Naoko Mori, who plays Asako Nakayama on The Terror: Infamy, talks about the impact of Asako’s belief in evil spirits, what it was like for the Terminal Islanders to discover their home was gone and the responsibility Asako takes for Yuko’s actions.
Q: How did you prepare for this role that is so deeply rooted in history?
A: As far as preparation is concerned, it’s really twofold. Firstly, it’s the historical research, which is incredibly important. I’m a little bit ashamed to say that I had very little knowledge of the whole history of the Japanese Americans and, honestly, I knew of the Japanese American internment but not to this depth. First and foremost, with any historical or period piece, it’s absolutely crucial to start with the research, and so — apart from reading up so much on it, websites and we were given a reading list, reference photos, whatnot — for me, the biggest thing was reading firsthand accounts and hearing from the actual people who went through it. We also had the incredible George Takei, who was the ultimate resource and just hearing him recount and tell us little snippets, little stories just put everything into focus. It was all absolutely heartbreaking. It makes me want to weep and, so often with these historical situations and chapters, it really, really affected me, so I knew, at that stage, I wanted to get involved.
Secondly, then you have the character research and the characterization. For me, fundamentally as an actor, it starts from scratch. It starts with the script, which is the Bible, talking to Alex [Woo], finding out who she is, what’s her story, what her history is. And then also on top of that, because it is a period piece, you do research on the character. This is the 1940’s. Culturally and period wise, women were very, very different from what we know of now, so you have to then put that on top of that. So it’s a whole amalgamation of history, research, character research and the historical character side as well as the characterization. I’ve done projects in the past like a docudrama which actually won an Emmy, Hiroshima, about the Hiroshima bombing, and then playing people like Yoko Ono who is obviously a real person, so what’s paramount when you’re dealing with history or real people, in The Terror‘s case the real Japanese American people, it’s imperative, absolutely imperative that we’re accurate, factually, and it’s so paramount to be truthful, especially with history and especially with real people. We carry a huge responsibility to tell their stories accurately. That in itself presented a challenge, but also a very worthwhile challenge because I think it’s an important chapter of history that a lot of people don’t know about.
A: There is dichotomy within her, a real struggle within her that’s not come to the surface, which she’s absolutely keeping a lid on. But I think, rather than contradiction, it’s more about trying to control, trying to keep a hold of things, trying to keep a lid on things — all at the same time she’s trying to make sense of things. Now we, the Japanese culture, we’re innately incredibly in the belief of spirits. It’s not per se a religious belief, but it’s just innately in our culture, inherently in our culture. It is a spiritual thing and religious but more a spiritual thing, so absolutely everyone believes in it, in spirits and also you can have evil spirits.
This [Yuko‘s haunting] is something Asako has dreaded, and she was hoping that it would never surface, but she was always, always aware, and I think she’s quite superstitious and, quite rightly, extra superstitious because this was something she had always dreaded and hoping and hoping and praying it would never come to the surface. It’s kind of like a denial too, like, “No, no, no, it’s not happening,” and hoping. So it’s a hopeful denial if you like. When you are in that kind of headspace, the first thing you do is lash out and say, “Don’t be ridiculous,” but she’s not like Henry who is like, “It’s not happening. You’re talking garbage.” But she just knows, and I think she knows at the very beginning, she knows it’s coming. She feels it and that underlying current she feels stronger and more strongly than anyone else because she knows.
Q: She holds out hope that Chester will be waiting for them when they return home. Does she know Chester as well as she thinks she does?
A: I think you said the key word there. It is hope. Asako is always very hopeful. She’s always, always hopeful, more so than Henry, who is almost the other way around. She’s more forward-looking and positive and hopeful, and Henry’s a little bit more negative, obviously because of what he’s gone through in the other camp and whatnot. But that’s a really interesting dynamic there in itself.
It’s also about, she hopes [Chester] comes home and it’s also about Asako trying to help and support Henry as a wife as well, because she is kind of the mediator, the peacekeeper. Chester and Henry have always been at loggerheads and very headstrong and stubborn and quite similar to each other, father and son. But it is about her hope to bring them closer. She knows Chester well enough to know what he is and what he can be like. After all, she did raise him and teach him and protect him from a very early age and she was his mother and is still his mother. And she also understands that Chester’s dealing with a lot of things, but it’s that sense of — within the sense of chaos with the war and the internment camps — she’s just doing everything to keep the family together and just having that hope. I think hope is the only thing that keeps you going forward.
Q: When Asako, Henry and their friends return home, they find it’s no longer there. What goes through her mind in this moment?
A: It’s absolutely horrifying and it’s even more horrifying to think that it actually happened in history. It’s absolutely heartbreaking. For her I think first of all it’s confusion, completely confused. Then utter disbelief at the betrayal of the country. But also I think it symbolizes how much everything has changed so much. It was bad enough to be taken from your own home and then to be sent to camps for years and years with very little explanation and then to finally come out, with like the 50 cents they were given, and then come home to find out they’ve taken your home as well.
They’ve basically taken your entire life, everything of you. And it really symbolizes — that moment when they look at this huge expanse of nothingness — that’s what home is, that’s what their life is, and that symbol, that shot itself, it’s devastating and, quite frankly, almost unforgivable because it’s horrendous. But, as we Japanese are very good at doing, it’s gaman, it’s perseverance. You continue on. You live with hope and that’s the only thing you can do, and it just shows the strength of the Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans. It’s just incredible.
Q: Asako goes to the bridge where Yuko jumped to her death and speaks to her. How much responsibility does she take for what has happened to her family?
A: I think huge. Hugely responsible and she knows. She just can’t bring it to the surface or admit it. She certainly didn’t realize or even imagine what would happen next in this episode. She feels genuinely terrible. Never in a million years did she think that that little small action she acted upon [deciding to marry Henry instead of Hideo] would have such horrendous consequences. It was a little thing, just an impulsive little action, which came from a deep-seated resentment. Just like every family does, every sibling, every sister, there’s something, there’s always some conflict within siblings. It was just something happened between her and Yuko in their childhood, and she says it to her, “You were always so perfect,” and it was just a little thing. It was a mistake, but she did it and she puts her hand up to it.
But never in a million years did she think this would snowball into this and, on top of which, she didn’t know [Yuko] was pregnant and she didn’t know how bad Hideo was going to be. She had no idea. She couldn’t have imagined what would happen, and she was absolutely heartbroken when her sister committed suicide and that it was so bad that she took her own life and that she couldn’t help any sooner. She truly, truly feels bad about this and the least she could do is to come over straight away and to look for Chester and adopt him and raise him. That was the best she could do. Asako’s not an evil person. It’s just what happened.
Q: Chester asks Asako and Henry to be with him and Luz to prepare for the baby and what Yuko might do. Why is Asako so willing and Henry so resistant?
A: Certainly Henry being so resistant — what Chester says to Henry is not good. Here’s the man who raised you like his own. He didn’t have to do that, but he’s a kind, kind man, and Henry’s always loved him like his own. And Chester’s way of dealing, Asako as a mother was not happy about that. But Chester’s going through a lot of stuff, and he just can’t see it because he’s so stubborn. But also as far as Asako’s concerned, she’s Chester’s mother after all. She loves him and she’s grown to love Luz too, and they’re having a child, her grandchild. But also there is that feeling of responsibility, because this is all her doing. This is her way of taking responsibility. But essentially she’s the mother to Chester and she wants to protect him and Luz and the baby and she’ll do anything she can. Chester is her life.
Q: Asako admits to Yuko she was supposed to marry Henry. Why does she choose now to be truthful?
A: I thought a lot about this and talked to Alex and everyone else about it a lot. Obviously it wasn’t planned because she had no idea this was going to happen. But I think it’s one of those where you just go, it’s got to come out now and maybe if I tell her the truth, she’ll rest in peace, she’ll leave Chester alone. This is the big thing. I need to protect Chester. I need to protect Luz. I need to protect [their] child. This has to stop and I think it’s that realization of, this is it, I have to tell her and this is the only weapon, if you like, to stop this and also to divert her anger and say, “It’s me.” Because she says everything now. Spoiler wise, this is the key moment. And also she never thought that she would meet her like this. It’s pretty wild to think this is the chance to speak to someone who’s passed. And it is her apology too. She’s trying to apologize. She’s trying to make amends and that’s the only way she can do it and it has to come out. The truth always does.
There’s a difference between secrets and lies. I mean, it’s a gray area, but she’s been carrying this for her entire life and something she’s been dreading, but here it is, here’s the chance. So it’s twofold, to get it off her chest and so she can be at peace, but also fundamentally is to stop this chaos and to stop Yuko. Just stop.
Q: What are you most excited for people to see from this show?
A: Firstly the history, the very untold chapter of American history and the Japanese American history, the plight of the Japanese Americans, the pain they had to go through, the gaman, the endurance and the respect they deserve to have gone through this and to trundle on and keep living and to stay in America as Japanese Americans.
And also what I want people to take away…I hope it whets people’s appetite to look into it further because we haven’t been able to encompass the whole of the Japanese American internment camp, the whole of Japanese American history. The very least I hope we can do is to pique people’s interest into looking into the history more, so they appreciate what’s gone on.
Also I hope people see from the show the power of actions and words even, how the smallest action can lead to huge consequences and how things can snowball and how the truth always prevails. The truth will always come out and so do secrets and lies and you’ll see what happens, the extended consequences, in Episode 10 and what happens to Asako, what happens in the aftermath.
Read an interview with C. Thomas Howell, who plays Major Bowen.
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