George Takei guides new TV series on Japanese Americans in World War II
ATLANTA — For more than six decades, including his best-known role as Mr. Sulu on the original "Star Trek" television and movie series, George Takei has aimed to tell one story.
Now, with the premiere of the first of 10 episodes on Monday, Aug. 12, Takei said "The Terror: Infamy" will tell the story of what happened to more than 100,000 Japanese Americans imprisoned during World War II.
As a 5-year-old boy born in Los Angeles, Takei was one of them, his family sent from Los Angeles to Camp Rohwer in Arkansas, and later to Camp Tule Lake on the California-Oregon border. The family returned to Los Angeles in 1946 after Tule Lake was closed.
During the recent national convention of the Asian American Journalists Association, Takei, now 82, said he is taken aback by the number of people who are unaware of what happened to people like him.
"They are shocked — and I am shocked they are shocked," he said.
"This is an American story. The fact that there are so many Americans who still to this day are unaware of that to me is very troubling. It is particularly troubling because we are the echoes of what is happening today on the southern border."
During the four years his family was in camps, Takei said, children were not separated from their families — in contrast to what federal agencies did initially in immigrant detention camps. He said history offers a lesson for today.
"On the southern border, children and infants are being torn away from their parents and put in unsanitary cages, with only an aluminum blanket to warm them," he said.
"That is why we Americans need to know this history and to be able to speak up and say this is not our America. The president is not speaking for us. This is un-American. Our hope is by having this knowledge, the future of America will not allow this to happen again."
Even young Japanese Americans often are unaware of that history, he said, "because their parents did not talk about it."
Developing the series
Takei was a senior consultant for "The Terror: Infamy," where he also plays Nobuhiro Yamato, "Yamato-san," a former fishing captain and community elder.
The first episode airs at 9 p.m. Monday, Aug. 12, on AMC. Subsequent episodes will air weekly in the same time slot through Oct. 14.
The first episode was shown near the close of a daylong segment of the Asian American Journalists convention aimed at developing skills of minorities to produce content and tell stories.
Takei appeared on a discussion panel afterward with Alexander Woo, producer and writer; Lily Mariye, director, and Derek Mio, lead actor who plays Chester Nakayama, a second-generation Japanese American who eventually opts for U.S. Army service.
"I am happy that telling this story on this massive scale — 10 hours, 10 episodes airing over 10 weeks — is being made," Takei said.
"You feel what it feels like to be in their skin," Woo said. "Then you develop an empathy for the plight of these characters and the plight of Japanese-Americans during their internment."
Others in the cast are immigrants from Japan, not Japanese Americans, who speak in the accents prevalent in Wakayama in southern Japan.
"It gave us a rougher tone," Mio said, rather than the more polished Japanese Americans.
Takei was involved in developing "Allegiance," a musical that played on Broadway for a few months in 2015 and 2016, and has a filmed version.
Takei has also released a recent graphic memoir, "They Called Us Enemy."
"I as an actor want to use every medium of communication possible" to tell this story, he said. "Here we are with journalists, who deal with communication of events."
One of the first
Takei also discussed his life story, which he wrote in a 1994 autobiography, "To the Stars."
He and his father differed about Takei's desire to become an actor.
"He thought I was crazy. He wanted me to be an architect," Takei said. "To be a good son, I started my career as an architecture student at Berkeley. But after two years, the fire got hotter and hotter — and the compromise I reached with my father was that I would continue my college studies."
Takei considered moving to New York and working at the Actors Studio. But his father proposed that Takei move from Berkeley to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), where he could earn a degree in theater arts. He earned a bachelor's in 1960 and a master's in 1964.
Upon his return to UCLA in 1957, Takei got two breaks.
As he entered UCLA, he found work at "Playhouse 90," a 90-minute live drama program on television, whose scriptwriters included Rod Serling and Paddy Chayefsky. Serling went on to the science-fiction TV series "The Twilight Zone," and Chayefsky to multiple Oscars, including "Network."
Also, a casting director saw Takei in a production and chose him for "Ice Palace," a 1960 film starring Richard Burton and Robert Ryan, based on a 1958 novel by Edna Ferber.
Some years later, Takei was interviewed by Gene Roddenberry — Takei misspoke his name as "Rosenbury" — for a pilot episode of "Star Trek." The rest is history. (Takei was astrophysicist Sulu in the second pilot, but is best known in the TV series as the helmsman for the starship Enterprise. He finally got his own command of the starship Excelsior in "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country," the final movie released in 1991.
"It was sheer dumb luck," Takei said of his early roles.
"Most of the opportunities at that time (for Asian Americans) were limited to minor stereotype roles, such as the silent servant or the evil villain. So luck plays an important part in this business. Now 'The Terror: Infamy' is a great leap forward."
Takei said the Japanese-American prison camps should be called what they actually were.
"To call them concentration camps is almost an euphemism. We were in American concentration camps," he said. "So I appeal to you: Get rid of the term 'Japanese concentration camps,' because that's another way for the government to distance itself from the truth," he said.
"We tell the story as brutally truthfully as we can and how it was experienced. We were Americans incarcerated unjustly. We had nothing to do with Pearl Harbor, other than looking like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor."
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