Disaster pics have been big in Japan since the days of “Godzilla,” the 1954 classic whose title monster served as a rubber-suited symbol for everything from earthquakes (that stomp) and fires (that breath) to atomic bombings (that city-wrecking power).
The genre got a boost in 2006 with the release of Shinji Higuchi’s “Nihon Chinbotsu” (“Japan Sinks”), a money-spinning remake of a 1973 smash about the sinking of the Japanese archipelago, and Eiichiro Hasumi’s “Limit of Love: Umizaru” (“Umizaru 2: Test of Trust”), a hit sequel to a 2004 thriller about elite Japan Coast Guard divers; Hideaki Ito plays a diver who rescues his fiancee and other unfortunates as their ferry boat sinks.
The new disaster epic “252 — Seizonsha Ari” (“252 — Signal of Life”) ought to be called “Umizaru 3.” Once again, we have Ito, as fiery-eyed and jut-jawed as ever, this time impersonating a former member of an elite Tokyo Fire Department rescue team. And once again he has to lead a small group of survivors to safety, while his colleagues move Heaven and Earth to save him.
The film’s disaster has a scary plausibility — a monster typhoon wreaks havoc on Tokyo, beginning with hail stones the size of apples, followed by a huge tsunami that rips through the capital city.
Yuji Shinohara (Ito) is downtown buying a birthday present for his 7-year-old, hearing-impaired daughter, Shiori (Ayane Omori), when the typhoon strikes. Worried, he hurries to meet Shiori and his wife, Yumi (Sachiko Sakurai). In the ensuing panic, however, Shiori is separated from her mother and finds herself alone on the Shimbashi subway platform, just as her father passes by in a train — and miraculously spots her.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||133 minutes|
|Opens||Opens Dec. 6, 2008|
Before he can reunite with her, however, a wall of water rushes through the subway tunnel, drowning all in its path, save for Yuji, Shiori, a cynical medical student (Takayuki Yamada), a struggling Osaka businessman (Yuichi Kimura) and a badly injured Korean club hostess (Minji).
With all exits blocked, their situation looks desperate. Yuji bangs on a steel pillar with a pipe — two hits, then five, then two again — or 2-5-2, which is the firefighter’s code for “survivors present.”
So far, so hair-raising. Nobuo Mizuta, director of last year’s hit comedy, “Maiko Haaaaan!!!,”shoots the crowd panic scenes with a crush-your-popcorn feeling of chaos and fear. (I hope the dozens of thoroughly soaked extras earned double-time for their trouble.)
From this promising, if derivative beginning (Hollywood gave us similar walls of water in “The Day After Tomorrow” and “Deep Impact”), “252” soon descends to melodrama more overwrought than the usual Japanese disaster-pic standard — which is saying something.
Yumi immediately collapses into a weeping, wailing heap, a state from which she never quite recovers, while Yuji’s older brother, Shizuma (Masaki Uchino), an elite, rescue-squad leader, spends much of the film in the grimacing, growling mode. Forcing words through clenched teeth and twisted lips, he pleads with a rock-faced superior (is there any other kind in Japanese disaster pics?) for permission to rescue the subway survivors as the typhoon closes in.
Meanwhile, the medical student, we learn, hates his profession and his physician father, while the businessman has nine kids with one on the way — and only a hare-brained scheme for feeding them all. And the hostess, the most sympathetic of the lot — she selflessly saved Shiori from the flood — is bleeding to death from her wounds.
The resolutions to these and other complications are formulaic, with the filmmakers working closely to the “Umizaru” template. If you are expecting samurai-like stoicism from Yuji and the other the male survivors, you are in for a letdown — they all fall into hysterics, which according to local, disaster-pic convention is proof of not their wimpishness but their feeling, human hearts.
The least emotional, in fact, is Shiori, who endures horrors with a game smile. That, too, is according to formula, since kids in these films are supposed to be spunky little angels, not traumatized victims.
The most believable character in “252” is Mother Nature, who rains down havoc with a terrifying implacability. In that respect, the film is an apt metaphor for our times, though the tsunami in the news are financial. And banging out code with a pipe, I’m afraid, isn’t going to save us.