the terror infamy trailer

One of the best shows on television last year, bar none, was AMC’s The Terror. The first season adapted the Dan Simmons novel of the same name, telling the complete story of a doomed Arctic expedition aboard the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus. It was based on Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition, a real historical incident. The ship’s names really were synonyms for “fear” and “hell,” and in their search for the Northwest Passage, they really did disappear with 129 men aboard.

You don’t have to be a J-horror lover to be excited about The Terror: Infamy (read our review here… but it certainly helps. This second season of The Terror is reinventing the show as an anthology series that serves up period drama with a horror twist. If you were so inclined, you could even go into it without having watched the first season (but why would you do that when the first season was so bracingly good?) What’s clear from the trailers and promos is that The Terror: Infamy will be drawing from both the real history of Japanese internment camps in the U.S. and the genre of kaidan (ghost tales) in Japanese literature.

How well do you really know your Japanese ghosts? Can you tell a ghost from a shapeshifter? How well do you really know your World War II history? Below, we’ll debrief the intrepid viewer on the supernatural folklore, Japanese cultural traditions, and real-life wartime events behind The Terror: Infamy. Consider this your field guide for the, ahem, terror that awaits viewers in the weeks to come.

Know Your Yokai

The most recent trailer for The Terror: Infamy specifically name-checks two different kinds of yokai: the umbrella term for supernatural beings in Japanese folklore, including monsters, demons, and ghosts.

The first yokai it references is that of the yurei, a kind of ghost stuck between the living world and the dead because of unfinished business. Turn-of-the-millennium J-horror films like Ringu and Ju-On: The Grudge famously depicted the onryo, a vengeful breed of yurei with enough power to exert harm on living people.

The second yokai the trailer references is that of the bakemono, also known as an obake. Lead actor Derek Mio uses both of these terms in the Comic-Con First Look, seemingly as synonyms for yurei, but they are slippery in that a bakemono can also be a being that is distinct from a ghost. Consider the Japanese title of the anime film The Boy and the Beast (emphasis on “beast”): it’s Bakemono no Ko.

Bakemono are shapeshifters that might pose as humans when their real form is something else entirely. Another example of the bakemono in anime is the Ghibli film Pom Poko, where the late Isao Takahata showed shapeshifting raccoon dogs assuming blank-faced humanoid forms in order to scare off humans who were encroaching on their rural territory.

Just remember, the next time you find a raccoon rifling through your trash during the witching hour, it might be a devious shapeshifter. That, or an earthbound cousin of Rocket Raccoon from Guardians of the Galaxy … in which case it could be equally feral. Proceed with caution.

Halloween in August

It’s no coincidence, perhaps, that The Terror: Infamy premieres in the U.S. on August 12. That’s the day before the start of Obon, a Japanese summer holiday where tradition holds that the reikon, or spirits, of people’s ancestors return to their homes on Earth.

It’s similar to the Western tradition of Halloween and the Mexican holiday of Dia de Los Muertos, the former of which inspired the greatest slasher movie of all time and the latter of which inspired the comparatively innocuous Coco from Pixar. The difference here is that Obon is far less of a commercial holiday than Halloween has become. Instead of seeing costumed kids on doorsteps trick-or-treating for candy, you might see someone in your neighborhood lighting a small welcoming fire (mukaebi) in front of their house.

In English, Obon is sometimes called the “Festival of Souls.” On rivers like the Sumida in Tokyo, the last night of Obon brings processions of glowing paper lanterns downstream at night. This symbolizes the return of the dead to the spirit world. It’s beautiful but it can contribute to a spooky atmosphere if you’re in the right mood (which I, for one, always am). This has helped make August, more so than October, the season for scary stories in Japan. Asian horror marathon, anyone?

Because of the time difference between Japan and America, The Terror: Infamy will actually be broadcasting when it’s the first day of Obon in the place where it matters most. In the summertime, Tokyo is thirteen hours ahead of New York. When viewers on the East Coast of the United States tune in for the show at 9 p.m. on August 12, it will already be 10 a.m. on August 13 in Japan.

That’s the day Obon begins. It’s also two days before the Japanese Emperor Hirohito announced his country’s surrender in 1945, bringing to a close the hostilities of World War II.

History as Horror

Without delving into outright spoilers, I can only say that the single most horrifying moment in the first season of The Terror had nothing whatsoever to do with the supernatural. They say truth is stranger than fiction, and in some ways, history is more horrifying than actual horror. Viewers who became fans of Jared Harris through The Terror and followed him over to Chernobyl on HBO this year might already have formed a very recent appreciation of that.

The Terror: Infamy promises to bring to life an important yet often overlooked chapter of American history, one that actor George Takei lived through as a child before he went on to star in Star Trek in the 1960s. The series title alludes to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s historic Infamy Speech, delivered the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In this speech, Roosevelt coined the phrase “a date which will live in infamy” (Wikipedia notes that it’s often misquoted as “a day that will live in infamy.”)

Most Americans will be at least be passingly familiar with this stirring speech through history class or movies or cultural osmosis. It paints a vivid picture of a sneak attack that served to “awaken the sleeping giant,” as World War II films like Pearl Harbor and Tora! Tora! Tora! have put it.

What people might not be as readily familiar with is the concentration camps that followed months after the Infamy Speech. During the war, these camps were set up on American soil as facilities for the internment of Japanese Americans. It’s not something that gets as much (if any) coverage in American war movies or even in American history books. The Terror: Infamy has U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry as its characters and it’s using these camps as the setting for its story.

Now we’re living in a time when there are concentration camps on American soil again. This time they’re holding immigrants. Like its first season, this new iteration of The Terror is delivering its history lesson in genre wrapping paper. Having a working knowledge of some of the rich folklore and timely historical parallels involved can only enhance one’s viewing experience.

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