[Editor’s Note: The following contains minor spoilers from “The Terror: Infamy” Episode 1, “A Sparrow in a Swallow’s Nest.”]
In the first episode of “The Terror: Infamy,” Japanese-American fisherman Henry Nakayama (Shingo Usami) is herded into an FBI truck following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Before he’s taken away, he tells his son, “You’re a citizen, boy. You were born here. Show them you’re a patriot. Fight for your country.”
It’s a bittersweet statement that highlights the injustice perpetrated by the very country that Henry is so fiercely loyal to, but it also parallels a moment from star Derek Mio’s own personal family history. Mio is a fourth-generation Japanese American whose great-grandparents were also living on Terminal Island in San Pedro, Calif and were eventually sent to the Manzanar camp. In the series, he plays budding photographer Chester Nakayama, who lives on Terminal Island and is later forced out of his home to live in an internment camp.
“In researching, I came across this preservation project, the Terminal Island [Life History] Project where someone had conducted these interviews,” Mio told IndieWire. “My great-grandma [Orie Mio] who passed years ago, gave one of these interviews. It was really insightful and interesting to bring them back to life and to hear in first person their story about what it was like.”
Below is the passage from Orie Mio’s interview:
On Pearl Harbor Day in December of 1941, my husband [Jenmatsu Mio] was picked up immediately by the F.B.I. … Before he was taken away, he gathered our frightened children together, explaining that although he is now considered “enemy alien,” they are American citizens and had nothing to fear. I did not know of this until a year or so later when my oldest daughter, Amy, wrote of this incident in preparing her affidavit. My husband was one of the first ones to be released from the camp in Missoula, Montana, where he and a group of “enemy aliens” were prisoners.
The story of Japanese American internment, which has been woefully underserved onscreen, has always been a part of Mio’s life. As a Southern California resident, he’s close enough to visit the Manzanar internment camp regularly.
“Our family always goes fishing in Mammoth almost every summer, and on the way is Manzanar, where my grandfather and my great aunt, who’s still alive, were. And so every time we go up we always stop off and see the new additions to the museums, and just to be there to pay respects and pay homage to our family,” said Mio.
“Through this project I reached out to [Great Aunt Fusaye] a few times and interviewed her to gain a little bit more insight into it. When I’ve asked her about it, her way is to kind of laugh it off, to kind of deflect and not want to have to revisit that pain, because I’m sure it was so painful. I just remember her reiterating, ‘We’re Americans. Why was this happening to me?'”
Like the Nakayamas onscreen, Mio’s family and many other Terminal Islanders were fisherman who hailed from the Wakayama prefecture in Japan. After shooting “The Terror: Infamy,” the actor was inspired to return to Japan after a 20-year-plus absence to see that township for himself.
“This project really inspired me to reconnect with my roots. I saw relatives that I hadn’t seen in that time and I met relatives that I’d never met before. I drove three hours outside of Kyoto to Wakayama, which is where our characters are from and where my family’s from,” he said. “My family is also a bunch of fishermen, and I fish, so that whole thing has been handed down. My grandpa had his own boat, and he chartered trips. Ellison Onizuka, the astronaut that died on the Challenger, he went fishing on my grandpa’s boat. So my grandpa was known for being one of the best skippers in Southern California.”
“The Terror: Infamy” made a conscious effort to cast actors of Japanese descent for their Japanese-speaking parts. As such, Mio wasn’t alone on the cast and crew in having a direct blood connection to this dark chapter in North American history.
“There were 138 immediate relatives of our cast and crew who were interned,” said series co-creator and showrunner Alexander Woo. “And after we wrapped, one of the background actors said to me, ‘My parents never talked to me about the experience of the internment, but when I was standing there at Hastings Park holding two suitcases ready to board the bus … ‘ he was in the exact same place his parents were 75 years ago. He’s a man in his 60s now and he never thought he would experience that. It’s one of probably 100 stories we could tell.”
The biggest name on the cast has been telling his story for years. George Takei, legendary “Star Trek” actor and Asian American activist, experienced the harrowing internment firsthand when he was a just a child. The actor’s input as a consultant on the project was considerable. He spoke at length with the writing staff, brought them to the Japanese American National Museum where he’s a trustee and former Chairman of the Board, and shared invaluable insights into the everyday life of the camps.
“I was on set to make any suggestions, any tweaks that might be a necessary, like with the mess hall. It’s an amazing re-creation. When I walked into that space with the rafters and the pillars holding it up and crowded with people and the noise and the conversations … it really took me back to my childhood,” said Takei. “The thing I noticed, however, was there were piles of very sturdy crockery that were brand new. They came straight from Bed, Bath and Beyond. I said, ‘These need to be chipped and cracked.’ Some of the dishes that were soupy or stewy, because the plates were cracked, people just hurried with to the table because they dribble. So that was corrected.”
Since Takei was only five years old when he was first forced out of his home, his parents tried to shield him from the reality of the situation. His father had told him that they were going on vacation to Arkansas, which little George found to be a “magical place.” In truth, Japanese Americans were forced to sleep in stables while they awaited their camp assignments, and once there, they were made to sleep in barracks, locked behind giant gates with barbed wire and under the watchful eye of guards.
“Children are amazingly adaptable,” said Takei. “I remember the barbed wire fence, the sentry towers with the guns pointed at us, the searchlight that followed me when I made the night runs to the latrine. But I thought it was nice that they lit the way for me to pee.”
Since Japanese Americans lived in these camps for several years, the families did their best to make it as homey and even enjoyable as possible with games, holidays, and celebrations. Woo said that the series tried to depict some of this side of the camp as well, along with the inequities.
“We talked to a guy who’s an archivist in the writers’ room and asked, ‘Is there a mistake people make when they do portrayals of the internment on screen?’ He says, ‘Yeah. It’s always too miserable,'” said Woo. “Which is shocking. I wasn’t expecting that answer. What he meant by that was that what you are leaving out by doing that is telling the story of the resilience and resourcefulness of the Japanese Americans. The real heroism is how they were able to make a home and make a life out of this prison in the middle of nowhere. So we show kids playing baseball and playing hide and seek. They’re not saying they’re miserable. The parents have sort of shielded them from what’s really going on.”
Takei shares many of these experiences in his recently published bestselling graphic novel memoir “They Called Us Enemy.” One particular memory of watching movies in the camp is replicated in “Infamy,” complete with a benshi, a voiceover artist who would provide all the voices for certain Japanese films.
“Occasionally they showed movies in the mess hall. A sheet was hung up, and old Hollywood movies were brought in. Sometimes they showed some Japanese samurai films that had been imported, but somehow the voice track was lost,” Takei recalled. “The benshi had the whole movie dialogue memorized and did the voices of all of the characters: the shogun, the samurai, and the princess. One man doing all these voices.The benshi came with an assistant, a young man or a young boy, and they had coconut shells and triangles and steel bars that they’d clang and make various sounds. Magical. I was sometimes more riveted on them than on the picture up above.”
Watching movies under such circumstances had an impact and was partially responsible for Takei pursuing acting as a career.
“I still remember seeing ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ with Charles Laughton playing the poor, beat-upon hunchback,” he said. “I saw ancient Paris and I was able to kind of vicariously flee the barbed wire fence via the movies.”
“The Terror: Infamy” airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on AMC.