The Terror: Infamy is the second and current season (ten episodes) of AMC’s historical drama/horror series. Infamy takes a dark and infamous chapter in US history and attempts to give this shameful period both a humanizing and ghostly touch.
The often overlooked or little-known story of Japanese American internment is the historical centerpiece of Infamy and asks the question: What does it truly mean to identify as an American? From 1942 to 1945, more than 145,000 Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians were forced from their homes by presidential executive order and into internment camps by their respective governments, simply because of where they or their ancestors were born. Mostly set in a fictional “war relocation center” in Oregon a month after Pearl Harbor, Infamy reveals a family drama of the many injuries and conflicts of Japanese American incarceration.
The Terror: Infamy opens with a bizarre, perhaps most viscerally frightening, death scene that haunts a Japanese American community shortly before Pearl Harbor. Chester Nakayama, a young American, who has some bewildering relationship with a ghost (Yuko), is the connection between the ghost world and the concentration (“internment”) camp throughout time-jumps from 1910 to about 1950. At one point we see Chester and his friends and family be evacuated from California, to the internment camp. The many indignities an entire community of Japanese Americans suffered under forced relocation and detention is depicted in detail and in horror. Real-world and supernatural horrors collide in Infamy as a Japanese ghost (obake) story creeps under the viewer’s skin.
Infamy displays an intriguing composite of two plots, one supernatural and ghostly, the other historical. But they are not tightly woven nor is the mythological importance of the ghost clarified for the viewer who is not familiar with Japanese folktales. Is the obake ghost (“Yuko”) a demon, or someone reborn who behaved badly in a past life and is suffering her karmic consequences? She seems to be a culturally specific “monster” who, in order to understand her, requires a basic familiarity with Japanese folklore, not the typical ghost or zombie familiar to American audiences.
It is possible that the director and writers also could not decide what genre to emphasize–horror Japanese-style or American. But what develops is a production, so frequently subtitled that it seems like a foreign film at times. But it isn’t. So what we need is a statement once in a while about the motivation for the ghost’s targeted actions, a backstory for Yuko that should appear before episode 6, and a brief description of obake (and yurei, which is more equivalent to a European notion of a ghost). Addressing these needs would result in a more comprehensible and visceral connection with the plot.
I wanted to love this series for its originality: combining the “old world” system of beliefs and values with the American. The intergenerational misunderstandings between immigrant parents and their American children is one of the more moving themes. However, the effect is dampened, rather than amplified, by some of the show’s ghostly horror which is not tightened together enough to see that the two universes–supernatural and earthly–are inextricable. The promise of the ghost story (think of the Japanese horror movie Ringu) mirrors the pain and suffering of humans. But Infamy rarely stops to explain Japanese concepts or relevant historical details, and their tradition of ghost folktales is very complex with a pantheon of different types. And as the season moves on, it sometimes fails to sustain the intense and wordless fear in the first two episodes.
Nonetheless, I still recommend Infamy. The most intriguing question to be raised: What is more horrific—a ghost with supernatural powers, or some government authority, wielding a gun, who knocks on the door and smiles as he destroys your life and that of your family? The show attests powerfully to the fact that the U.S. has a long tradition of enacting policies and holding up institutions that target communities of color. The timing of Infamy may draw comparisons with the caging of children at the border, forcing us to wonder what will be unleashed by the current horrors in our country.
Perhaps the writers of Infamy intended to focus on another, more subtle kind of danger: the danger of forgetting, of historical amnesia.
Note: The first season of “The Terror” was based on the disappearance of a ship and its men in the Arctic in the middle of the 19th century as they tried to discover the Northwest Passage, also crafting a story of monsters (human and otherwise) on the ice. See my May 2018 review of “The Terror–A Chilling Northwest Passage. .