FILM 252: SIGNAL OF LIFE DIRECTOR MIZUTA NOBUO

252: Signal of Life

A biblical tidal wave strikes Tokyo. In the aftermath, Shizuma leads a rescue squad from the city Fire Department to Shimbashi Station, now an area of devastated wasteland. Shocked to learn that his younger brother Yuji and seven year-old niece are trapped underground, Shizuma mobilises a specialist rescue squad to track down their position. While Yuji brings strong leadership to the lucky survivors who collect around him, a series of aftershocks bury some of their number under the rubble, further jeopardising the rescue mission. Those left unscathed fight exhaustion to communicate an S.O.S. to their rescuers: a code 2-5-2, the signal of life.





The main location is the largely subterranean Shimbashi station, a set befitting of a 12-certificate film which cannot match the open-air carnage of larger-scale big-budget productions
The disaster film is familiar territory for Japanese audiences. From Shirô Moritani’s Japan Sinks (Nippon Chinbotsu, 1973) and Mt. Hakkoda (Hakkodasan, 1977) to more recent apocalyptic fare such as Shinji Higuchi’s Japan Sinks remake (Nihon Chinbotsu, 2006) and Takehisa Zeze’s Pandemic (Kansen Retto, 2009), tales of earthquakes and catastrophic tidal waves hitting Japan emphasise an unsettling reality which the Japanese deal with on a weekly basis. This the disaster movie duly relates in pointed references to the circum-Pacific belt, the most geographically active zone on the planet across which the Japanese archipelago is distributed. Low intensity earth tremors, earthquakes, volcanic activity and typhoons are so frequent on the islands that the citizenry tend to take things in their stride. In this, Japanese cinema certainly isn’t alone. A diverse range of disaster-related films are emerging across East and Southeast Asia, including Aditya Assarat’s post-tsunami drama Wonderful Town (2007, Thailand), Toranong Srichua’s 2022: Tsunami (2009, Thailand), Je-kyoon Yoon’s event movie Haeundae (2009, South Korea) and Xiaogang Feng’s Aftershock (2010, China), but as coarse (or genuinely sobering) as these films can be, not one boasts the idyllic topography of Japan, or the dazzling opulence and expansive imagination of a modernist city such as Tokyo.

Made in the period after the 2004 Chuetsu Earthquake, when plans to improve the quake-proofing of residential and public buildings were still being drawn, 252: Signal of Life is something of a public relations exercise, a semi-educational but wholly impassioned melodrama conceived to spotlight the necessity of advanced rescue teams and to raise the profile of projects such as the Fire and Disaster Management Agency. Using under- and over-cranked photography, digital enhancement, full-CGI shots and a fluid simulator to render photorealistic 3D waves, the film reads, surprisingly in summary, like a catalogue of spectacular attractions: it features an enormous tidal wave that looms over Tokyo Bay and takes out both the Rainbow Bridge and the Fuji TV building, a deadly hailstorm over the Ginza Yon-chome crossing which defaces familiar landmarks the Wako and San-ai buildings, the flooding and collapse of Shimbashi subway station, a super typhoon grand enough in scale to cover the archipelago, rescue operations played out on the same grimy streets, and a multiplex-friendly eye-of-the-storm sequence that clears the winds and torrential rain long enough for panoramic views of a now waterlogged Tokyo. Nothing, however, quite survives comparison with Higuchi’s Japan Sinks or the Korean Haeundae. The main location of the film, for instance, is neither Daiba, where tantalisingly the round observation deck of the Fuji building is displaced into the Bay, nor even Shiba Park where the iconic Tokyo Tower is seen in context standing defiant against the typhoon; it is, rather, the largely subterranean Shimbashi station, a set befitting of a 12-certificate film which cannot match the open-air carnage of larger-scale big-budget productions. Like Oliver Stone’s World Trade Centre (2006, USA), 252: Signal of Life is a more intimate record of the specifics of the day. Set-pieces in and around the station create an alarming authenticity and so convey something of the nightmare endured by drowning citizens as seen from a variety of “subjective” perspectives.


Kim Sumin (Minji) and Yuji Shinohara (Hideaki Itô) brave the floods in Mizuta Nobuo’s 252: Signal of Life (2008, Japan)

The resourceful hero of this tale is Yuji Shinohara (played with token efficiency by star Hideaki Itô). Yuji is an ex-sergeant of the Tokyo Fire Department who has cooked up an existence as a bad car salesman in the hope of keeping his sympathetic wife Yumi (Sachiko Sakurai) and deaf mute daughter Shiori (Ayane Omori) safe at home. When the flood clears and the family awaken, bruised and bloodied, only Yumi has made it out unscathed, leaving both husband and daughter trapped below ground. Confined to a disused subway station where they endeavour to signal their position using the 2-5-2 rescue code, the two are painstakingly helped by a trainee med. student (Takayuki Yamada), a small-time entrepreneur and president of the lowly Hyotanyama Engineering firm (Yûichi Kimura) and the largely out of commission Korean babe Kim Sumin (model turned K-pop star Minji, whose teen-ditty plays out over the credits). Above ground, Yuji’s older brother Shizuma (Masaaki Uchino), beset by memories of a failed operation, tests the patience of his increasingly strained crew (here representing the 8th Division of the Tokyo Fire Department) by resisting more hazardous rescue attempts, while Saki Umino (the evidently popular Yu Kashii), embodying the spirit of the National Meteorological Agency, predicts the chain of events which lead inevitably to catastrophe and fathoms one last rescue plan.

It is, then, a faithful tale of human resolve—its classic patriarchal message issued in no uncertain terms. Every character is saddled with his or her own tale of personal ruin, scripted to accentuate the long curve of their rehabilitation. The water filtration device “Mr. Bubbles,” a prototype designed by the hapless president of Hyotanyama Engineering is a case in point. Here, we see the downtrodden entrepreneur (Kimura in the role of Keisuke Fujii) pinning his last hopes on the commercial prospects of (of all things) a fish-tank filter, only for its highly secretive components to be stripped by his fellow survivors and used in a lifesaving blood transfusion—the success of which rekindles, but of course, Fujii’s mojo. Indeed, the film cares so much about the interior lives of the supporting cast, and the Shinohara brothers particularly, that when the storm eventually hits we’re left in no doubt about character motives, the importance of family ties, or the cyclical course of the narrative.

The film doesn’t belong to either brother necessarily, nor to much of the support cast, but instead to little Shiori, the seven year-old tyke who clings to her safety whistle with both paws and wrinkles her nose at daddy throughout every reprieve. As such, child actress Ayane Omori (who was eight years old at the time) bears the full weight of the most demanding scenes and the effect is extraordinarily forceful. Throughout the key Shimbashi setpiece, Shiori becomes separated from her mum and braves the station collapse alone, gluing herself to a ticket barrier for protection while Mizuta’s camera goes in close to scrutinise the extent of her disorientation. Late in the picture, Shiori is involved again in a tearful requiem that ends with a miraculous shift in tenor, a volte-face which subsumes—but cannot match for sheer feeling—the dying echo of the young girl’s agonising lament. While there’s no doubt that both scenes are unnecessarily protracted they are moving, and not without some merit as testimony to the trauma inflicted on innocents in such circumstances. Given that writer Yoichi Komori was inspired by the rescue in the 2004 Chuetsu Earthquake of a two year-old boy, Yuta Minagawa (coupled with the fact that the Tokyo Fire Department’s 8th Division were singularly responsible for his rescue), it is no surprise that so many of Shiori’s scenes are either so charming or forceful.


Disc: The film itself presents well, though audio is only two-channel Dolby stereo. While the Japanese editions come with interviews, making-of featurettes and a television special, this no-frills D.V.D. released in the U.K. by anime specialist M.V.M. Entertainment comes unadorned. Given that the film was made with the assistance of both the Tokyo Fire Department (members of the 8th Division) and the Japan Meteorological Agency a few “new” bases could well have been covered here. Granted, the brace of extras accompanying its Japanese cousin appear insubstantial, but the inclusion of context setting extras for British audiences would have been welcome. Artwork does at least reflect adequately the film’s chief concern with grumpy men of conviction.

This review was originally published by New Korean Cinema.
4 January, 2011

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