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Before 'Get Out,' 'The Twilight Zone' tried racism as a monster and failed

by Taylor Orci | Off-Ramp®

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George Takei as Arthur/Taro in a a suspense thriller episode of The Twilight Zone. The episode lays the groundwork to challenge stereotypes of Japanese-Americans, but then falls flat. still from the episode

Before George Takei was in Star Trek, he was in another otherworldly series, The Twilight Zone. The episode he's in is called, “The Encounter,” and if you’ve watched a bunch of the Twilight Zone, you might be like, “I never saw an episode with George Takei in it," that’s because the episode only aired once. CBS pulled it from syndication after Asian-American advocacy groups complained it was offensive. Spoiler: the episode ends with Takei’s character jumping out of a window with a Samurai sword and yelling, "BANZAI!"

Hm. The few Asian-American parts on TV and you’re gonna have a dude yell "BANZAI?" That’s a stereotype that’s not even trying to be something else. 

Even though the episode was banned from being re-run on TV, it’s on DVD, and currently on Netflix. And it’s worth watching. 

I know I’m working backward here, but it’s kind of sad that the episode ends the way it does. Because it has moments where Takei’s character, Arthur, has a real opportunity to be nuanced and multi-dimensional. Sigh. 

Here’s the premise: A WWII veteran who we only know as Mr. Fenton played by Neville Brand is cleaning out his attic when he comes upon a Japanese samurai sword he took from a soldier he killed overseas. As you already know, this is Chekhov’s samurai sword. Not Chekov from Star Trek, I'm talking about the dramatic device named after Chekhov the playwright that's shorthand for, "If we see it, we gotta use it." But I digress. 

Takei’s character comes upstairs inquiring about some gardening work, and the veteran invites him up for a beer, and immediately we see this veteran dude is a bigot. He calls him, "boy," and says flippantly that he doesn't "look" like an Arthur. And then when Takei's character says his comments aren't appreciated, the veteran chides him for being too sensitive. 

Takei's character though, persists in defending himself. "Europeans are always calling the natives 'boy,' and mourning about the 'white man's burden,' well the facts are, I'm a full-grown man and I answer to Arthur." The vet dismisses his anger with an admonishing, "You do this every time a guy offers you a beer?"  

And we see the veteran repeatedly try to make amends and “have a beer” with his new friend, but he can’t get out of the way of his own racism. He’s got a bad case of, “You’re one of the good ones,” praising Takei’s character as an individual but in the same breath blaming the Japanese for putting him out of a job instead of putting the blames squarely where it belongs: on his raging alcoholism. 

Takei's character initially defends his family by saying his father worked for the Navy, which would have been a point for defying racial and ethnic stereotypes, but then he breaks down and says his father was a traitor that aided in the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He lets his anger get the best of him (Japanese people having bad tempers was a common stereotype in WWII), and then kills the vet with a samurai sword before jumping out the window yelling, "BANZAI!"  

"The Encounter" came out in 1964, President Johnson was trying to rally support for the Vietnam War. Portraying Asian-Americans as spies and traitors wasn’t the kind of visibility they needed. What advocacy groups of the time were saying was, yes, even though this takes place in "the twilight zone," the audience is in the real world. 

The episode shores up as a missed opportunity for exploring race relations in a post-WWII world. As far as having a successfully executed suspense thriller where the Big Bad is racism? The world would have to wait. 

Side note, have you seen Get Out yet? 

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