an immigrant. She had moved to the United States as a teen and feels strong personal connections to how the immigrants in the story must have been feeling when the national rhetoric turns against them.

Finally, we heard from the talented Cristina Rodlo, who plays a nursing student named Luz. When asked if she felt some strong connections to the script, she replied:

To me it was just the same, being Latina and with what’s happening right now. It’s just every single scene, I would feel connected to it. Because it’s just amazing how we are repeating history, and I think the most important thing, or one of the most important things about these shows, is that many people doesn’t know this happened. And we need to tell them this happened and the only way to change history is knowing history. And we need to be aware what we have done and we need to change it, and we need to change it now. So, that’s why, for me, every single scene was like, “Okay, I’m very lucky to be telling this story because we’re saying something and we’re saying something good.”

If You Have Enjoyed the “Race and Horror” Genre in Other Films, You’re Going to Love This

A question was asked during the press conference that referenced the race-horror genre gaining traction. The interviewer made comparisons with the Jordan Peele films Get Out and Us, in which race plays into the horror emotions. “These horror stories that are blending issues of race in place with horror, why do you think this time these stories are reverberating?” Alexander Woo replied:

I think we’ve hit a great place with a certain element that in peak television here where so much is being done there’s greater risks that are being taken. And then the realization of the strength of the [television] media. And one of the great strengths of the television medium is that you can really build a relationship between the viewer and the characters and build really, really strong empathy.

And that’s what we’re trying to do. Our strategy, instead of telling this as a docudrama, and there are very, very good ones, but that puts you at a bit of a safer move. We didn’t want the viewer to feel safe. We wanted the viewer to feel the terror of the echos or the experience. So we’re using the vocabulary of the Japanese ghost stories and horror in order to, hopefully, make the viewer feel thee constant and insistent ambient dread and horror of what it was like to go through, not only go through war times, but war times in an internment camp.

I, for one, am looking forward to experiencing this double-layered horror experience.

This Part of American History Needs to Be Known

It was a theme that kept returning over and over throughout both the press conference and the panel: first of all, not enough Americans are truly learning the history of the War Relocation Camps and the stories of the residents’ experiences. Secondly, with things happening in America right now, this story is incredibly timely and relevant.

George Takei kept it real when describing what it felt like to be part of a community regarded as “traitors”:

My mother was born in Sacramento, California. My father was a San Franciscan. People were born here, raised here, educated here, to call them aliens was crazy. And then with no charges, no trial, no due process, to imprison them, was Un-American. Due process is a central pillar of our justice system. And then, a year into imprisonment, the government realized there was a wartime man power shortage and here are all these people that they could have had, but they classified as enemy alien. How do we justify drafting them out of the concentration camp for service in the United States military? They came up with a loyalty questionnaire.

The loyalty questionnaire was put together very sloppily. People who were not literate in the English language, everyone over the age of seventeen, had to respond to the loyalty questionnaire. Two questions became the most controversial questions in all ten camps. Question 27 asked, “Will you bear arms to defend the United States of America?”. This was being asked of my mother. I was by that time six years old, my brother was five years old, and my baby sister was a toddler. She was being asked to abandon her children and bear arms to defend the nation that was imprisoning her family.

It was preposterous. The next question was even more insidious. Two ideas, opposite ideas, in one sentence. It asked, “Will you swear your loyalty to the United States of America and forswear your loyalty to the Emperor of Japan?” We’re Americans. We never even thought of the Emperor much less pledged our loyalty to him, but the government thought that we had an inborn racial loyalty. That’s how ignorant they were. And so, if you answered no, meaning I don’t have a loyalty to the Emperor to forswear, that no longer applied to the first part of the very same sentence. “Will you pledge your loyalty to the United States?”. If you answered yes, I do swear my loyalty to the United States, then that yes meant you were confessing that you had been loyal to the Emperor and were now prepared to forswear it and re-pledge your loyalty to the United States.

Series co-creator Max Borenstein also summed up well his motivation for this season being appropriate right now:

…It’s just, unfortunately, history repeats itself. We live in a country that is a nation of immigrants that frequently [experiences when] one generation gets here and then they shut the door behind them. And that’s been happening for a long time and it continues to happen. And so, one doesn’t have to be Nostradamus to see that it’s always going to continue to happen. It’s the obligation to push against it and I think, it’s the purging of culture and hopefully things that are trying to be artful and artistic to try to recognize that you even happen to tell those stories in a way they can be gut wrenching and accessible, not simply informational; I think what Alex and the team put together here was a story.

It’s historical, but you’re not watching a documentary. Genre is one of the instruments to make something meaningful and palatable and to make audiences come to it but not feel like they’re being lectured to. And it disarms people and hopefully in the case of the show, it makes them vulnerable and show empathy that they wouldn’t necessarily have if they’re coming to a movie, and they go into the movie thinking, “Okay you’re going to teach me something.” But here you get into it the way you get into a story that had nothing to kind of teach you, but at the time before you know it, you’ve been lured in suddenly with empathy and you’re involved in the characters and disentanglement of the horror of the reality. From the made up stuff. The made up stuff is far less horrifying than the reality of it, you know, if you really think about it.

It’s Just Plain Horrifying

I can’t tell you exactly how “horrifying” the entire season is going to be — as of this writing I’ve only watched about the first 7-8 minutes of the series — but I had received a few hints during the press conference and panel.

First of all, the season will be tapping into some traditional Japanese folk stories involving the supernatural: things such as apparitions and mysterious goings-on. These stories are called kaidan; this is the foundation for the terror plot points.

Kiki Sukezane, playing camp resident “Yuko”, revealed herself as “The Terror” itself during the press conference, but couldn’t offer any more details that that.

In addition to the horror genre that’s purposefully threaded throughout the plot, there will also be some horrifying scenes that may have nothing to do with the supernatural. They showed us the first full scene of the pilot during the cast panel, and the scene was very disturbing: a very beautiful woman, complete in her kimono, decides to take her life. The scene has horrifying detail and I was watching it while peeking through my fingers. Which leads me to my final point:

Should you watch this with kids? Having seen that first scene, I think parents of teens could cautiously watch this with their kids. I hope my sons are interested, they enjoy horror genre (we all thoroughly love Stranger Things). I think the added layer of educating them about the Japanese War Relocation Centers during World War II will be valuable, especially to my oldest son getting ready for AP U.S. History this school year.

I asked the question during the press conference. Not necessarily, “Could kids watch this?” but I made clear that I have teens with whom we try to watch historical documentaries and drama together, and could teens be okay with this. Alexander Woo answered:

I would say the style of horror — because when you say “Japanese horror” you can actually mean many other things — is much more in the world of The Ring and Dark Water than we are of “slice and dice.” So it’s for sure not that kind of gory type of horror. So, I think watching it with a teenager I think, I think folks asking, “How do you feel?” will be okay, because we’re going into a really personal story. Unfortunately, we barely scratched the surface in ten hours; we’re telling a really, really personal story so hopefully, you know, you really understand what it feels like to be Chester, to be invested in all of our other characters and what it’s like to live under their skin and the tension of an interracial romance the night before he’s put in detention, the immigrant generation of the generation born in the United States, the tension between Americans: white Americans and Japanese Americans. I think there will really be, hopefully, a connection and I think watching it with your kids, I feel like they would understand that.

Be sure to catch the season premiere of The Terror: Infamy, Monday, August 12th, at 9pm Eastern on AMC TV.

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