Movie Review: Signal: The Movie (劇場版 シグナル 長期未解決事件捜査班)

It’s not just Hollywood that does big screen adaptations of hit TV shows.  The Japanese do it too. A few years ago, we had not one but two cinematic installments of MIDNIGHT DINER/深夜食堂, a CHEERS-like show (without the big laughs) that ran on Japanese television and Netflix Japan for five seasons from 2009 to 2019. Now we have SIGNAL: THE MOVIE or, as the Japanese title translates, “Movie Version: Signal: Cold Case Investigation Team”. It is a continuation of the popular SIGNAL drama series that ran for just one season in Japan in 2018. The premise of SIGNAL centers around one gigantic plot contrivance – a battery-less walkie-talkie that allows a police detective to communicate with someone from the past. If you can accept that, you might just be okay with this film.

It’s not long after SIGNAL: THE MOVIE opens when a car containing a high-level government official suddenly careens off a highway overpass in Tokyo, crashing in a ball of flames. The authorities have ruled it a tragic accident but the Cold Case Investigation Team led by Misaki Sakurai (Michiko Kichise/吉瀬美智子) has their doubts. The case bears striking similarities to two similar accidents involving other high-level government officials that occurred 12 years earlier in 2009. One those accidents resulted in the death of the wife of police chief Junki Aoki (Tsuyoshi Ihara/伊原剛志) and put their daughter in a coma. As Sakurai and her young partner, Kento Saegusa (Kentaro Sakaguchi/坂口健太郎), begin to investigate, Saegusa’s walkie-talkie suddenly turns on. It’s Sakurai’s former partner, Takeshi Ooyama (Kazuki Kitamura/北村一輝), who disappeared in 2010, on the other end. Ooyama thinks there’s a bioterrorism link to these deaths. After a doomsday cult was brought down a number of years before, with its leader executed and its members jailed, it was believed that their supply of the lethal nerve agent known as “Heron VA2” had been destroyed. Ooyama believes that maybe there’s more Heron out there. With the walkie-talkie as their bridge from the present to the past, the three detectives work together to unravel the mystery of who is behind these high-profile deaths and, in the process, try to reshape history by changing the course of events leading up to the present day.

The film’s writers clearly used the real-life events of the 1995 Tokyo sarin gas attack as the starting point for their film and I’ll give them props for throwing in the possibility that not all of the sarin was recovered but that’s about all I’ll give this film. You don’t need to be a seasoned police detective to connect the dots here and most viewers will probably figure out who the mastermind is after the first ten minutes of this more than two-hour long, underwhelming crime-thriller. In case they don’t, though, director Hajime Hashimoto/橋本一 turns the camera lens onto a distinctive item of clothing worn by one character as if to tell everyone, “Notice this! You’re going to see it again later on.” And then, in case you’re really dense and still haven’t figured it out, he reveals who the mastermind is with 50 minutes still to go in the movie.

From the walkie-talkie that mysteriously comes on at exactly the right moment and just as mysteriously cuts out at exactly the wrong moment to Saegusa getting shot in the chest and beaten to a pulp but only requiring a bandage across his ribs and one arm in a sling when it’s all over, SIGNAL: THE MOVIE requires a huge suspension of belief. Even more ridiculous is Saegusa’s undercover disguise – eyeglasses, a suit and tie, and combing his hair. I know I had a hard time figuring out that it was him. Of course, being a Japanese film, there is plenty of OTT yelling, pushing and shoving going on. Don’t Japanese ever discuss matters rationally, without all the emotion?

SIGNAL: THE MOVIE opens in Hong Kong tomorrow (July 22nd). It’s incredibly dumb but it’s also harmless entertainment… and it has South Korean boy band BTS singing the film’s theme song, if that’s what you’re into.

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