Ideally, George Takei’s They Called Us Enemy should just be an interesting, compelling memoir detailing a dark, shameful chapter in American history, drawing readers to itself through its narrator and co-writer’s fame as an actor, an activist and a witty social media presence. Ideally, it should be a highly readable graphic novel treatment of the internment of Japanese Americans, giving a new generation of young readers a striking example of what the United States is capable of, told from the perspective of someone who personally suffered from that injustice.
What it should not be, ideally, is a particularly relevant, or even urgent work. And yet between the time when the project was first announced last summer and this summer’s release, the federal government’s imprisonment of huge numbers of people based on their ethnicity and national origin has only increased exponentially.
The idea of American concentration camps has long seemed abhorrent, so abhorrent that even seventy-five years later we still prefer to call the camps like those that Takei’s family were forced into “internment camps” rather than “concentration camps,” and so abhorrent that we recently had a weird, dispiriting national semantic argument on Twitter over whether the prison camps on the southern border can be referred to as “concentration camps” or not. For most of my life, then, the story Takei lived through, and that he and his collaborators tell here has belonged to that “never again” category of American history, one of those stories that is emblematic of the “Those who forget history…” maxim.
And yet, here we are. There shouldn’t be such a tangible current events hook to They Called Us Enemy, but there is.
Although Takei has a pair of co-writers – Justin Eisinger and Steven Scott – the book is structured as a dramatization of a story that Takei is personally telling directly to the readers. It opens in 1942 with a scene of the Takei family – father Takekuma, mother Fumiko, George, his little brother Henry and his baby sister Nancy – being awoken in the middle of the night by U.S. soldiers at their door to enforce Executive Order 9066, President Franklin Roosevelt’s order that lead to the relocation of Japanese and Japanese-American people living on the West Coast to prison camps.
In the last panel of the sequence, a narration box appears, starting a sentence, a sentence which Takei finishes in a scene from a 2014 Ted Talk he is giving in Kyoto. The story of his family in the camps is therefore presented as one he is telling his audiences in that talk and, later, in a talk at the FDR Museum and Presidential Library in 2017, and then in an interview with NPR’s Scott Simon. The book jumps back and forth between the early 1940s and the present – and with scenes set in late June of 2018, it is very up-to-date – with later stops at the years between, detailing how the time in the camps affected George and his family, particularly his father, and how American society slowly came around to recognizing and attempting to redress the injustices the Takeis and some 120,000 others suffered...and, ultimately and ironically, repeating them. (In a weird quirk of history, the 1944 Supreme Court ruling in Korematsu v. The United States that upheld Executive Order 9066 as constitutional was finally overturned, but only as part of Trump v. Hawaii, which upheld President Donald Trump’s travel ban on Muslim immigrants. As Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted in her dissent, in a sequence illustrated in the book, the court finally overruled Korematsu, but only to “sanction a discriminatory policy motivated by animosity toward a disfavored group.”)
The jumping around history, and Takei’s biography, helps contextualize the events historically, and broadens them beyond a simple memoir into a national story, but the strongest passages are those devoted to the early 1940s. There’s an almost bifurcated nature to the memories shared, as George and his brother’s experience was mostly parallel to that of his father and mother’s. It’s only on occasion, and in the more powerful moments of the book, that the children and the adults seem to be on the exact same page about what’s happening to them and why.
Part of that is due, of course, to the fact that George and his siblings were so young, and things like prejudice, federal policy, war and politics weren’t part of their worldview, and part of that was due to their parents trying to spare them the sad details. Indeed, when they were being shipped off to an Arkansas camp by train under armed guard, George asked where they were going, and his father told him “on a vacation…a long vacation to a far-away place called Arkansas.” Meanwhile, his mother tried to distract them with smuggled suckers, storybooks and games.
While the parents raised their kids under difficult circumstances, they felt the injustices more acutely, and Takekuma gradually became rather active among the internees, attaining a leadership position and negotiating with their guards to improve conditions.
Thus, the Takeis’ time in the camps includes charming stories of the boys playing and having a normal-feeling childhood – in once scene, we see two imprisoned boys playing “war,” and arguing over which of them gets to play the heroic American and which gets to play the bad Japanese soldier – as well as stories of the adults’ struggles with difficult choices imposed upon them and how to navigate the camp politics, once some men begin to organize and more radically oppose their oppressors.
The book is drawn by Harmony Becker, who has lived in South Korea, Japan and now lives in Ohio. Appropriately, the book looks a bit like American comics and a bit like Japanese manga.
It reads left to right, and the pages are structured into layouts exactly like those of any American comic, but the art is presented in black and white, with a great deal of toning and shading used to intimate color. The sound effects are often integrated into the artwork as they are in manga, and Becker’s character design is such that it wouldn’t look a bit out of place in your average tankobon. Her cute, round-faced children and smoothed-skinned adult, all created with a careful, minimalist line, never become super-deformed or turn into chibis or anything, but occasionally their eyes grow big and sparkly with emotion, and the visual vocabulary of manga is part of the language of Becker’s artwork.
The book that They Called Us Enemy is most likely to evoke, however, is John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell’s three-volume March, the comics autobiography of United States Congressman John Lewis and his life in the civil rights movement. Like that well-received work from Top Shelf, They Called Us Enemy presents an account of an important story of official, institutionalized injustice and the struggle against it in modern America, bringing to life events most of us learn about in school, but in a more vivid, first-person account than textbooks and lectures can ever achieve.
One hopes it will be every bit as successful and widely-read as March, if not more so, due to the way the history of the internment camps seems to be repeating itself, but more loudly, more violently and more crassly. It would be nice if enough people read the book and internalized its message that after we release the kids we currently have in cages, this really will be the last time we concentrate thousands of people in prison camps under strained, dubious rationales and in contradiction to our own laws. “Never Again” really isn’t the sort of thing we should have to say more than once.