Empire of the Sun (1987) - Plot Summary Poster


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  • A young English boy struggles to survive under Japanese occupation during World War II.

  • Based on J. G. Ballard's autobiographical novel, tells the story of a boy, James Graham, whose privileged life is upturned by the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, December 8, 1941. Separated from his parents, he is eventually captured, and taken to Soo Chow confinement camp, next to a captured Chinese airfield. Amidst the sickness and food shortages in the camp, Jim attempts to reconstruct his former life, all the while bringing spirit and dignity to those around him.

  • 1941. The Japanese are occupying much of China in the Sino-Japanese War. Diplomatic security protects the International Settlement in Shanghai, the many westerners there still leading a very comfortable, western-styled life. Twelve year old Briton Jamie Graham, the son of a mill owner, has lived his entire life in the International Settlement, that life one of wealth and privilege. As such, Jamie, an airplane aficionado, is a spoiled child, who has not even learned Chinese, expecting any natives with who he deals, including the household domestics, to speak English. That comfortable life changes with the Japanese entry into WWII through the attack at Pearl Harbor. Simultaneously, the Japanese overtake the Settlement, including all its private property, forcing its western residents to evacuate immediately. It is through Jamie's self-absorption that he becomes separated from his parents during the evacuation, he, now alone, needing to fend for himself for the first time in his life. It is during this time if Jamie will grow up and learn to live within the new tenuous situation that he will either live or die, life which he hopes will mean eventually being reunited with his parents sometime down the road.

  • An aristocratic British youth is seperated from his family at the start of World War II after the Japanese Army invades British controlled areas of China. Reduced to living on the street and fighting for food, the youth is eventually interned in a Japanese POW camp for British civilians. Here, admiration quickly develops both for captured American pilots and the Japanese themselves. When the war ends, the boy torn from everything he knew attempts to again find his parents.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • The story begins in 1941, just prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Jamie Graham is a precocious and privileged boy living with his parents in Shanghai. His father is a rich British businessman and the family lives in a mansion on the outskirts of the city and Jamie attends an exclusive prep school. Much has been done to shelter Jamie from the Chinese culture that surrounds him and he is quite spoiled, treating the family's servants with utmost disrespect. Very interested in aviation, Jamie harbors an interest in one day joining the Japanese air force, a dream that his father finds disturbing.

    The family attends a costume ball thrown by one of the father's business associates, Mr. Maxton. While there, Jamie runs off to fly his wooden glider. He finds the wrecked fuselage of a fighter plane near an abandoned airfield. While he plays with the controls, his glider slips out of sight behind a mound. He scrambles up the mound and finds an encampment of Japanese soldiers. While he stares at them, his father and Maxton appear and call him down, specifically telling Jamie not to run. As they walk away and the Japanese soldiers return to their camp, Jamie remarks that they "seem to be waiting for something to happen". Maxton suggests that Graham take his family to their apartment in the city and seek an exit from Shanghai, most likely by sea.

    The family returns to their Shanghai apartment. Early the next morning, Jamie spots a Japanese warship in the harbor communicating with land forces using flashing lights. Jamie begins using his own flashlight from his room when an explosion throws him back from his window. The Japanese move into the city in full force. Jamie's family is able to make it to their limousine but are unable to get very far due to the crowds of people filling the streets. They exit the limo and find themselves crushed and separated among the crowd. Jamie's mother manages to hold on to Jamie when separated from her husband but Jamie lets go of her hand when he drops his toy plane. He sees his mother being helplessly pushed away and she bids him to return to their mansion. Shortly after Jamie witnesses fighting between the Chinese resistance and the Japanese army, seeing a man die in front of him for the first time. The resistance fighters are quickly found and killed.

    Jamie arrives home to find the house empty. He sees signs of a struggle in his parents bedroom, perhaps indicating that his mother was taken from the house by force. He hears noise downstairs and finds the maid of the house with the other Chinese servant, stealing furniture. When Jamie demands to know what they're doing, the servant, whom Jim had treated badly over the years, calmly walks over and slaps his face and leaves.

    Jamie stays in the house several months (indicated by the falling level of water in the swimming pool), eating whatever food he can find. When his food and water run out, he rides his bike back to Shanghai to find that the Japanese have long since cemented their control of the city. Jamie tries to surrender to a passing battalion of marching soldiers but they ignore him and his bike is stolen. A homeless Chinese boy notices Jamie and tries to call him over. Jamie refuses and runs through the streets and back alleys, people ignoring his cries for help. The Chinese boy catches and beats him, taking whatever Jamie has on him. Jamie manages to break free and runs into the street, nearly being hit by a truck. The truck's driver, Frank, scares Jamie's tormentor off and takes Jamie with him to an abandoned freighter where Frank's friend, Basie, is cooking rice. Basie deftly searches Jamie for anything of value, taking Jamie's aviator sunglasses and a British crown coin he'd found in the swimming pool. He also gives Jamie a new name, "Jim" and coldly serves Jamie Frank's share of the rice he'd made.

    The next day Frank and Basie set about trying to "sell" Jim to anyone who needs a manual laborer. When they're unable to sell Jim they decide to leave him to the streets as an orphan. Jim pleads with them to let him stay, even offering them the pickings of rich houses in his old neighborhood outside the city. The three travel to Jim's old house where the lights are on and music, Jim's mother's favorite tune, can be heard. However, the house has been seized by the Japanese, who march out immediately and capture all three. As Jim is held back, Basie is severely beaten.

    Basie and Jim find themselves in a holding center for foreign prisoners in Shanghai. They spend a significant amount of time there; Jim discovers that the other kids there will steal openly from him to survive, a tactic he also learns from Basie. One day, when the Japanese come to select prisoners for transport to an official camp, Basie is chosen, who boards the truck and ignores Jim's pleas to take him along. Jim begs the driver to take him along and finds that the driver is unsure of the route to the camp. Jim assures the driver that he can guide them to the camp, which is near his parents' old country club. The truck driver throws the annoying Jim into the truck and they leave.

    The truck arrives at Soochow Creek Interment camp, which is situated right next to an airbase construction site. As the prisoners get off the truck they are ordered to carry white stones up to the spot where a runway is being laid. Jim breaks off from the group, seeing a work area for Japanese Zero airplanes. As he touches one of them, a guard, Nagata, prepares to shoot him. A group of three Japanese pilots approaches and Jamie salutes them; Nagata lowers his rifle when the pilots return Jamie's salute.

    The story jumps ahead to the Summer of 1945, near the end of the war. Jim has etched out a considerably active life for himself involving an intricate trade network among the other British prisoners and even Nagata himself, who has since been invested as the commanding officer of the camp. While dropping off Nagata's freshly polished boots, Jim slyly steals a bar of soap from the sergeant. Jim's last stop is at the camp infirmary, where he aides the camp doctor, Rawlins, in performing CPR on a dying patient. The woman moves her eyes slightly, seemingly looking at Jim, who now believes he's brought her back to life. Jim appears to lose control, frantically pumping the woman's chest and Rawlins is forced to throw Jim off the dead woman. Rawlins has been schooling Jim in Latin and classical poetry, but is unable to teach Jim to recognize when his efforts go too far. Jim leaves the hospital and goes to the American prisoners barracks, delivering the soap to Basie. Basie shows Jim his latest project which involves laying snares in the marsh next to his barracks, hoping to catch pheasants for next Thanksgiving. Basie also makes a deal with Jim: if Jim lays the snares, Basie will let Jim move into the American dorm and take him along if he finds a way to escape the camp.

    That night the airbase is bombed by American pilots, who drop a bomb very close to the prison camp. In retaliation, Nagata and a few of his officers begin breaking windows in the British and American barracks. When Nagata moves on the infirmary, Rawlins tries to stop him. The sergeant begins to violently and mercilessly beat the doctor. Jim steps in, smashing two windows and begging Nagata in Japanese to cease his punishment, which he does. Rawlins, in gratitude for Jim's actions, gives Jim a pair of two tone golf shoes that belonged to a recently deceased patient.

    The next day, Jim steals away from the camp to the marsh near the American dorm. Waiting for the tower guard to sit down and leaving his golf spikes behind, he crawls into the marsh to place Basie's snares. However, Basie has another motive for planting the traps: he is using Jim to test the marsh for mines. Moments later, Nagata appears and yells at the guard to take up his post. Nagata finds Jim's shoes and wades into the marsh after him. He is just about to find Jim when a Japanese boy from the airbase calls the sergeant over; the boy has lost his toy glider in the marsh and Nagata retrieves it for him. As the two walk away, the boy salutes Jim, whom he'd seen all along. Jim is given his own space in the American dorm, much to Frank's chagrin, who has to give up some of his own personal space for the young upstart.

    One day, Basie and another American prisoner, Dainty, are going over potential escape plans using a cork and needle as a compass (provided them by Jim & his pilfering network). Nagata shows up unexpectedly and sees how comfortably Basie has been living. He also finds the bar of soap stolen by Jim and becomes instantly furious, beating Basie severely. Basie leaves Jim in charge of his possessions, knowing he'll be sent to the infirmary. Jim visits him there after seeing through his binoculars that Basie has been given the mosquito net usually reserved for dying patients. (Basie tells him that he merely bribed Dr. Rawlins for it.) During their conversation, Basie suddenly asks Jim why he isn't back at the dorm minding Basie's things; Jim says that the older and larger men in the dorm took everything, Jim being fairly helpless to stop them. Ashamed, Jim leaves the American dorm shortly after Basie returns from the hospital.

    Now essentially homeless, Jim awakes one morning after falling asleep on the grounds of the camp and sees a kamikaze ritual taking place at the airbase. Moved by the ceremony, he begins to sing "Suo Gân" a Welsh folk song from his childhood days of singing in the choir. As the planes take off one suddenly explodes in midair; a squadron of American P-51 Mustang fighters have arrived and begin to destroy the airbase. Exhilarated, Jim climbs to the top of a bombed-out building to watch the battle and sees one of the American pilots waving at him. Jim begins to scream in joy. As the battle continues, Rawlins, fearing for Jim's safety, yells for the boy to come down. Jim doesn't listen and Rawlins climbs after him, finally catching him as the battle winds down. He yells at Jim to return to reality and Jim breaks down, saying he can't recall what his parents looked like. Rawlins carries him down, Jim blankly reciting the poem that Rawlins had been teaching him.

    The next day, the camp is evacuated by Nagata. The prisoners are told that there will be food waiting for them further inland and a march is quickly started. As they leave, Jim sees the young Japanese boy he'd befriended through the camp wire taking the ceremonial drink of the kamikaze pilots. The boy jumps into his plane but cannot take off because the plane refuses to fire up.

    The group reaches Nantao Stadium, many miles away, where the Japanese spoils from Shanghai are stored. Among the automobiles there, Jim finds his father's old limo. After being told that there's no food or water there, Jim stays behind with Mrs. Victor, a woman who acted as a guardian to Jim back in Soochow. Jim tells her to act dead so they can stay, however, Mrs. Victor actually dies. As a devastated Jim sits with her body, he sees a gigantic flash of light to the east, one of the atomic bombs dropped by the United States on Japan. Jim believes it is Mrs. Victor's ascending soul, however, he hears a radio broadcast later that reports about the new weapon and the surrender of the Japanese Empire, ending the war.

    As the starving and weakened Jim staggers back to Soochow he notices large canisters falling from the sky on parachutes. They are from the Red Cross and contain food and other supplies. Jim gathers what he can and returns to the prison camp. There he finds the young Japanese boy from the airbase, who is angrily slashing at the marsh with his samurai sword. Recognizing Jim, he stumbles away crying. Jim hears an engine revving and sees a car break through a wall of fire. In the car are Basie and a couple of other men he'd joined up with who are looting the relief containers. The Japanese boy offers Jim a mango and is about to help Jim cut it with his katana when he is shot by one of Basie's companions. As the man rushes over Jim flips him into the marsh and leaps on him, wildly punching him. Basie pulls Jim off, who turns his attention to the Japanese boy. He tries to revive him using CPR but the boy is clearly dead and Basie again pulls Jim off. As he tries to soothe Jim, Jim pulls away, a crazed look in his eye; Jim's experiences during the war of stealing, death and fear have finally pushed him onto the path to adulthood. Basie decides to leave Jim behind, knowing Jim will survive. Jim stays in the camp a bit longer, riding a bike like he did in childhood and laughing. He is found by a U.S. Army unit, to whom he "surrenders".

    Jim returns to Shanghai and is housed in an orphanage for child war prisoners. The kids are assembled by the nuns for a group of parents who have returned to Shanghai following the war; Jim's parents are among them. They wade through the sea of children, not able to find Jim at first, but spot him after a few moments. Jim, scarred from his experiences and still in shock, doesn't believe his own eyes as he recognizes his mother by her face and hair and eventually collapses in her loving arms.

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