Jim, the eleven-year-old son of an English cotton-mill owner in Shanghai, accustomed to the privileges of colonial life, finds his comfortable existence shattered by Japan’s declaration of war on the Allied forces in December, 1941. After wandering through war-torn Shanghai for several months as one of the few Europeans overlooked by the Japanese, Jim is held for three years in a prison camp. There he learns the art of survival, while thousands die around him. Empire of the Sun in many ways resembles a boys’ adventure story but is actually much more. It is more, too, than reminiscence by J. G. Ballard, who states in a foreword that the novel describes his experiences as a prisoner of the Japanese from 1942 to 1945.
Ballard suggests by the end of the novel that World War II was an ominous illustration of mankind’s propensity to destroy itself. During the last days of the war, Jim is drawn into a new series of adventures, roaming the countryside as the lackey and dependent of a cosmopolitan crew of bandits. A strange notion takes the mind of the boy, who is by that time age fourteen. He believes that World War II has ended simply so that a third war can begin. That notion arises partly because Jim is naive, confused as a result of hunger and illness, and influenced by the profiteer bandits. Most influential, however, is Jim’s impression when he sees in the sky the glow of the atom bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, some five hundred miles to the northeast.
For the bulk of the novel, Ballard makes similar, less portentous arguments against the folly of war. Throughout, Jim’s innocence underscores the foolishness of adult oppressors.
As the novel begins, Shanghai has been in Japanese control for four years and is a crossroads of war. As Jim plays, Nationalist Chinese execution squads troop off to dispatch Communists in public stranglings. Japan is preparing to turn its guns on Great Britain. Having grown up far from Great Britain, Jim suffers from a confusion of sympathies. He judges all sides in the conflicts according to how brave they appear. On this score, the Japanese, especially the kamikaze pilots, generally come out ahead. They are, he notices, his only protectors from the marauding forces outside the camp. Failing to recognize the Japanese as his dire enemy, he disdains the British war effort because it requires him to watch newsreels constantly.
He decides, witnessing the gory leavings of war-the severed heads on spikes and the bodies stacked high about the countryside-that in what he calls a “real war” one does not know what side one is on. Among the prisoners, collaboration with the Japanese, for the purpose of winning larger rations, is rife. Only a few prisoners, including Jim and his self-declared guardian Dr. Ransome, are moved to help others. At the opposite pole is Basie, an American merchant seaman who takes Jim under his wing simply to gain a servant.
Before being captured by the Japanese, Jim spends several weeks surviving on party supplies in the luxurious houses of well-to-do Europeans and Americans, whose luxury appears hollow now that it has come to nought. During captivity, Jim manages habitually to sneak out of the prison camp, enlarging his world a little while the worlds of most of the inmates, and increasingly the Japanese guards, shrink and wither. Throughout, Jim’s spirit remains vital, while those of most captives and captors sicken.
Jim Graham is an eleven-year-old schoolboy from a privileged expatriate family living in Shanghai, China, on the eve of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Jim is fascinated with the coming war; he loves airplanes and admires Japan’s military strength. In early 1942, amid the chaos of the first days of Japanese attacks on the Americans and British living in Shanghai, Jim becomes separated from his parents.
Jim returns to his family’s mansion to find his parents and the servants all gone. The Japanese occupying Shanghai have not yet restored order to the...
(The entire section is 1,845 words.)