Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Twilight Zone: The Encounter

Watching the Twilight Zone movie recently, I got a hankerin' to revisit the Zone again. Watched a few mediocre episodes before stumbling upon the controversial The Encounter, starring future Trekker George Takei. I've managed to locate the entire tale online, and parts one through three are spaced in this post.

The story takes place in an attic cluttered with relics from the Allied island-hopping campaign through the Pacific. A Japanese-American gardener comes to the man's house to solicit work, but winds up trapped in the attic with the former Marine. Secrets spill forth, tempers rise, and shit, as the Bard said, gets real.

Holy crap this was a good episode. The entire thing takes place in a claustrophobic setting and the entire piece is carried by the skills of the two actors. They boil at each other, the ex-marine taking passive-aggressive swipes at his guest while pleading for his company, the Japanese-American struggling to be polite and suppress his lifetime of fury. These characters, though somewhat antiquated in their presentation, still weave a fascinating tale. This would make one helluva stage play.

One of the things I wanted to examine further is the characterization of Neville Brand's Fenton, the lonely ex-marine condemned to his memories and his bitterness. I work in the video game industry and it always fascinates me how we sell memories of World War 2. It's the clean war, the "good" war, the war free of moral ambiguity. Our enemies wore sinister colors and created factories of murder so fighting them was an easy choice. Sure, we tell tales like Saving Private Ryan overladen with Meaning and Narration, but even these have become sorts of cliches. The FPSs I've played set in the conflict give their perfunctory nods to the whole war-is-hell thing before settling in to the simple joy of killing Nazis.

Fenton fought the good war face-to-face and came back ruined. He's an embittered alcoholic who can't keep a relationship going, can't keep his job, and surrounds himself with relics he seems to hold contempt for. Based on the stories he tells, he seems to have been an ideal soldier, but the experience did tremendous damage to his psyche. We rarely see this sort of story told, especially around our most romanticized conflict, and it's absolutely engaging.

Takei's Arthur (Taro) Takamori fares somewhat less well in the story. His abrupt revelation and equally abrupt confession rings a little false, especially given the Calculon-level of ACTING that the monologues demand of him. The tale seems to want to shoehorn him as the outsider, as the non-American, so that he can play the doomed role the attic requires of him. He's at his best when he gets frustrated and aggressive. We see that Takamori is a man who has become very tired of dealing with a culture that still considers him an enemy.

I am of mixed feelings as to the ending. Clearly, something supernatural is going on in that attic, with the mysterious locked door and the inscription on the old samurai sword testifying to the presence of the Dark Gods of Narrative. I wanted the characters to grow beyond their animosity, especially since both are so clearly striving to make some kind of connection, but the Twilight Zone is a very cruel place. Takamori's tale ends in a pretty ridiculous manner, which somewhat taints the tale, but the final shot of the door is genuinely chilling.

This episode touched a whole lotta hot buttons for people. On one side, the show was aired during the slow escalation into Vietnam, and the notion of portraying Asians as human beings didn't sit too well with some people. On the other hand, Takei's character was the American-born son of a man who assisted the Japanese in their assault on Pearl Harbor. To the best of my recollection, no evidence exists that anyone of Japanese descent acted as saboteurs for the Japanese government. Still, the story is a great, character-driven horror piece about racism, secrets, and the psychological cost of war.

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