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'The Terror: Infamy' review: Reliving the horror of Japanese internment

Derek Mio plays Chester Nakayama in AMC's "The

Derek Mio plays Chester Nakayama in AMC's "The Terror: Infamy." Photo Credit: AMC/Ed Araquel

THE SERIES "The Terror: Infamy"

WHEN | WHERE Premieres 9 p.m. Monday on AMC

WHAT IT'S ABOUT In 1941, about 3,000 first- and second-generation Japanese Americans lived in an area of San Pedro (south of Los Angeles) called Terminal Island, and following the attack on Pearl Harbor — and after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942 — they would be the first sent to the internment camps that would eventually hold some 120,000 Japanese Americans during the war. That's the setting for this second season of the Ridley Scott horror anthology — this edition created and written by Alexander Woo ("True Blood") and Max Borenstein ("Godzilla") — about the Nakayama family's forced relocation to a camp in Oregon. Before they get there, a handful of strange deaths have rattled Terminal Island. Something mysterious and sinister is there, but what? Henry Nakayama (Shingo Usami), his wife, Asako (Naoko Mori), and other family members, including Yamato-san  (George Takei, who lived in an internment camp as a child and serves as a consultant to the series) bring what possessions they can stuff into two suitcases. Their adult son, Chester (Derek Mio), also comes with his pregnant girlfriend, Luz (Cristina Rodlo), but he soon joins the U.S. Army as a translator. Something else follows them to the camp.

MY SAY "The Terror: Infamy" is so good and so cleanly told that it really doesn't require much of a primer before diving in, but a little background couldn't hurt. "Infamy" is straight out of the Japanese horror genre with its own unique set of ghosts and, of course, tropes. Drawn from the rich and ancient history of Yōkai (supernatural monsters that bring good fortune or ill), those specifically referred to here are yūrei (the ghost of someone awaiting proper burial) and Bakemono, or a shape-shifter. The Bakemono whom you will become familiar with is Yuko (Kiki Sukezane), a striking and particularly sinister apparition who seems human to those unlucky enough to encounter her. They quickly, brutally, learn otherwise. She is a malevolent spirit, but also an avenging one. The wellspring of this vengeance? That's the abiding mystery of "Infamy." She stalks both the innocent and not-so-innocent, but to those already burdened by the tides of history, she seems to add to their misery. That's the abiding horror.

Of that history, "The Terror: Infamy" may be the only U.S. TV series ever that's based on World War II Japanese internment camps. In fact, strike the "may:" This is the first and only one. That might seem remarkable but consider that television has only recently embraced inclusiveness, and embraced a real willingness to stare down injustice too (think FX's "Pose"). "Infamy" — the title refers to both FDR's famous Pearl Harbor line, and to the camps themselves — stares down this injustice without blinking. 

But "Infamy" isn't interested in ramming home some message about those long-ago gulags spread across the west. The final verdict on them — and the infamous Executive Order 9066 — was rendered in the 1980s when the U.S. government, led by President Ronald Reagan, formally apologized for the camps and paid out billions in reparations. 

Instead, "Infamy" wants to draw attention to a contemporary analog — those internment centers along the U.S.-Mexican border where countless thousands are now detained and in limbo. "Limbo" in fact is the key word because the yūrei are also in limbo: Stuck in purgatory, neither fully alive nor fully dead, they are tormented spirits who belong nowhere. And as Chester, stuck himself in the jungles of Guadalcanal, reminds his fellow soldier and translator in a later episode, "we are useless to our country, and useless to our families. What are we?" 

What are they? Who are they? "Infamy" certainly plays with the idea that the interned are like the yūrei — the rootless and uprooted, who belong nowhere, who long for "home," who have no home. The cast is almost entirely Japanese and Japanese-American — another impressive and unprecedented bona fide of "Infamy" — and the series is told entirely from the point of view of those who suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of history on Dec. 7, 1941. They were Americans instantly stripped from America. It must have been a terrifying plight. "Infamy" insists that it was.

BOTTOM LINE Fine second season with solid horror elements, and a particularly engaging — and relevant — message.

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