They Called Us Enemy [Review]

They Called Us Enemy

by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, and Steven Scott
Artwork by Harmony Becker
Top Shelf Productions, 2019

George Takei is a man of many talents: activist, actor, meme creator, and now, at age 82, graphic novel writer. Who would have known in 1968 that Mr. Sulu would have had such legs?

Mr. Takei’s life, of course, began before Star Trek, and continued after it. They Called Us Enemy is about his experience in a Japanese internment camp during WWII. In case you are not familiar with this episode in American history, you can read about it here.   Internment was not acknowledged as a violation of human rights or even discussed much in the decades from the end of WWII to the 1980s, when, as detailed in the book, President Reagan issued a formal apology from the United States Government to the survivors. I only learned about it in a PBS documentary from the late 1970s. As a teen, it blew me away. It was the second time I realized the unjust and grave mistakes the United States Government made in the past. (The first was slavery.)

Takei and his two co-authors are given a strong boost by the subtle, gentle artwork of Harmony Becker. Which was a good choice, as it is the Takei family’s story, not just George’s, who was 5 at the time. It affected all of them. In all the illustrations they are always doing something together, and George shares the stage with his brother Henry, dad Takekuma, and mom Fumiko. Even little sister Nancy Reiko, though a baby when the story starts, plays a part: we see her growing up and learning to walk. She too is present and reminds us she will also be affected by this experience.

Though the illustrations were at times sparse I want to commend the artist for doing her research into the vehicles and uniforms of the time. The soldiers in the camps, for example, wear old WWI style uniforms that had been mothballed, rather than the newer get ups used by soldiers in the Pacific and European arenas. And there was subtle, delicate individuality between the characters to show they were not faceless masses, as in this scene of arrival.

As befitting the topic, the artwork also had a gentle, old-fashioned manga feel.

The story also went into details I did not know about internment: that was FDR who signed the bill (implied in the novel to have been pressured by several hot-blooded and anti-Asian senators) and that there was an amendment later to allow the entry of Nisei soldiers to fight as American soldiers in WWII which was problematic for its disrespectful language and attitude. (You’ll have to read the book.) Also, that many of those imprisoned Japanese Americans lost everything: houses, farms, their businesses and means of making a living. When they came out of the camps they had to start completely over. In my state of Washington local history tells us these tales.

In all, five stars, and much recommended.


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