Film: 252: Sign Of Life **
Release Date: 10th January 2011
Running time: 128 mins
Director: Nobuo Mizuta
Starring: Hideaki Ito, Masaaki Uchino, Takayuki Yamada, Yu Kashii, Minji
Named after the Tokyo Fire Department code that indicates the discovery of survivors in need of rescue, Nobuo Mizuta’s latest offering is inspired by a real-life rescue event that occurred following the Chuetsu earthquake of 2004. Ambitiously comparing itself to The Towering Inferno (1974), while at the same time allowing expectations to drop by throwing Japan Sinks (2006) into the mix, 252: Sign of Life still has its work cut out, so will it sink or swim?
Yuji Shinohara, a former member of the Tokyo Rescue Fire Service, is struggling to cope with his career change, still haunted by the memories that forced him to quit the job he loved.
As the birthday of his young deaf-mute daughter Shiori approaches, so too does a devastating tidal wave that virtually destroys their City, forewarned by brutal, baseball-sized hailstones that pound Tokyo into submission.
Trapped in the rapidly flooding and collapsing subway system with only a handful of survivors, conflicting personalities must be put to one side if any of them are to survive and attract the attention of the elite response force Yuji once sacrificed so much for. The sooner the better too, as another savage storm is about to strike…
“Is help ever going to come?” rants the tetchy medical trainee during the opening scene of Mizuta’s melodramatic mess up, probably mirrored by the viewer’s own feelings long before the two-hour-mark blows in. It’s frustrating to say the least. The hailstone assault at the outset, followed quickly by the tidal wave that terrifies Tokyo, is every bit as harrowing as anything witnessed in recent disaster movies, if not more so. It even looks and sounds great too.
Mizuta clearly prefers to flex his action muscles, and the opening half hour is by far the best as Yuji searches for his wife and daughter during Mother Nature’s vicious onslaught - his daughter Shiori’s desperate blasts on her whistle may echo that of Rose’s in Titanic (1997), but it works just as well, and although its running time would’ve been criminally short, the credits should’ve rolled not long after.
Sadly, having bombarded the viewer with such transports of delight, Mizuta fails to capitalise, and as is so often the case with Disaster movies, the aftermath is more or less an afterthought. Punctured by hammy dialogue (“Yuji, did you… get over it?”), flashbacks that should’ve opened the story, and far too convenient plot devices, encapsulated by a tension-free blood transfusion using a bubble-filter for fish-tanks, Sign of Life shows little originality, and certainly none of its epithet.
Some of the sets actually resemble that of a daytime soap opera, with acting from its supporting cast matching its second-rate veneer – a far cry from the jaw-dropping opening act. Hideaki Ito and Ayane Omori, playing Yuji and daughter Shiori respectably, easily stand out from the crowd with solid performances that are in tune with the audience, even if Omori finally tests its patience with a discreditable change of fortune in the final act.
The biggest embarrassment though is Masaaki Uchino: plucked from television, destined to stay there, if he’s lucky, he plays Shizuma, brother of Yuji, and now in charge of the Fire Rescue Service. His acting credentials are seriously hampered by daft dialogue (he screams, in understated fashion, “It’s falling!” as the train carriage holding the survivors plummets to the ground) and a ridiculous team of rescuers that don’t want to do their jobs because it might be a bit dangerous.
The latter is the biggest bugbear of the entire movie, as time and time again rescue attempts are halted due to health and safety regulations. Mizuta even dares to create conflict by highlighting the displeasure of one of the team, annoyed that he’s not able to fulfil the job description he applied for. Fortunately, he’s quickly talked out of such ridiculous heroic endeavors by his colleagues (they have family and he doesn’t, you see).
Ultimately, other than a surprising turn of events, albeit brief, when Shiori tries to retrieve her present (how Yuji managed to keep it for so long in such surroundings is a question long since forgotten), the film continues to its wishy-washy, overblown, sentimental, to be expected conclusion. Having said that, extra brownie points must be awarded to the nonsensical weather forecaster that dares to question the Rescue Service by uttering the line, “Can’t we save them by using a helicopter?” You can probably guess what happens next…
Anyone who can appreciate a studied, haunting portrayal of mankind’s struggle against its self-destructive tendencies is better off watching something else. 252: Sign of Life is more disaster than movie, disguising its lacklustre script with impressive effects but little else.