We chat with ‘The Terror: Infamy’ actor Kai Bradbury about his character Nick Okada, what internment meant for mixed Japanese-Americans, and the show’s imperative commitment to authenticity.
The Terror: Infamy tells the true horror story of Japanese-American internment during World War II. Armed with the vocabulary of the yokai genre and an inescapable sense of relevance, the series follows a Japanese-American community menaced by a violent specter as they are uprooted from their homes in Southern California and held in a remote concentration camp.
The second season of AMC’s critically-acclaimed horror anthology series, The Terror: Infamy is a radical production. Not only for the unprecedented scale on which it confronts the real-life horrors of Japanese-American internment, but for the palpable care, attention, and reverence evident in every frame.
We sat down with The Terror: Infamy actor Kai Bradbury, to discuss the show’s dedication to getting this story right and to dig into the historical significance of Nick Okada, an internee at the North Dakota prisoner of war camp we meet in episode two. At the camp, Nick falls under the suspicion of a trio of elders (George Takei, Shingo Usami, and Eiji Inoue). As far as they’re concerned, he’s hiding something. And they aim to find out what…by whatever means possible.
Our conversation begins with a look at Nick Okada the character and the terrible realities that faced real-life mixed-race Japanese-Americans during the time the show is set. From there we discuss what it was like to work with George Takei, the show’s imperative commitment to authenticity, and an Easter egg from episode one you may have missed.
Here is our conversation in full (some spoilers for episode two):
FSR: I’m loving the show and I’m so glad to get the chance to talk with you about it! To start, can you tell us a little bit about your character, Nick Okada?
Kai: Nick Okada is a nisei, which is the [Japanese] word for second-generation. It comes from ichi, ni, san (one, two, three). He’s a Japanese American whom we meet when the men who are most culturally connected to Japan are taken to the prisoner of war camp in North Dakota. We’re led to believe that Nick is maybe possessed by the yurei or the bakemono, but then we find out that he’s working for the Department of Justice.
FSR: Was that a thing? Second-generation folks in camps working for the DOJ?
Kai: Yes. So they were called inu by the Japanese Americans in the camps, which translates to “dog.” A lot of these spies were American-born, and a lot of them were mixed-race. This is the case with Nick Okada. He’s half-Japanese, half-Caucasian, which I am as well. A lot of these spies were mixed and American-born, and that played a part in swaying them to work for the government. They were still in the camps, but they might have been falsely guaranteed some kind of financial security or family security because everyone was split apart. It’s devastating. These people were forced to turn on their own people in a life or death situation where they were really just fighting to stay alive.
FSR: What did your research look like?
Kai: We were provided with a book list, which included Yoshiko Uchida’s Desert Exile and Richard Reeves’ Infamy. We were also provided with George Takei’s memoir [To The Stars]. In addition to reading about the time period, I had just come off The Orchard (After Chekhov), which is a modern Canadian adaptation of The Cherry Orchard set in the 1970s, and my character in that production was interned in a camp in British Columbia. So I was already doing a lot of research before I got cast in the show. What I needed to brush up on were the American facts. There were about 22,000 Japanese Canadians interned but closer to 120,000 Japanese Americans interned. And of course, I did research into the spies in the camps.
FSR: And when you say “spy” you mean spies for America, right?
Kai: Yeah for the DOJ. American spies looking for traitors spying on the United States on behalf of the Japanese Empire. Since the war started, the paranoia had been snowballing into this decision to falsely and, you know, horrifically, imprison people who were mostly American. Who didn’t speak Japanese and had never been to Japan. So unlike what is currently happening in the US.
FSR: One of the things that I’ve always appreciated about The Terror is that it doesn’t stop to hold your hand, and that puts a lot of responsibility on the viewer to listen and even follow through. Infamy is applying pressure to a weak spot that I think a lot of North Americans have. We both grew up in Vancouver, where The Terror was shot, and I didn’t learn about the history of the internment camps at Hastings Park until, like, three years ago. Which is wild. The roller coaster in episode two at the racetrack probably won’t mean anything to a lot of viewers. But as a Vancouverite watching the show, it was a gut punch.
Kai: I can actually speak about the roller coaster.
FSR: Oh, fantastic.
Kai: Emi Kamito, who stars in the show and was an integral member of the production team, was in charge of reviewing all of the episodes to make sure that the English subtitles were accurate for the Japanese scenes. She noticed the roller coaster and made a note to production, who explained that they were keeping it in intentionally, not only because it was period-appropriate, but also because it made sense to have a fair by the horse stables.
FSR: Right! I was shocked to learn that interning people in stables wasn’t just a Hastings Park thing.
Kai: Yeah, it happened all along the Pacific Coast. And while people were held temporarily, the government was seizing and selling the property of internees to fund the construction of camps.
Kai: Walking into those stables and seeing them dressed the way it was with blankets over top of the dividers…terribly eerie and haunting. George [Takei] wasn’t actually aware [about the history of Hastings Park], until I told him that it was also used to house Japanese Canadians.
FSR: What was his reaction?
Kai: No surprise. And you know, it just added to that level of authenticity. The attention to detail and the respect [for the history] was incredible. The casting team and producers, showrunner Alexander Woo among others, were definitive about casting people of Japanese descent. It was imperative. Shooting in Hastings Park just added to that.
FSR: Can you tell us a little bit about what it was like to work with George Takei? He’s radiant in so many ways, but seeing him on the show is especially powerful given his own history with being interned as a child.
Kai: George is an angel. He really is. His life is dedicated to making the world aware of the injustices of the internment of Japanese-Americans. He’s inspiring. He’s 82, and his dedication and his ethic are unbelievable. It was freezing. We were filming outside in the middle of January.
FSR: Would I know where you shot the lake scene? Was it even real?
Kai: It was the furthest thing from real. We were in a parking lot outside of the city center by a forested area. They covered the concrete with plastic tarps and dumped fake snow on top. Granted, it actually snowed three days later.
FSR: In Vancouver? That’s pretty good!
Kai: Yeah, they built up the bank of the lake with hay bales and brought in reeds that had been painted to look frozen. That was the background for the three men cornering me on the lake: George Takei, Shingo Usami, and Eiji Inoue.
FSR: Shingo is one of the standouts for me this season. He broke my heart like five times.
Kai: He’s amazing.
FSR: All these sweet men trying to fuck your life up!
Kai: I know! The elders aren’t just suspicious of Nick because he’s way younger than everyone else but also because he’s mixed race. For the Japanese at that time, it would have been unusual. But also for everyone because interracial marriage wasn’t legalized in the US until the late ’60s. Decades after the war. We see that between Chester and Luz, too. They can’t be together because it’s illegal. There was a lot of racism and suspicion around mixed-race people because they were a product of an illegal partnership.
FSR: Wow, so the US government really sewed dissent within the community.
Kai: Yeah. Calling these places “internment camps” is an issue, too.
FSR: I’ve heard George Takei prefers phrasing that emphasizes that these weren’t “Japanese internment camps” but American internment camps for folks of Japanese descent.
Kai: Yes. And I stand with him in thinking that it even takes the power away from what they really were. They were concentration camps.
FSR: That’s what bowled me over about Infamy: I’m someone who grew up in a city that had a camp in it, and I didn’t know about it until I was an adult. As relevant as the show is to the present, I’m so grateful that this under-told story is being given a platform.
Kai: Yeah, when we were in high school, I don’t think we had more than a paragraph in our textbooks about Japanese internment. If it was there at all. Being half-Japanese, I grew up with an awareness about the history of internment but not knowing the facts. Hopefully, the show bumps this history up in people’s awareness.
FSR: It’s exciting.
Kai: I’m so thrilled by this project. George [Takei] has talked about how this topic has never been explored on screen, over a 10-hour period, made with so much detail and respect. And it’s also an exciting and entertaining piece of art!
FSR: Can confirm. I cried many times. You can feel the care in this show. It’s not trepidation, it’s a desire to get it right. That comes across. I bet this will be the first time a lot of folks are encountering this history. That sense of responsibility must be incredibly motivating.
Kai: Absolutely. By the way, did you notice the Easter egg in the first episode? The name of the family’s fishing boat?
FSR: No! Tell me!
Kai: It’s called the Taro, sounds a bit like “Terror.” But it also means “first-born son.”
FSR: Oh my god, that’s fantastic.
Kai: I think it’s a bit of an homage.
FSR: I love it.