Alexander Woo, the executive producer and showrunner of The Terror: Infamy, talks about the significance of George Takei’s involvement in this production, how he and the writers balanced horror and historical fact and the implications of Yuko’s peaceful ending.
Q: What were the biggest challenges to recreating the Japanese American internment camps?
A: The biggest challenge was a practical one, given the time and the resources we had to recreate an historical world, not just the camp but also Terminal Island and New Mexico and Japan and North Dakota. We shot in Vancouver, which is a very modern city and you have to remove smoke alarms — you can’t just find a hallway — and cover up modern light switches. There were many things we had to do across the board in all of our scenes, not just the camp scenes, in order to make this world seem real and vivid.
Q: How integral was George Takei to the authenticity of this story and production?
A: George was a major influence in three different ways. First, of course, as an actor in our cast, he brought a tremendous performance to his role as Yamato-san, a respected elder in the community. Then, secondly, as a consultant to the show. He brought not just his own personal stories but an encyclopedic wealth of information from decades of advocacy and activism to our production, so a lot of the details and a lot of the scenes are directly from George’s memories and also those of people he’s encountered. And then, frankly, George was a huge source of inspiration to the cast and crew. He is arguably the most notable living person who’s survived the internment, so, when our cast and crew saw George on set as part of this production, I think, for those who did not have a direct family connection to the internment, it inspired all of us to work a little harder, work a little longer on the show because, as George himself has said, this is his life’s work — to heighten awareness, to raise awareness of this period in our collective American history that sadly has been largely forgotten.
Q: How did you strike a balance in the story between the fictional horrors and those rooted in our history?
A: You know, it happened more naturally than I would have thought. I thought this would be quite a difficult challenge — and it was a challenge — but, in the building of the story with our team of writers, we adhered to what we thought was a very simple rule, that we would avail ourselves of the genre toolbox when it helped us evocate the emotional lives of our characters. We wouldn’t do it just for the sake of prurience. The main goal was to tell a character story, and that it was, in fact, horrific, the experience was horrific, so it was appropriate to use a horror vocabulary. There were certainly times when we wanted to make the audience feel the terror of the historical experiences that the characters are going through. Those were the times when we employed the horror element of our show. On top of that, the supernatural element is something that is quite real to the immigrant generation, the issei generation, in the show. It’s Chester who doesn’t believe in it at the beginning and he has to reconnect with his Japanese-ness to even confront what’s plaguing this community. So this idea of ghosts and spirits isn’t just tacked on. It’s organic to the world of these characters.
A: In the very, very short term, she just wants Yuko to stop in her tracks and not take the baby away. But she’s been harboring this guilt for a very long time, and a lot of the tragedy that’s befallen these characters has been weighing on her because she feels that she tipped over the first domino. So, at a certain point, she feels like she needs to do the right thing and confess so that her sister knows who is really to blame. I think it’s a heroic act. It’s a sacrificial act on her part because she hopes to save Chester and Luz‘s baby by offering herself because she feels she’s the one to blame.
Q: Why do you think Yuko chooses not to kill her in that moment?
A: She would if she could. But there’s a bit of a mystery as to why she doesn’t. And we discover in Episode 10 that Henry finds a number of sutras written on strips of paper that Asako has stuffed in her pocket and that protects her, and that’s sort of the light bulb that unlocks, for Henry, the key to fighting Yuko, that these sutras offer protective value. Even he had doubted the efficacy of a sutra in protecting him, [but] after he finds them stuffed in Asako’s pockets, he suddenly thinks maybe this is the answer. [This] affords him the opportunity to protect himself and Chester in Episode 10.
As we look back, we find that these sacred words do actually have some value. In Episode 2, Yamato-san hands a sutra to Henry in hopes of protecting him from an obake in North Dakota, and Henry himself is even a little bit skeptical of that. But in fact, when we look back on it, the times that the sutras are present, they do have protective value. In Episode 3, when Henry arrives at the camp, Asako hangs an ofuda, a banner, in their barracks and she says, “It will protect us,” and in fact Yuko never enters that barrack. And then later on, in Episode 6, when Yuko, who’s [possessed] Asako, is choking the life out of Chester, she suddenly stops in her tracks because we see that they’re in the graveyard and there are sutras written, again, on the planks of wood by the grave markers and that prevents her.
Q: What do you think triggered Chester’s shift in approach to getting rid of Yuko?
A: There’s an evolution here. At the very beginning, he has to just even acknowledge her existence, and then later he tries to reject her and tries to set her on fire. He tries many things to destroy her. But I think he comes to understand that the very nature of a yurei is that it cannot ever be stopped, that hunger cannot ever be satiated. But he finds a little loophole. He finds a time before that hunger ever existed, and this is the only way that he’s able to save Yuko is by rewinding the clock, so to speak, and giving her an opportunity to live in that perfect moment, the one happiest moment she had before everything went to hell.
Q: Chester and Henry spent most of this season at odds. How does Henry’s sacrifice at the end speak to what was really going on in their relationship that whole time?
A: I think Henry has always thought of Chester as his son, even though he can’t say it in so many words and despite him claiming not to care or claiming to have written him off. He still loves him like his own son, even though biologically Chester’s not Henry’s son. And the sacrifice that he makes is an act that speaks more than any words he himself can utter because Henry is not someone who is prone to spilling his emotions. There is that wonderful dream scene at the end of Episode 10 with Henry and Chester on the boat. This is them saying the things that they never could say, but that is kind of in Chester’s imagination. Henry, in life, would have never said all those things, but Chester’s realizing those are the things Henry wanted to say to him.
We had originally written Henry as a much more verbose character because we felt he needed to express how he felt, but, when we saw Shingo Usami’s performance, we realized we need to give him less, not more, because he can fill up so much of the screen emotionally by saying less. You can see on his face everything he’s feeling. It’s a testament to his performance.
Q: What does it mean that Yuko is finally able to find peace in this afterlife, the one where she was still pregnant with her twin boys?
A: It is a happy ending for Yuko, but we, I think, also realize the impossibility of that for the rest of us. It’s only a very unusual circumstance, a combination of this magic that lets you go to a time when you’re in a photograph and then the ability to exit one body and enter another. You need this perfect combination of two different magical circumstances in order for that to happen. Only the combination of Yuko’s abilities as a Japanese spirit and this Mexican magic, only through this cross-cultural combination of circumstances can this be achieved, and I think that’s a very American ending, a marriage of these two cultures. Chester has to draw from his Japanese tradition and his wife’s Mexican tradition in order to win the day, but that is only applicable to Yuko, really.
Q: Asako finally is free of her lies, both to Yuko and her son, but has she paid the ultimate price by losing Henry?
A: She pays quite a dear price. Not only does she lose Henry, but you see in the epilogue that her guilt has weighed quite heavily on her in those intervening five years. She looks to have aged quite considerably, so she is assuming the guilt. She is bearing that burden in order for Chester and Luz and their child to live on.
Q: Would you consider the ending a happy one for the characters that survive?
A: I think it’s quite bittersweet. They do survive and they do thrive, and one of the important things we wanted to convey in this story — the story of the internment is not just one of great suffering but also one of great resilience and great resourcefulness. So the characters are survivors but they’re also forever changed. It’s a badge I think they wear proudly. We see how all the other characters have changed. We see Walt is in a wheelchair now and Amy has become somewhat radicalized in her feelings about what the country has done. Chester has really embraced remembering his Japanese-ness and instilling that in his son. So the experience has changed all the characters a great deal, but I think we can take heart in that they have also thrived in the aftermath of the internment.
Q: What are you most proud of as this story comes to a close?
A: I’m proudest that we were able to make this show, that we were able to tell a story that hasn’t been told on this scale before, something that is so profoundly meaningful not just to Japanese Americans but really to anyone whose life has been touched or shaped by the immigrant experience, which frankly is just about everyone. And not just to inform people but to hopefully move them and to inspire them and build some sympathy and empathy for not only that specific experience, but for immigrant experiences from that point in the past all the way up to the present day.
Read an interview with Naoko Mori, who plays Asako Nakayama.
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