The twilight zone thrived largely on recirculation and spent decades in syndication winning over new generations of fans with each new viewing. But not every episode in the five-year series appeared after the first broadcast. A small handful were withdrawn from circulation for various reasons and remained unavailable for many years. In most cases this concerned IP rights. For example, season 5, episode 22, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” was produced by a French company, and The twilight zone had no permission to broadcast it after its initial run.
For one episode, however, the ban came down to more than just copyright. Season 5, Episode 31, “The Encounter”, was off the air for over 50 years due to highly questionable racial content. It’s a surprise given the show’s largely progressive politics and willingness to take on controversial issues in a forward-thinking way. In this case, good intentions led to an ill-advised misstep.
What is ‘The Meeting’ about?
“The Encounter” focuses on an American World War II veteran, Fenton, who finds a Japanese katana in his attic. It is later revealed that he took it from its original owner, whom he killed after the man surrendered to him. It contains an inscription that reads “the sword shall avenge me”. The weapon keeps finding its way to him no matter how many times he tries to get rid of it.
His musings are interrupted by a young Japanese-American man, Arthur Takamori, who seeks employment as a gardener. Tension between the two slowly escalates as their respective prejudices come to the fore, with Fenton expressing increasingly anti-Asian sentiments, and Takamori revealing that his father betrayed American forces during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It is implied that the sword psychically aggravates their emotions until they explode in violence. They fight and Fenton is impaled on the knife. Takamori then grabs the sword and yells “Banzai!” as he jumps out of the attic window to his death.
Why the controversial Twilight Zone episode was banned
The episode’s most obvious problems are harmful stereotypes, portraying the Japanese in clichéd terms that label them as “others.” Fenton’s open bigotry softens that somewhat, but the real problem lies deeper. Takamori’s background is pure fiction – there is no evidence of Japanese-American treachery at Pearl Harbor or anywhere else – and indeed such lies were used to justify the internment of thousands of American citizens during the war solely because of their origin. It gives the episode a disastrous case of both-sidedness, balancing Fenton’s very real prejudices with an overt resourcefulness in the name of “fairness.”
“The Encounter” is framed as a statement against prejudice, something like that The twilight zone excelled in other episodes. However, the episode lacked behind-the-camera diversity — something unheard of at the time, but nonetheless necessary given the content. It was written, produced, and directed by white men who—however well-intentioned—simply lacked the perspective to properly handle the material. Ironically, Takamori was an early role for actor George Takei, who himself spent his childhood in an internment camp during the war. He has subsequently shared his experiences at length in an effort to draw attention to the US government’s shameful legacy in this area, even creating a musical play about it. fidelitywhich he described as “my legacy project” in a 2012 interview with NPR.
Unsurprisingly, “The Encounter” provoked complaints from the Japanese American community when it first aired in May 1964, who were rightfully angry at its presentation. It also came just as the US entered another war against another Asian country, exacerbating its hot button status. That was enough to take it out of circulation for decades, though it later became available in home video collections. The ban seemingly ended on January 3, 2016 when Syfy finally aired “The Encounter” as part of its New Year’s Day Twilight Zone marathon. While time has not improved the problematic content, its availability allows viewers to view and discuss it in better context.