(Editor’s Note: This recap contains spoilers)
By Jana Monji
AMC’s horror drama anthology series, The Terror for its second season focuses on another historic event, the Japanese American incarceration camps during World War II. Premiering last night, this season was developed by Alexander Woo (True Blood) and Max Borenstein (Godzilla, Kong: Skull Island and Godzilla: King of the Monsters) and includes civil rights activist George Takei.
The first season focused on Sir John Franklin’s (1786-1847) lost (and last) expedition in which two ships, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror, on a mission to search for the Northwest Passage became trapped by Arctic ice, forcing its crews to battle starvation, cannibalism and a monstrous polar bear. The Terror: Infamy begins in 1941 and focuses on a young Japanese American man, Chester Nakayama (Derek Mio), whose family lives and works on Terminal Island. Terminal Island’s unique history makes it an optimal setting for a ghost story as both an artificial island created by a man-made joining of two smaller island: Rattlesnake Island and Deadman’s Island, and as an insulated community. The island is located between the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach. Rattlesnake island was little more than a sandbar that had an alarming number of rattlesnakes but Deadman’s Island was a burial site for sailors and even Native Americans. What better place for a tale of supernatural terror than a former burial ground?
According to Densho, the first Japanese settled there in 1899, and eventually the community was based on the western end of Terminal Island. The Japanese were the larger population, but Terminal Island also included Sicilians, Slovenians, Portuguese, Mexicans, and Filipinos who lived on the opposite end of the island. Terminal Islanders were connected to the fishing industry and most were working for large companies like Van Camp Seafood Company or the White Star Canning Company. Densho notes that the canneries were often majority share owners of the fishing boats and landlords–providing housing for the men in “ramshackle bungalows arranged row after row near the factories and waterfront.”
A Sparrow in a Swallow’s Nest
In the first episode, A Sparrow in a Swallow’s Nest, a woman is putting on make up. From a black and white photo, we understand that she is a wife and mother with a son. With her hair piled up and two black and white chopsticks sticking out, she walks with an awkward gait down a pier on top of the water, kneels and then takes one of the chopsticks out of her hair and puts it forcefully into her ear and dies. The woman, Masayo Furuya (Yuki Morita), was the long-suffering wife of the alcoholic and much older Hideo Furuya (Eiji Inoue) and the mother of Toshiro Furuya (Alex Shimizu).
During the service inside of the Furuya home, Chester remembers the last time he saw Masayo. He was asking for a favor and she, an herbalist, promised to have it for him in a week’s time. Two odd things happen at the funeral: Chester also imagines that a loose thread on his shirt becomes long and leads to a deep and ugly cut to his wrist and the wind topples the casket, sending Masayo’s corpse tumbling to the ground.
Chester’s mother, Asako Nakayama (Naoko Mori) tell his father Henry Nakayama (Shingo Usami), “We forget when old spirits call to us.” Later, when Chester develops the photograph, he sees a troubling image, something blurry next to Hideo. During the funeral, Hideo passes two bottles to Chester and calls him a “coward.”
Asako isn’t the only one with superstitions. Henry and Chester runs a small fishing boat, Taro. Henry makes an offering to the sea for good luck. Chester scoffs at the idea, but Yamato-san (George Takei) asks Chester if he knows about bakemono, but Chester is skeptical, saying, “I thought we left that old country stuff behind. Even if they did exist, why would they come all the way over here?” One of the fishermen replies, “Why not? We did.”
The White foreman at the cannery, Stan Grichuk (Teach Grant), comes by and tries to cheat them, and pay half what their catch is worth. Chester agrees to sort the fish in order to keep the price, but even once that is done, Grichuk still wants to pay a lower price. Oddly, the conveyor belt starts and Grichuk’s tie is caught, pulling him toward the fish head chopping mechanism. Henry saves Grichuk by cutting his tie. Unbeknownst to Henry, the company fires Grichuk.
Henry’s business has been successful enough that he is one of six Japanese on Terminal Island to own a Packard. That evening, the Nakayamas and the Yoshidas–Wilson (James Saito) and Fumi (Hira Ambrosino) and their daughter Amy (Miki Ishikawa)–are eating dinner together, celebrating Walter Yoshida’s (Lee Shorten) upcoming nuptials set for March. Chester wants to be a photographer for some magazine, but his mother came to the US as a photo bride 23 years ago and believes that Terminal Island is safe. She tells him, “Life is hard, Chester. You cannot do it without family.”
Chester reluctantly agrees, and replies, “Just ask Mrs. Furuya.” Later that evening, Chester and Amy walking off the night smoking cigarettes and pass near where Masayo committed suicide. Amy confesses that she’s dating a White serviceman. “My brother is Japanese as rice. I don’t think he can imagine it.” While Chester and Amy were gone, a drunken and angry Grichuk comes knocking at the Nakayama’s door. The Yoshida’s have already returned home. Grichuk wants to “thank” Henry for saving his life by coercing him to surrender the Packard. Grichuk takes the key and leaves.
When Chester returns, he questions his father’s manhood. Henry replies, “In Japan, my father didn’t even have his own ox. I had to pull my own cart. I come here, all I ever want is automobile, a car to pull me. Twenty years but I got it. So what if they take my car? I’m still same man, a man who earned his Packard. Don’t you tell me how to be a man, boy.”
The next day, Asako tries to help the Furuya home bringing food (nabemono) and makes offering at the family alter, but Hideo abruptly dismisses her after he sees her purifying his house with salt. Later, Hideo is outside and something forces him to stare at the sun until he is blind.
Chester and Walter’s tell their parents they are going to the movies (Gene Autry’s Down Mexico Way) but they really are having a bachelor party at a brothel. When the other men go up with the prostitute of their choice, Chester stays at the bar. The men know he has a sweetheart: Luz. In an earlier scene, Chester gives Luz the aborticide made by Mrs. Furuya. Although Luz says in Spanish that abortion is “an offense against God,” she accepts the two bottles. Under California law, Chester and Luz cannot be married. Neither could Amy and her White naval base beau. That law wouldn’t change until 1948 (Perez v. Sharp), the first state ruling to overturn anti-miscegenation state laws in the US as a violation of the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution.
While the other men are celebrating by getting laid at the brothel, a kimono-clad woman calling herself Yuko (Kiki Sukezane) tells Chester she has been asked by the brothel’s madame, Antoinette, to bring him tea. Yuko lights a candle and puts her hand over it because blood attracts the spirits, “the good and the evil.” After he drinks his tea, she reads his tea leaves, telling him, “They say you are two people, light and darkness, life and death. You live life in two worlds, but are home in neither.”
Yuko continues, explaining the title of this episode by saying, “You are a sparrow in a swallow’s nest. The moment you believe you are safe, the swallows will peck you to death….”
Chester admits, “I once felt safe. Not any more.”
Yuko continues, “We all long for restitution. We mourn the life lost to us, that perfect world we once had.”
Chester interrupts, “I never lived in a perfect world.”
Yuko replies, “Then it lies ahead of you look within yourself. What do you see?”
Chester closes his eyes and says, “An open plain, A fenced acre. A house of wood. A child.”
Yuko assures him, “It is not lost to you. The house, the child can still be yours. Restore your path or else you will hunger for it forever.”
Chester decides to steal back the Packard. He goes to Luz and asks her if she took the abortive. Luz admits that she hasn’t. He asks Luz to elope, but Luz worries about the practicality, the money, the work. “There’s no future for us, anywhere.”
When Grichuk realizes the Packard has been stolen, he goes to the dock to burn the Taro, but something, a divine wind (kamikaze) saves the boat. The next morning. Henry and Chester discover that Grichuk is caught in a net, dead. Although Chester and Henry worry about being implicated in murder, the world becomes more interested in more important matters. It is 7 December 1941 and Pearl Harbor has been bombed. That same night, the Issei men of Terminal Island are rounded up by the FBI and taken away. Henry says to his wife and son, “It’s FBI. It’s okay. For safety.” Then he addresses, Chester. “You’re a citizen boy. You’re born here. Show them you are a patriot. Fight for your country.”
The last scene shows us Yuko again. Clad in the same white kimono, she lights a candle and looks at herself in the mirror. She wipes the makeup from her right cheek and her cheek tears, revealing black skin underneath. She calmly takes a needle and thread and sews the tear up. Yuko is definitely not your typical Japanese woman.
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