Eric Muller, editor of Colors of Confinement: Rare Kodachrome Photographs of Japanese American Incarceration in World War II, offers a historical perspective on the opening episodes of the “The Terror: Infamy,” airing now on AMC.
Q: What were your general impressions of the second episode of the AMC anthology series, “The Terror: Infamy,” which is set in part in a Japanese American internment camp during World War II?
A: This episode was heavier on the history and lighter on the horror than the first episode. The story followed many of the main characters through their first move from Terminal Island into Los Angeles, and from there into an “assembly center” at a racetrack, and from there, at the very end, to a permanent “relocation center” in Oregon. (In reality there were no such camps in Oregon.) I found it to be a visually compelling facsimile of the conditions many Japanese Americans endured during this time period. For dramatic reasons, I suppose, the show is presenting the very worst of the conditions and circumstances. Two days to pack up everything. Life in horse stables. Nothing but tough and callous guards. In reality, families were usually given more than two days (sometimes up to two weeks or more); only a small percentage of the total number of detained people were housed in horse stables rather than barracks; there are many stories and images of more kindly guards actively assisting Japanese Americans in their preparations and transportation. So it’s clear that the show has chosen the darkest of depictions of conditions that is true to the historical record.
I would say this as well about one of the most emotionally upsetting scenes in the episode: the arrest and removal of Japanese American children from a Los Angeles orphanage. The show chose to depict this as quite brutal, with armed MPs sweeping unannounced through the orphanage and grabbing little kids by the hand and more or less dragging them away. I have never seen a suggestion that orphans were removed in this way. It’s certainly true that orphan children were “evacuated” along with the rest of the ethnically Japanese population. Most were placed together in an orphanage called the “Children’s Village” at Manzanar in California. But the process of creating the Children’s Village was nothing like the sudden, brutal sweep depicted in the show. It was planned together with representatives of the Japanese American community and the orphanages where the kids were living. The entire process was no doubt traumatic for the children, but I believe the show takes considerable liberties in depicting it as such a sudden and physically and emotionally brutal process.
There’s a separate story line about the older men who are in detention at a camp in North Dakota. The depictions here are less accurate. The detention is presented as being run by the military, but that’s mistaken: the Japanese alien men arrested after Pearl Harbor were detained by the Justice Department, not the Army. The conditions of detention are considerably more brutal than anything I’ve ever encountered in the literature. In particular, the clear off-screen suggestion that prisoners were being beaten and tortured is nothing I’ve ever seen substantiated in the literature. There’s one additional obvious error in this story line—the inclusion of a young man named Nick Okada among these prisoners. The only people arrested and placed in Justice Department detention were older non-citizen men. Nick Okada is clearly a Nisei, or second-generation, Japanese American. He is a US citizen by birth and simply could not have been arrested as an alien. A young man like that would simply not have been at an alien internment camp alongside all of the older non-citizens.
One final inaccuracy: Chester refuses to report for arrest and detention and instead tries to hide out with the non-Japanese-American woman who is carrying their child. He’s discovered by the FBI, and then the next moment we see him joining his family in the horse stables at the assembly center. That’s legally inaccurate. Chester would have been arrested for defying the military order, charged with that crime in civilian court, and then held in a jail pending his trial on that charge. He would not have been simply turned loose into the general population of evacuees at the assembly center.
Q: As the editor of Colors of Confinement, which presents rare Kodachrome photographs taken by Bill Manbo of his family during their internment at Heart Mountain in Wyoming, what elements of the series ring true for you? What inaccuracies, if any, did you spot?
A: I think the show is doing a good job of capturing the confusion and uncertainty confronting Japanese Americans as they prepared for and began dealing with their removal and imprisonment. I’ve noted a number of inaccuracies above.
Q: Did you notice any echoes of Bill Manbo’s photographs in the way that the series is shot/produced?
Not yet, no. But Manbo’s photographs all were shot at Heart Mountain, a permanent camp—the sort of camp to which the characters in the show were just arriving at the very end of the episode. Perhaps we’ll see more of Manbo’s work echoed in future episodes.
Q: The show overlays an element of horror on an already horrific story. Did you feel that was effective?
A: Candidly, I find the horror element rather distracting and quite disconnected from the historical story (but I’m a historian of the period, so what would you expect?). At a deeper level, it’s unsettling to me that the horror elements do not appear to relate to or derive from the racism and fear that drove them from their homes and into the camps. Thus far the horror appears to be internal to the Japanese community, and even seems to be an expression of distinctively Japanese culture. I think it’s useful and interesting (and accurate) to break from the usual notion that Japanese Americans were entirely culturally American (bobby socks, hamburgers, Glenn Miller, Cokes, etc.) and to show the community as heavily influenced by Japanese cultural and spiritual influences. I like that about the show; it’s more realistic than what we usually hear about the community. Still, I was expecting the horror to relate in some meaningful way to the horror of the racism and hysteria that was buffeting the community, and so far that’s not there.
Eric L. Muller is Dan K. Moore Distinguished Professor in Jurisprudence and Ethics at the University of North Carolina School of Law and director of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for Faculty Excellence. He is editor of Colors of Confinement: Rare Kodachrome Photographs of Japanese American Incarceration in World War II, with photographs by Bill Manbo (University of North Carolina Press published in association with the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, Fall 2012).
You can read his previous UNC Press Blog posts here.
Colors of Confinement tells the story of Bill Manbo (1908-1992), who In 1942 was forced with his family from their Hollywood home into the Japanese American internment camp at Heart Mountain in Wyoming. While there, Manbo documented his surroundings using Kodachrome film, a technology then just seven years old, to capture community celebrations and to record his family’s struggle to maintain a normal life under the harsh conditions of racial imprisonment. The book showcases sixty-five stunning images from this extremely rare collection of color photographs, presented along with three interpretive essays by leading scholars and a reflective, personal essay by a former Heart Mountain internee.
You can watch the book trailer for Colors of Confinement here: