11.15.2016

The Twilight Zone: The Encounter

Next up:
"The Encounter" Season 5, Episode 31 (1964)

"Two men alone in an attic: a young Japanese-American and a seasoned veteran of yesterday's war. It's twenty odd years since Pearl Harbor, but two ancient opponents are moving into position for a battle in an attic crammed with skeletons, souvenirs, mementos, old uniforms, and rusted medals. Ghosts from the dim regions of the past... that will lead us... into the Twilight Zone."

"The Encounter" aired only a single time on May 1st, 1964 and then not again until January 1st, 2016. Let's walk through the plot and see why that was.

Fenton is a WW2 combat vet who's fallen on hard times. Lost his job, lost his wife, unhealthy, and drinking too much. He's up in the attic, taking stock of the physical clutter of his life. He finds a samurai sword and hurls it angrily against the wall. 

Arthur is an American-born child of Japanese immigrants who at age 4 was a personal witness to Pearl Harbor. He too is out of work and has shown up at Fenton's house on a tip from his neighbor that Fenton might be looking for some gardening work.

Fenton agrees and invites the young man up to the attic for a beer. Not wanting to be impolite to his new employer, Arthur accepts.

After needling Arthur about his Anglicized name, Arthur responds that he's just as American as anyone but admits his birthname was Taro, he just changed it to Arthur. Fenton alternates between calling him Arthur, Taro, Takamori, and "boy," which as intended provokes Arthur.

Arthur begins to suspect that Fenton might be a dangerous type when he shows him the sword.

Arthur pretends not to be able to read Japanese, but when Fenton leaves to get more beer, he holds the blade aloft and says to himself (almost astonished) "I'm going to kill him... I'm going to kill him. Why?"

When Fenton returns he says he had the inscription translated on the spot, when he took it off a dead Japanese officer. The words mean "The Sword Will Avenge Me." And the sword seems to influence both men as they drink their beer. Arthur receives a flash of psychic insight - Fenton didn't find the sword; he killed the officer who tried to surrender - and Fenton needles Arthur into admitting his father was actually spying for the Japanese. ("He signaled the planes; he told them where to drop their bombs.")


They continue to have flare-ups that almost spill over into violence, the sword all the while providing them both with "Day of the Dove"-style hallucinations and adrenaline. Fenton says he was just following orders. But then he loses it altogether: ("I've been pushed and pulled this way and that way until I hate everybody! You dirty little Jap!") They struggle, and the sword, sharp-end-out, becomes wedged in the table. Fenton slips and impales himself on it. Convinced the sword is possessed, Arthur screams "Banzai!" and leaps through the window to his death.


Moments later, as Rod delivers his wrap-up, the door to the attic, presumed jammed, slowly opens on its own.

"Two men in an attic, locked in mortal embrace. Their common bond, and their common enemy: guilt. A disease all too prevalent amongst men both in and out
...of The Twilight Zone."

I like "locked in mortal embrace." I guess it's a common enough expression, or something not created for this episode. I like it, though. You are attached to what you attack. Survival must cancel programming. That's it, Ruk! Logic! You can't! protect! someone who's trying! to destroy you!

Sorry, ahem - "What Are Little Girls Made Of" hiccup there. But the principle stands. It's a dark little tale about the damage war inflicts on the humans who wage it against a backdrop of the ephemeral reasons for waging it. As Fenton points out several times, he got decorations for treating the Japs the way he was told to: as animals. Now he's being told by the same government to "buy their damn transistors" and that they're "an ancient, cultured people," all while he's seen his own life and livelihood post-war gone to pot. 

And what are we to make of the ending? Fenton commits a kind of accidental seppuko (which is of course a bastardization, or a shadowy reflection perhaps, of the actual ritual, as near as I can tell; what Fenton accomplishes is more what they call suicide-by-cop), and then Arthur's fatal defenestration? (Raising the number of Twilight Zone episodes that end this way to at least two, the other being "Perchance to Dream." And I bet there are more.) 

Japanese-Americans complained about the plot twist of Arthur's Dad being a mole for Imperial Japan. There were a handful of sleeper agents Japan had in Hawaii and elsewhere but overwhelmingly, the idea that Japanese-Americans were a fifth column was wartime propaganda and contributed in no small part to the internment of thousands of American citizens. This subtext would of course be discouraged by advertisers of the era - although there are at least a few contemporaneous shows that mentioned both the moral ambiguity of the Japanese internment and the domestic alienation of the soldier returned home to patronize his country's former enemy - and mainly it's just a buzzcrush of an episode. At a time when LBJ was building up American troop presence in Vietnam, perhaps it was felt a Twilight Zone reminder of the wounds leftover from the country's last Asian military adventure was imprudent.

All of that works pretty well. The magic sword element, though, doesn't.



We're meant to believe that these two lonely and alienated individuals are driven to the end they are by the Twilight-Zone-y vibrations of the samurai blade, with its curse/inscription. But, neither the dialogue nor the way things are staged/ paced really re-enforces that all that well. If this was Alfred Hitchcock Presents, for example, where a supernatural element is not automatically assumed, I doubt anyone would think there was anything magical going on. So, this element could have been cleared up a little.

Good performances from the leads:


Went on to do something-or-other-somewhere. And

Neville Brand was a highly-decorated WW2 vet who got his start in 1950's film noir classic D.O.A. As mentioned at that link, he parlayed his primitive visage and simmering rage into a successful film career of nut-jobs, heavies and he-men. Here he does good work emphasizing the ugly aspects of Fenton's character - namely his racism, alcoholism, and alienation - while also inhabiting the role enough where one recognizes the war hero defeated by elements and circumstances so far beyond his control as to make him surprisingly sympathetic. ("I'm not afraid of dying so much as living.")



He reminded me of some of my old customers at the VFW and not in a comfortable way. Which I guess shouldn't be surprising, since Brand himself was a veteran of a foreign war; he knew of whom he spoke and portrays here. 

Some (especially in 2016) might object to my drawing equivalence between them - Fenton is a racist; Arthur is a victim of racism. But it is not me who is drawing said equivalence; it's the writer, Goldsmith. That parallel is what this story is all about. These are American men who were both killed in WW2, in different ways, by the same side (the USA), just the effect was delayed for 19 years.

Director Robert Butler was a constantly-employed director, writer, consultant, and producer in four separate decades, but he's most commonly associated (at least in the hearts and minds of Star Trek fans) as the guy who directed "The Cage." Writer Martin Goldsmith was perhaps best known for his work in film noir, including Detour, covered elsewhere in these pages.

All in all, I'd recommend Hell in the Pacific over this one for the same theme, but perhaps that's not the best one-to-one-comparison. It's a powerful episode and very worthwhile dramatic terrain.

~

2 comments:

  1. Takei must have mixed feelings about filming this, and my guess would be that he doesn't have fond thoughts about it being on his resume now. Apart from it being an episode of a prestige series, I mean; actors rarely mind that.

    I can find a good amount of intellectual empathy for soldiers who've grown to hate the race of the enemy they fought, especially if -- as was demonstrably the case during WWII -- they were propagandized into believing those enemies were "others." This empathy doesn't entirely make the leap from intellect to action for me, but then again, what do I know? I'll tell you what I don't know instead: what it's like to be a soldier during wartime. I don't know what levels you must go to in order to mentally prepare yourself for that experience; I don't know to what extent you have to stay there afterward in order to feel okay with yourself for what you've done.

    Anyways, I'm not sure this sounds like an episode that would rank very highly for me. It might have been more interesting if Arthur had been totally "innocent" so that Fenton's insanity was more the focus; or it might have been better if the sword had possessed Arthur and used him to kill Fenton on behalf of the enemy he murdered but never entirely defeated.

    As is, it seems a bit noncommittal to me. Granted, I haven't seen it, so when I do I might feel differently.

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    1. Not sure why Takei would think of this one now. (After some of his comments in recent years I've stopped paying attention, myself.) But I imagine the prestige-series participation wins out over other thoughts. Like you say, actors rarely mind that!

      I agree that there were better ways to do this story. It's kind of remarkable that it aired when it did, although really, plenty of TV from that era got into the ambiguity of "war hero" and PTSD and what not, although not necessarily the Japanese interment.

      "Noncommittal" might be the right way to describe it. I appreciate it more than admire it.

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