The film, Empire of the Sun tells the story of Jim Graham, a precocious and wealthy young English boy in Shanghai, and his journey across war-torn China upon the Japanese invasion of the country during World War Two. Imagery, music and sound, and cinematography are used cleverly to portray themes of calm before the storm, coming of age and finding one’s place, as well as to develop the plot. This culmination of well-utilised aspects of film drives home a resounding message about the futility of war.
Imagery is the most powerful and commonplace technique employed by Spielberg in Empire of the Sun and is particularly functional in creating symbolism. On many occasions a shot of a seemingly trivial occurrence or object will relate to a much bigger issue and therefore make the audience take heed of this issue. The opening scene itself is a perfect example of symbolism. The scene depicts a series of coffins floating down the Yangtze in a funeral service only to be crushed beneath the hull of a Japanese warship, indicating the Japanese military’s disregard for society.
The scene then moves to the bund and the affluent and predominantly English section of Shanghai where we see England in Asia: country gardens and old English manors, thus demonstrating the way that England conquered areas of the globe. In the eyes of these wealthy English, China is completely unaffected by the war and they can afford to have grand parties whilst all is falling apart around them. Jim Graham and his family discover that all is not well on the way through the chaos-stricken outskirts of Shanghai to a costume party.
In this place a dead chicken is pressed to the Graham’s car window leaving a smear of blood; a grisly foresight into what is to come. At the party Jim goes outside to fly his glider that soars high and far, reflecting Jim’s hopes and dreams. But, when it finally falls down it does so into a detachment of Japanese soldiers. This occurrence shows how his dreams have fallen like the glider with the outbreak of war in China. The eventual capture of Shanghai leads to the displacement of many of the city residents who either flee, or are captured themselves.
The emptiness of the wealthy districts and the looting and taking of prisoners, gives this part of the movie a sombre tone and the lost Jim’s pointless wandering instill empathy into the audience. Once Jim is thrown into to the harsh and ruthless world of Japanese prison camps, his outlook on life is turned on end. In the camp Jim witnesses just how much things have changed; the once wealthy now beg for food, just like the beggar on his street corner that he observed with great curiosity.
He becomes quite industrious and finds himself exploiting all resources that he can to stay alive. Even the move to a different camp won’t keep him down. With the news of the war’s end and the bombing of the airstrip adjacent to the prison camp, the Japanese are forced to turn loose the prisoners. In a last ditch effort a solitary Japanese kamikaze pilot is sent on a mission, but in a humorous twist of fate his plane will not start, bringing the young pilot to tears.
This symbolises the widespread sentiment of failure and frustration felt by a large percentage of the Japanese population. After expulsion from the camp Jim finds he and other displaced POWs wandering in search of an existence. Like many others, Jim has only the clothes on his back and a suitcase full of belongings, however, he throws his suitcase into the Yangtze, in effect throwing away his past. Later, Jim breaks away from the main group and heads back towards the prison camp where he finds the young Japanese pilot who he had befriended earlier in the film.
The two, despite cultural differences, have a common interest in flying and are hospitable towards one another, possibly showing a path that we should all take. However, due to mistaken identity the young pilot is shot and Jim attempts to revive him with CPR. Even though the young Japanese is already dead, Jim continues and we see a vision of his younger, pre-war self. In this use of symbolism in imagery Spielberg is trying to portray Jim’s efforts to revive his past life and childhood without success.
Jim remains at the camp and is found by the American troops being parachuted into the area who take him back to the city where he is to be eventually found by parents who barely recognise him and who he barely recognises. The film ends on the same shot and situation it began on, only in this instance, it is Jim’s suitcase that is run over, and it is by a Chinese boat, showing that all is seemingly back to normal. Music and sound are two other powerful mediums that are used mostly for the creation of atmosphere and mood.
The film begins with a haunting traditional Chinese hymn that is sung by a boy’s choir consisting of Jim and other schoolmates. This hymn is then repeated on numerous occasions throughout the movie, often when a reference to Jim’s childhood is made. In the scenes following, peaceful and not particularly emotive music is used to signify the all is apparently well. This music, coupled with the carefree nature of the English creates a potent reflection of the calm before the storm. The actual turmoil on the streets of Shanghai outside the English district is established with a cacophony of shouting, car horns, and general din.
The presence of Japanese military corresponds with the beating of a military-like snare drum and their marching is in time with the beat of this drum suggesting the uniform and unvarying nature of the Japanese military. Throughout the film, periods of strident noise are followed by and contrast with periods of absolute or simply muffled silence making a simple event seem more interesting. During the scene in which Jim is alone in his house trying to survive, a grandfather clock ticks in the background and then stops completely, signifying that time has run out for Jim and that if something is not done he will surely die.
This example demonstrates that music and sound can express symbolism too. The apt use of music and sound captures a mood or atmosphere and then permits the audience to experience it in the same way as the characters of the film. Cinematography was another aspect of film that Spielberg put to good use. The bulk of the film is shot at a low angle so the audience feels as if they are experiencing the events of the film from a child’s point of view.
This method allows the audience to appreciate and understand the decisions and actions that Jim took throughout the storyline. A particular example of this was demonstrated during the arrival of the Japanese military. Low, ground-level and child’s height camera angles made the Japanese troops seem as if they are taller than they actually were, thus making them appear more commanding and overbearing. In a similar fashion, a high camera angle of the resisting Chinese troops makes their efforts seem feeble and the soldiers weak.
Smooth tracking shots and pans compensated for Empire of the Sun’s lack of narrative by making the film seem fluid and thus easier to watch. The appropriate use of certain shots and also the final editing of these together, results in a film that is well constructed, emotive and that raises significant themes and messages. Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun is a fitting example of how a variety of filmic devices can be employed in the exploration of themes, development of the plot and the formation of a certain mood or atmosphere.