252: Signal of Life (2008) Movie Review

“252: Sign of Life” is a Japanese disaster movie blockbuster very much in the classical Hollywood mould, with CGI tidal waves and tornadoes causing mass destruction in Tokyo as cast members try to resolve personal issues while fighting for their lives. Its title referring to a distress code signal used by emergency teams to indicate survivors in need of assistance, the film was directed by Mizuta Nobuo, who previously scored a hit with the hilarious geisha comedy “Maiko Haaaan!!!”. As is usually the case with the genre, the film is very much an ensemble piece, starring Ito Hideaki (“Sukiyaki Western Django”) and Uchino Masaaki (“Fuurin Kazan”), with support from Yamada Takayuki (“Crows: Episode 0”), Kashii Yu (“Linda Linda Linda”) and Korean model turned actress Minji. Having originally enjoyed success with critics and viewers on its domestic release back in 2008, the film now arrives on region 2 DVD via MVM.

Inspired by a real-life rescue event during the Chuetsu earthquake of 2004, the film revolves around the fictionalised events of the largest typhoon in Japanese history, as Tokyo is struck by a massive tidal waves that causes mass destruction and floods the city. Caught up in the maelstrom are former rescue Hyper Rescue team member Yuji Shinohara (Ito Hideaki) and his young deaf-mute daughter, Shiori, who are trapped underground in an old subway station with a disparate bunch of other survivors including a businessman, a hot headed medical trainee and a beautiful Korean nightclub hostess. Meanwhile above ground, his brother Shizuma (Uchino Masaaki) tries desperately to organise a rescue effort, racing against time as the deadly storm builds for another bout of carnage.

“252: Sign of Life” really does follow the time honoured disaster movie formula to the letter, with the usual fractured families, strained relationships and melodrama all very much present and correct. The film plays out in entirely expected fashion, almost to the point where English speaking viewers could probably turn off the subtitles and still stand a good chance of understanding the overblown dialogue. This is especially true thanks to some very broad performances from most of the cast, who spend most of the running time crying, shouting, or staring wide-eyed off into the rain soaked distance as they struggle to come to terms with their emotional turmoil. To be fair, this isn’t really the fault of the cast, who are only given the sketchiest of characters to work with. Thankfully, none of this particularly grates, and though the film quite shamelessly goes for a number of sentimental cheap shots, if anything its over the top hysterics only serve to make it more entertaining.

Although the plot is predictable, the film scores a few points by having its major disaster scenes at the beginning, meaning that the viewer at least doesn’t have to sit through endless scenes of a plucky young researcher being ignored by his or her bosses as they try to warn of the impending chaos. Similarly, the film also benefits from splitting its focus between the underground survival struggle and the rescuers themselves, and whilst it does get bogged down by a few too many flashbacks during the middle section, it generally moves along at a decent pace. The third act, when the rescue attempt is eventually made during the brief eye of the storm, things do get surprisingly tense, allowing the film to pack in some real excitement before the inevitable slow motion hugs and howling of the final minutes.

Of course, most viewers will likely be watching mainly for the special effects, and the film certainly does pack in some very impressive footage. The CGI work is of a high quality, with the opening scenes of the city being swamped by the huge wave packing a real punch, more so than in some other recent Japanese blockbusters such as “The Sinking of Japan”. Though things never quite manage to live up to the awesome power of these early shots, director Mizuta Nobuo does show the good sense to inject a few more action sequences throughout, with fires, floods and cave-ins all taking their turn at threatening the cast. This gives the film the feel of a survival course in the style of “The Poseidon Adventure” or “The Towering Inferno”, and it is certainly all the better for it.

Whilst there is absolutely nothing new here, “252: Sign of Life” is nevertheless perfectly entertaining and well made, enough so to at least partly distract from its lack of ideas. With all the spectacle and schmaltz required by the genre, and should certainly be enjoyed by undiscriminating disaster movie fans.

Nobuo Mizuta (director) / Yoichi Komori, Nobuo Mizuta, Hiroshi Saitô (screenplay)
CAST: Hideaki Itô … Yuji Shinohara
Masaaki Uchino … Shizuma Shinohara
Takayuki Yamada … Makoto Shigemura
Yu Kashii Yu Kashii … Saki Umino

Buy 252: Signal of Life on DVD