As 11th December 2017 marked the 30th anniversary since the release of Steven Spielberg’s excellent Empire of the Sun, which was adapted from J.G. Ballard’s 1984 novel, we thought we’d pay homage to the writer’s inspired essay which first appeared in the Sunday Times back in 1995: The End of My War.
In the Fourth Estate’s 2014 edition of the book, readers will find the complete text, an introduction by John Lanchester, an interview with J.G. Ballard, and a short essay as an addendum which covers the immediate aftermath of WWII in Shanghai. It’s an inspired addition which adds extra weight to the story, so today we celebrate Spielberg’s emotional film, and this brilliant essay from one of the 20th century’s leading writers.
The End of My War
Empire of the Sun drew extensively from Ballard’s experiences during World War II. As a young lad, he was wrapped up in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbour attack. In the novel, the Japanese storm and occupy the Shanghai International Settlement and young Jim (the novel’s protagonist, and essentially Ballard) is separated from his family, which leads to an intense fight for survival over the following years.
This element of the story was used as a literary device, as Ballard remained with his parents throughout the war, principally at the POW camp in Shanghai. On 8th December 1941, the day after the attack on Pearl Harbour, he remembers:
"I heard tanks clanking down Amherst Avenue as the Japanese began their seizure of the International Settlement. My father and mother raced around the house in a panic, followed by the chattering and excited servants."
For two and a half years, the Ballard family resided at Lunghua camp eight miles out of Shanghai. After Hitler’s suicide and the atomic bombs, on 8th August, the Japanese soldiers disappeared from the camp overnight. This signalled the end of World War II – the family had to wait days for Allied forces to arrive, but in the meantime B-29 bombers flew overhead dropping rations to exhausted survivors.
A young James Graham Ballard decided to sneak away from his parents and make the perilous trip back to the family home in Shanghai, 31 Amherst Avenue. It was an insanely dangerous decision due to feral soldiers being on the loose, but he accomplished the feat:
"I wandered through the airless house, trying to put a hundred memories of my childhood into their right places. But I had forgotten too much, and felt like a stranger visiting myself ... Most of my mind was still in Lunghua, but a small part of it had come home."
Ballard credits the family’s survival on American power – once his parents and siblings also returned to their home, they revealed the Japanese had planned to march them up-country and execute the remaining POWs. America’s atomic detonations spared their lives; Ballard’s essay soon turns to defending the American’s decision to drop nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki:
"Some historians claim that the war was virtually over, and that the Japanese leaders, seeing their wasted cities and the total collapse of the country's infrastructure, would have surrendered without the atom-bomb attacks. But this ignored one all-important factor - the Japanese soldier. Countless times he had shown that as long as he had a rifle or a grenade he would fight to the end."
He eventually returned to the camp in 1992, almost 50 years after he’d impatiently marched off to find the family home, and found it had been transformed into a Chinese school (which it still is in 2017 – it’s called Shanghai High School). At the close of the essay, he states:
"I knew that this was where I had been happiest and most at home, despite being a prisoner living under the threat of an early death. But to survive war, especially as a civilian, one needs to accept the rules it imposes and even, as I did, learn to welcome it."
Film: Empire of the Sun
Steven Spielberg directed the film and it was released in December 1987 – for a film from such a famous director’s canon, it’s surprising it wasn’t much of a hit and to this day it remains one of his lesser known works. Of the Empire of the Sun adaptation, Ballard had this to say circa 2006:
"I liked the film. I think it is a very impressive piece of work. I see it once every couple of years. It was made, oh, getting on for twenty years ago now, in 1987, and it seems to have got richer and more interesting as the years pass. I see it not as the film of my book, but as a film in its own right."
For Christian Bale, a wee one at the time of shooting, below are his thoughts on it all. That’s his real voice, incidentally – Bale has a habit of talking in interviews using the accent of whatever film he’s currently in (usually as an American, or just Batman).
Finally, you can also read this 2006 article by J.G. Ballard for the Guardian newspaper: Look back at Empire. This expressly discusses his thoughts and feelings of the movie adaptation (in which he did have a brief cameo during an early dinner party scene, as well as a voice-over credit for the opening narration). Ballard died in April 2009 aged 78.