Twist endings, that tried and true horror staple, are the storyteller’s way of jolting us back to reality with one last scare we did not count on. Filmmakers do this as a means of letting the audience know the supernatural malice can’t be defeated and, equally as likely, to increase the possibility of a sequel.
Monday’s finale of AMC’s “The Terror: Infamy” follows this tradition, but the twist designed by co-creators Alexander Woo and Max Borenstein doesn’t leave the viewer on edge.
Instead, the producers close the Japanese internment-themed second season with a leap ahead to sunnier days and better times: the surviving members of the Nakayama family are visiting the home Chester (Derek Mio) and his wife Luz (Cristina Rodlo) to celebrate Obon, the festival held to honor ancestral spirits that takes place in August.
Some of those in attendance appear to have healed from their years spent in forced relocation, a period lasting between 1942 and 1946. Others like Chester’s mother Asako (Naoko Mori), remain visibly haunted, even though years have passed since their final battle with Yuko (Kiki Sukezane), the demonic spirit that terrorizes them throughout their tribulations.
What’s unclear is whether Asako’s hollowness is due to her worldly loss or the curse Yuko heaves upon her: “Suffer forever, like I have,” the spirit tells her. “Live with what you have done.”
The twist, however, is that the only way Chester can defeat the spirit is with empathy.
At various times in “Infamy,” Yuko tempts Chester with the offer of returning to “a perfect world.” The story ends with the sobering truth that after all Yuko and the Nakayamas have endured, they only “perfect world” that exists is the one accessible through memory or magic. Only Yuko, a restless spirit, can get there by supernatural means. The rest of us are fated to stay here and find peace, perhaps, in memory.
Initial episodes of “The Terror: Infamy” bewildered a few critics, and viewers hoping for a straightforward Japanese horror story patterned after “The Ring” or “The Grudge” probably weren’t satisfied by what the series actually turned out to be. In the end, as Woo discussed with Salon in a recent interview, the “Infamy” installment is actually about how we move forward from shattering betrayal.
The quiet malevolence of Yuko is fueled by an unquenchable rage at being wronged and denied a chance at happiness and a family, blessings visited on her sister that, as it turns out, were meant for her. And the damage she inflicts is very real and fatal to many unfortunates who cross her path. But in terms of the series itself, Yuko is the lure, not the real terror.
The indignities the Nakayama clan’s own government visits upon them at every turn — first forcing them out of their homes, then compelling them to let go of what few belongings they are able to take with them — that’s the horror show.
And each new crime is designed to stun. When the Nakayamas are released from internment, they head back to where they once lived, Henry's (Shingo Usami) and Asako’s heads teeming with plans to repair and renew what they presume to be a neglected home. But when they arrive at the street where they once lived, all that’s left is gravel. The family's house and all of the possessions left inside of it have been erased from the Earth.
Not long afterward, other family members, including family friend Nobuhiro Yamato (played by George Takei), witness their white neighbors whooping it up in celebration of America dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, a Japanese city where their relative and friends still resided.
Ending with the peacefulness of Obon is evidence that Yuko remains at rest, and it’s also a quiet act of remembrance for all whose lives have been impacted by this nasty chapter in American history. Chester tells his son that the tradition of remembering is not just to honor the people they know, but the places they’ve been. It’s a quiet acknowledgement of the obligation any culture has to keep history alive – “Or else,” Chester says, “we forget who we are.”
When “The Terror: Infamy” premiered, headlines about the shameful conditions in migrant detention centers at our southern border dominated the headlines. Now, thanks to the impeachment crisis, we barely hear anything about migrants in detention at all. But as Woo discussed in conversation about the end of “Infamy,” the story of immigration and nativist resistance to it is not going away any time soon.
I want to begin with your ending – specifically with that that final shot, where there's the remembrance ceremony in Hawaii and the wide shot of the families and friends floating lanterns on the water. Then it goes directly into the credits sequence, where photos of the the cast and crew are featured alongside relatives — or in George's case, next to his own picture from when he was in an internment camp.
That seems like a very intentionally planned ending that must have been in place pretty early on. Is that correct?
The idea probably came somewhere pretty early in production, because obviously we had George as part of the show very early on. But during the audition process, just about everyone who came in had some personal connection to the internment – that should have been obvious to me at the time, but it wasn't. That is, if you were Japanese American and your family has been here for more than a generation or two, then your family was interned. They were incarcerated.
Everyone has a really deep personal connection to that history.
So many people on our crew do as well. Ben dropped everything to be part of our production. They quit their jobs. In some cases, they relocated to Canada to be part of the show. So yeah, that and list of names — sadly there are at least 138 names on that end-title card there, those are all relatives of the cast and crew.
It was pretty clear to me, even in the first couple of weeks of production that we wanted to honor those people because they were telling their parents’ story and their grandparents’ story and great-grandparents', in some cases. So I thought that would be an appropriate way to honor those people who survived, and actually in a few cases didn't survive the internment.
When “Infamy” first debuted, it had the unfortunate but coincidental timing of premiering at the end of a summer where there were so many stories about detention camps on our Southern border. But it’s almost as if all of those stories have been drowned out by other crises as the series airs its finale.
But just going back to long before it premiered, how much was the current situation with migrant detentions on our southern border on your mind when you were putting together the storyboards for the season and building the plot? How much did current events influence the arc of this family story?
Oh, we are certainly aware of it. Even in 2018, the news about the internment camps, obviously there were certainly huge issues of immigration and the treatment of Americans, both documented and undocumented. So we were aware of that.
But we also knew we didn't have to hit it that hard in telling the story of the Japanese American incarceration because the parallels are pretty and pretty obvious to anyone who cares to connect the dots. We just wanted to tell this story because for so many Japanese Americans sadly, it is a part of our collective American history that has ramifications and has relevance to the present day.
And what's it like for you now that the season is coming to a close, and it seems like this story is no longer in the headlines? Obviously the detention situation isn't going away on the Southern border.
And now, in addition to that, there are many stories about immigration and how it's being frightfully limited, with so many barriers erected. What is it like for you as a creator, of someone who's invested so much in this story to witness your story in parallel to current events at the moment?
The story's not going to go away. Everything right now, in early October, everything's about the Ukraine and the impeachment. The immigrant experience is something that…you know, I’ve lived it for so long, and there are so many stories from my own family — which is not a Japanese American family, we’re a Chinese American family — that connect to the present of the story of people who have come to America hoping for a better life, a better opportunity or refuge or sanctuary. Frequently it's a success story. But just as frequently, it's the story of embracing a country that doesn't embrace you back. And that, sadly, I don't think is ever going end.
So I feel proud of being able to add a voice to that story, and knowing that sometime in the next week or month or two months, there's going to be relevance again to this story.
I’d like to kind of pull a couple of things out of this season that stood out to me. In the finale, there's a lot of conversation about the idea of returning to “the perfect world” for Yuko, but also, with Chester kind of trying to figure out in a way if there's ever a way to go back to the way things were. That “perfect world” for him, of course, was very different than the vision his parents had.
But that phrasing of “a perfect world,” it seems very intentionally chosen. Can you talk a little bit about its larger meaning in terms of the season’s plot arc?
I think “the perfect world” can serve as an analogue for the American dream. That sort of cliched term, the American dream. It is that idealized existence, that idealized fantasy of what things could be or could have been. That this perfect world that Yuko can return to is one that can only be created by this unique combination of her supernatural abilities and this very specific magic that's rooted in Mexican spiritualism. Apart from that, you can't go back to the past. It's accessible only to Yuko.
For the rest of us, this idealized fantasy is not really possible. Yes, there is a dream that you strive for, and reach for, but that “perfect world” never matches the reality.
In our supernatural story we can grant that to Yuko, but I think Chester and everyone else realizes that that's impossible for them.
And then there's something to be said there about this notion of a perfect world, to Yuko, being only accessible by violence and inflicting pain on a whole lot of other people.
There's a lot of collateral damage along the way caused by Yuko, in order to even get there.
I'm kind of hitting on that because I think that when the series began, it was seen as built around these parallel stories. There were definitely historic cues in to the Nakayama’s family stories, built around actual dates of communities being rounded up, the dates when the families were transferred to the internment camps. And, of course, in the later episodes, Leaving Day, the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So there are all these significant parts of history that you were very careful to include in this story.
And it was interesting to see that initially, people were not quite sure how the family story informed by history linked up to Yuko and the supernatural aspect of the season. The link becomes clear near the end. But can you explain the intended metaphorical parallels between the family story and Yuko's story, and how that relates to her hunting of this community and not just that, of Chester and his family?
I don't know that I can answer it completely. We wanted to tell a five-year story that involved over a hundred thousand people in a really personal way. And so on the historical scale, you have a community that is uprooted and sent to camps, and then finally released from a camp, but then goes back to an America that is still at war with Japan and is still very hostile to Japanese Americans. And we wanted the Yuko story to parallel that, and feel on a personal level what that historical story feels like on an historical scale.
So she has gone through this long tribulation and she's seeking restitution for the wrongs that have been put upon her. In circling back and landing our historical story, we wanted to land Yuko's story in this kind of strangely compassionate place – very unlike dropping a bomb. That doesn't solve anything.
Chester combines his Japanese and his wife's Mexican roots, so that is a very American solution, a melting pot solution, if you will, to try to find empathy and compassion for this spirit that has caused so much havoc rather than try to destroy her. So as a counterpoint to the bombing of Hiroshima, Chester — even though he recognizes Yuko just killed his dad and has killed a number of other people that he knows and cares about — decides that the only solution is empathy. So I feel like we kind of landed our historical story on the bomb over Hiroshima and then landed our Yuko story on the flipside of that.
Of course there's the horror of what happens at the end to the Nakayamas and to the Japanese people. But at the same time that idea of empathy, that's a very atypical ending for a horror story. Generally the ending is ambiguous or the final person gets out, but it's clear that the horror will continue. What made your ending the right one for this horror story?
We were reminded by so many people who had relatives who were a part of the internment, and George himself and others who had survived it, that the stories of the internment should not be one exclusively of horror and misery – even though of course it was that.
But it is simultaneously the story of the resilience and resourcefulness of the Japanese Americans, who were able to survive this horrible mistreatment and to make a home out of this very inhospitable place -- and then come back, even though they had lost everything. All their belongings, and all their finances had been drained, and then they built a life again. So to end it on a dark note, to me, felt a little like we were compromising that part of the story. We wanted to honor the really sort of heroic side of the Japanese American experience in the internment and not keep hammering a notion of victimhood.
And looking at this idea of “The Terror” as a horror story, the biggest horrors to me were developments such as Henry having these grand plans to fix up their family home, and then turning the corner to where their neighborhood should be and seeing that everything's gone.
That struck me as more of a horror than anything that Yuko did – that part seemed like it was going to resolve in one way or another, because that's what horror movies do. Was there more of an intentional emphasis on the horror of the history rather than the horror created by Yuko?
I think it evolved quite naturally. I have to admit, in telling the story, we recognize that there were going to be people who watch show who are very familiar with the story because they have family members who were in the internment camps. There are as many people who have little or no knowledge of the history of the internment, and we wanted just as much of that emotional weight to be carried by the history as with the supernatural elements of the show.
So to me, I felt like the two wove together pretty organically. We knew we wanted to have a scene where the whole family comes back and realizes that everything's been razed to the ground, because we knew that was just as horrifying as any supernatural stuff.
What has been the best response that you've received about “Infamy”?
I think maybe the most touching one was from a man who was an extra in our show, whose parents were interned in Canada. That scene in Episode 2 where they're at the racetrack? That is literally where the Japanese Canadians were held, sleeping in stables while they were waiting for the fence to be built.
And he said that his parents never talked about the internment to him. But now 60 years later he found himself holding two suitcases, standing there in the exact same place his parents did in 1942 and for the first time he felt he understood what they were going through. That to me was really powerful and meaningful.
"The Terror: Infamy" Season 2 can be streamed in its entirety on AMC.com with cable login.