The Empire of the Sun
The film I chose to review was “The Empire of the Sun”, by Steven Spielberg. Having already seen this movie beforehand, I chose this film as I already had an understanding of the general plot, and so would consequently find it easier to look at the movie from a different perspective. In this review I will try to show you examples of how society changed along with the war, and how one particular character, Jamie (otherwise known as Jim) must learn to change with this society in order to survive.
The story tells of how a young school boy, Jamie, living with his parents in Pearl Harbour, has his life turned upside-down when Pearl Harbour is invaded. Jamie loses his parents, and later must learn to fend for himself in order to live a life in the midst of war. I’ve had to cut down this essay considerably, so the essay will consist of the examples in which society (and consequently Jamie/Jim) changed to suit the situation. To begin with, Jamie is like any other schoolboy, young, childish, and generally completely oblivious to reality.
At one stage Jamie finds a downed fighter jet in the yard behind the mansion they went to for a costume party. Jamie gets in the cockpit and throws his glider outside. As the glider flies around, Jamie pretends to be a fighter pilot (a dream Jamie longs to fulfil- fighting for Japan, in fact) and attempts to “shoot” the glider down. Spielberg uses orchestral music with an almost dreamy sound to give the scene the desired feeling. It becomes obvious that Jamie believes air combat to be a glorious event.
Far later in the movie, however, Japanese Kamikaze pilots (who seem to have the same outlook of air combat as Jamie, now known as Jim) fulfil their dreams of becoming fighter pilots. Before they take off, Jim sings a Welsh song to them from behind the POW camp fence- that is an obvious sign that he is both proud and happy for them. A beautiful Asian sunset can be seen in the background (placed quite purposefully by Spielberg) in order to portray the same kind of dreamy, glorious outlook toward air combat.
However, after the Japanese ceremony (which takes place before take-off) Jim suddenly sees the actual reality of air combat, when the Kamikaze pilots are blown out of the sky immediately. The two pilots overall served as nothing but a loss toward their country. Note that there is no music of any kind playing, (let alone orchestral) at this stage. When it comes to reality, war isn’t so glorious after all. Another part of war, is that it is not always clear who the enemy and allies really are, as they are both purposely doing the same thing.
Killing. The American jets’ influence toward Jim proved contradictory- as they were both a form of mass destruction and death, and a means for survival and preservation of life At one stage in time, the Americans attacked the Japanese airbase next to the POW camp Jim was situated in. While this would have helped the British and the other innocent people escape from the Japanese- this could well have killed them just as easily. The Americans later dropped the Atomic bomb upon the Japanese, causing death in the masses.
Almost immediately later, the Americans dropped food and supplies into areas further away from ground zero, in order to help those who found it to survive. Notice the white light after the atom bomb seems to portray heaven, but was used in reality to create hell- an element (image) used by Spielberg, which could be considered as both contradictory and ambiguous. Thus the planes always created a sense of contradiction in Jamie/Jim’s life.
Another technique Spielberg uses to show contradiction and ambiguity in Jim’s life is his portrayal of how people (not to mention society) change (and consequently, people cannot be trusted in many cases) during the war. In the early scenes, the Japanese servants, (both the Amah, which is like a nanny- and the old man) follow Jamie’s parents orders (and even Jamie’s) strictly- in one case the Amah telling Jamie he’s not supposed to eat after dinner, with Jamie consequently telling the Amah she must do what he says.
Later, however, after the invasion of Pearl Harbour, Jamie comes home to find his parents gone- and the two servants taking their belongings (and possibly even things that weren’t theirs) from the house. When Jamie asks them what they’re doing, the Amah slaps Jamie. This is an obvious sign of politics. The Japanese servants do not have respect for their masters, and are only loyal provided they are getting paid. Once their pay is gone, they have no respect for Jamie, as he had little respect for them. They grab what they can and leave, probably to find new employment. Another major instant of this is Basie.
Jim (as Basie names Jamie) originally believes Basie is his friend and is genuinely trying to take care of him. In actual fact, Basie is imply looking out for himself, and is using Jim to get exactly what he wants. Thus, politics is again displayed. In war, you must look out for yourself first and then, if you wish, worry about others. Basie immediately tries to sell Jim, with no success- and so uses Jim to do such things as obtain extra rations (by taking the mugs of dead people to go up for more food), and test for landmines outside the POW camp fence (although Jim believed he was setting up a pheasant trap).
The only real reason Basie helps Jim to survive is in order for Jim to help him survive. Almost everybody Jim meets during the war has changed in order to survive- and Jim himself has consequently changed also, mainly under Basie’s influence. At one stage Jim refuses to wear a pair of shoes Basie takes off a dead woman’s feet- but contradicts himself later by taking anything (including a group of young children’s’ marbles) in order to make trades with people and consequently survive. The only person Jim could really trust (and who also helps Jim to not completely change from the way he was) is Dr. Rawlings.
However, the sort of behaviour Jim has is not irregular in war, because, what must be done, must be done in order to keep living. In general, the people Jim meet with contradict their own way of living, morals and beliefs in order to survive- and so force Jim to do so as well. A new set of values and beliefs are created during war: and although would not be accepted by our standards now, these standards would be considered general practice in the event of a war. Take an ordinary soldier now, and he/she would more than likely believe killing is against their moral beliefs, and they would not wish to do it.
However, in a war, this moral belief must be abandoned in order to survive, as these people are soldiers, and killing is their job. If they don’t do their job properly, they will die. Death within a war is accepted. It happens in the masses; and even though it may horrify people, they must learn to accept it none the less. Jim consequently begins to forget about his parents during his experience of war, more than likely because of his need to survive. He must abandon the thoughts and feelings he had as a child, and learn to survive in the real world. One example of this is his parents’ car.
While most thought of the car as simply a form of transport- when Jim saw the car, he immediately thought of his parents. Throughout the early part of the film, Spielberg strongly associates the car with Jim’s parents. However, the car also had a sense of ambiguity about it- as when Jim was in the car, it protected him from everything outside. Thus, even the smallest things Jim saw outside the car were a part of this ambiguity- for example, the old Japanese beggar calling to him as the car pulled out the driveway; and in the markets when the meat hit the window, covering it in blood.
The car was a source of protection. However, after the car was crushed by a tank, Jim realised he could no longer use it for protection. Seeing the same car later amongst the other items the Japanese had taken from the houses, he immediately started thinking of his parents once again. Perhaps it was because Jim believed the car would bring protection once again, that he decided to stay where he was for the time being with Mrs. Victor, rather than following the rest in search for food.
Another part of war-stricken society that becomes obvious, is that the children don’t survive, because they are far too immature, and not smart enough to know hot to fend for themselves. Jim learns to wisen up to the real world at a young age (although it isn’t really his choice), in order to learn the tricks of the trade when it comes to basic survival. Thus, the mentally and physically weak don’t stand a chance in war. Jim loses his childhood in order to make it to adulthood.
When Basie brings Jim back to where Jim used to live (the large mansion), Jim hears the classical music played on piano- and immediately thinks that his mother is there playing. Running to the door and calling out, Jim sees what he believes to be his mother- but when finally seeing the full picture, realises that it is in actual fact a Japanese man dressed in traditional robes. Spielberg’s use of camera angle in this scene shows the event occurring through the eyes of Jim- and so the viewer can immediately tell that Jim is hoping for his mother.
Unfortunately, Jim must learn to survive in a society that doesn’t have time to reminisce about their past, and worry about their immediate future. Another part of life Jim must learn, is that war isn’t as glorious as what it’s made out to be. Originally, Jim dreamed of being a pilot (pretending to be a pilot in the downed fighter jet, with dreamy orchestral music playing and clear skies… elements of music and image Spielberg uses as part of the overall technique)- and continued to think of planes this way up until the two Kamikaze pilots’ deaths.
Spielberg uses the big Asian sunset during the Japanese ceremony for the pilots to show both the pilots and Jim’s view of the event- one of glory and honour- but then shows the reality to Jim when the pilots are killed immediately, shocking Jim completely. When Jim and Mrs. Victor are amongst the collection of belongings (that the Japanese took from the empty houses), Mrs. Victor dies, and a white light becomes apparent as it grows brighter (another element used by Spielberg- lighting… ). At this point in time, Jim believes he has an extremely religious experience- as he thinks Mrs.
Victor’s soul is going to Heaven. In actual fact, however, this is an Atomic Bomb, which was dropped further away. Therefore, the white light could be determined as ambiguous- as it gives us an unclear meaning at first, but then the real meaning becomes apparent later. Unfortunately, although Jim doesn’t realise it, the heaven he was seeing actually doesn’t exist, and would be better off seeing the grim reality for what it is. Finally, after Basie shoots Jim’s Japanese friend, Jim tries to revive the boy. The ambiguity cannot be recognised immediately, but an image Spielberg uses here is quite clever.
For a very quick period of time, the Japanese boy is replaced with Jim before the war (Jamie), wearing his school uniform. What this image seems to portray is Jim trying to revive his former self- to almost revive his past, and make everything the way it used to be. As Jim revives Jamie, he repeats the words “I can bring everyone back” over and over. This also has another meaning in itself- as Jim may believe he can bring back his parents, and possibly even make people change their way of living, their morals and ethics, to the way it used to be before the war. Unfortunately, this is war, and society has no choice but to stay the way it is.