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Twilight Zone: S05E151 - The Encounter

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Will's Guide to the Universe


A Controversial Classic Revisited

March 11, 2012, by Will Hoover

This episode of the original Twilight Zone TV series is often held to be the most politically incorrect and (as many Japanese Americans in particular contend) somewhat historically inaccurate, but surely the riveting plot and masterful depiction of the two opposing characters is substantial enough to allow the production to be judged purely on its own merit.

To be sure, there is no evidence that any Japanese American (as depicted in this fifth season episode, The Encounter) was in any way, shape or form complicit in the attack on Pearl Harbor, but is that really all that the story is about?

Directed by Robert Butler, from a script by Martin M. Goldsmith, the episode begins with a view of ex-Marine Fenton (Neville Brand), who is busy cleaning out his attic.  As he rummages through various sundry items, he comes face to face with one particular memento that he has actually been trying to get rid of for years - a military issue katana taken from an unfortunate Japanese officer during World War II.

The scene: an attic filled with ghosts from a violent past

The Sword that haunts former Marine Fenton

Visibly disturbed by the souvenir he himself took from the officer he killed in the war, Fenton carelessly tosses the blade across the room.  Just then, a voice booms from downstairs.  It is young "Arthur" Takamori (George Takei), who has come by to ask if he can mow the disgruntled old soldier's lawn once a week.

At first appearing to be more than amiable, Fenton agrees to pay $7 a month and invites Arthur upstairs to share a beer with him.  The young Japanese American is reluctant, citing that he needs to get back to work.  The elder veteran insists however, showing the first subtle signs that he is actually a somewhat abrasive fellow, if not an outright practiced bully

Is the sword haunted by the ghost of the officer he killed?

Arthur is immediately cast in the role of the subordinate

Just as soon as Arthur ascends the stairs (and enters Fenton's haunted psyche, perhaps), tension between the two men begins to flare up almost immediately.  After the newcomer introduces himself, Fenton finds it "funny," that a Japanese would be named Arthur.  This naturally puts the younger man on the defensive, as he quickly cites the fact that he was actually born in the United States and is just as much an American as any other.

Seemingly unfazed, Fenton labels Arthur "sensitive," apparently showing more interest in opening a can of his precious beer.  Taking the bait, Arthur appears to accept the judgment call and ventures ever further into the disgruntled veteran's mine laden milieu.

Perhaps the precise moment the pair slip into the Twilight Zone is the opening of Fenton's beer

Arthur remains polite while the old soldier slips further into self loathing... and the haunted past

The young Japanese American reveals that his name is actually Taro, not Arthur.  "A rose is a rose.  Get what I mean?" quips Fenton, but the term is either lost on the younger man or he simply feels that there is a hidden meaning in the comment.  Still ever self absorbed, Fenton ignores Arthur's look of confused consternation and simply laments the condition of the attic, remarking that it's been in disarray for the previous twenty years.

Fenton marvels at the "fruit salad" on his old WWII uniform

The garment is rudely tossed to Arthur to inspect the medals

Fenton's WWII dress uniform quickly becomes a conversation piece and a sad reminder that the garment most likely no longer fits.  Although Arthur indicates that he could certainly imagine that Fenton once "got into" the twenty year old outfit, the former Marine insists that his guest is simply being polite.  "I'm a tub of rancid lard now, but I was pretty tough once," Fenton brags, revealing that his tour of duty in the Pacific Theatre of the war took him through both Saipan and Okinawa.

Yet still, there is the sword...

The sword that won't leave either Mr. Fenton or Arthur alone

Yet once again, Fenton begins to fixate on the discarded sword.  Picking it up, he tells Arthur that it's a "genuine Samurai sword" that he took off a "Jap officer" who tried to cut off his "noggin."  He suggests that Arthur might be able to translate the inscription on the blade, but the young man begins to look increasingly uncomfortable, insisting that he can't speak any other language but English.

"You ever see one of these?" asks Fenton

Arthur knows

"Oh come on, boy!"  Fenton persists in using the term "boy," but Arthur still has yet to protest.  Instead, he tries futilely to bring the old soldier back to the matter of cleaning up the attic.  Fenton doesn't seem in any particular hurry however, and momentarily heads downstairs to get a couple more beers, insisting that his throat is full of dust.

Fenton's throat seems forever dry

Alone to ponder the meaning of the sword

Momentarily left alone in the spooky old attic, Arthur is drawn once again to the mysterious katana.  Raising the relic to within inches of his face, he stares restively, lost in the pulsating glow reflected off the razor sharp blade.  Then, he suddenly comes to a single realization.  "I'm gonna kill 'im," he mutters twice in a row.  Though young Arthur now sees clearly what he is being compelled by some unseen force to do, he finds himself uttering a single word.  "Why?"

The blade beckons

The sword demands revenge

"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 reaches of the past that will lead us... into the Twilight Zone."

Enter Rod Serling...

And so begins the classic TZ episode, The Encounter.  Originally broadcast on May 1st, 1964, the controversial nature of the program caused it to be pulled from syndication thereafter.  Although it has repeatedly been re-broadcast in Canada, as part of the regular rotation of installments in the series, the only way for many viewers to see it nowadays is via Netflix, by purchasing the The Twilight Zone: The Definitive Edition boxed set, or perhaps even on YouTube.

The controversy of course, arose from the fact that Arthur later in the episode breaks down and reveals that his father was a "traitor" who signaled enemy planes and directed them to the most strategically advantageous places to drop bombs on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor.

Is Arthur truly experiencing his own memory... or is he under the spell of the sword's former owner?

The dichotomy of war so vividly illustrated in The Encounter is a valuable lesson for everyone

Yet, given the state of mind of both characters as the plot relentlessly pulls them both down into the swirling, murky waters of the Twilight Zone, it is uncertain whether or not such details should be taken so literally.

For Japanese Americans however, it's quite naturally a different story.  For them, the mere insinuation that the father of a Nisei would have committed such blatant treason comes off as both hurtful and inaccurate.  My defense of the story however, is based not on this particular plot point, but on the strength of the production as a whole.

George Takei in one of his finest (unsung) acting performances

Neville Brand was himself a highly decorated WWII veteran

To be sure, both actors George Takei and Neville Brand did an outstanding job of making it all seem eminently plausible.  Brand is of course masterful as the grumpy old military veteran, but George Takei in particular, seems greatly deserving of praise.  His performance is not only believable, but timelessly poignant.

As an actor tasked with the job of delivering such highly charged scripted lines, Takei is nothing short of a marvel to behold.  Far from the usual, brief repetition of orders from Captain Kirk on the bridge of the starship Enterprise, in this nearly forgotten morality play, we are treated to a rare glimpse of the actor's quite considerable range.

It is perhaps the greatest shame then, that this episode has mostly been withheld from the public over the decades.  It's understandable of course, but regrettable all the same given that the story seems to have actually been intended to serve as a stark lesson of the futility and madness of war.

The Twilight Zone and all related characters, marks and images, copyright ©  the CBS Corporation.
Twilight Zone theme music by Marius Constant

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