Key Of Life (Kagi-dorobô no mesoddo)
Japan (2012) Dir. Kenji Uchida
Takeshi Sakurai (Masato Sakai) is a struggling actor about to end his life but before he does, he decides to take one final trip to the bath house. At the same time skilled assassin Kondo (Teruyuki Kagawa) enters the baths, slips on a bar of soap and is knocked out. On a whim Sakurai switches locker keys and takes off with Kondo’s belongings, adopting his more prosperous identity while the real Kondo awakens in hospital but without his memories.
Since he had Sakurai’s locker key, it is assumed Kondo is Sakurai thus he is forced to live Sakurai’s meagre life. He meets officious magazine editor Kanae Mizushima (Ryoko Hirosue) who has decided she to get married despite not having a partner, but after spending time with Sakurai/Kondo she decides he is the one. Unfortunately Sakurai’s role playing sees him take a job for Yakuza boss Kudo (Yosiyosi Arakawa) which spells trouble for everyone.
It sounds like the recipe for a riotous screwball comedy but trust the Japanese to deliver a droll and steadily paced character study instead that goes for subtle laughs than out and out hilarity. It may be just his third film but Key Of Life sees Kenji Uchida joining the ranks of Japanese directors who can turn their hand to sublime offbeat comedies that grow on the audience and seep into their consciousness without them realising it, putting Uchida in a class next door to the likes of Yoshihiro Nakamura, Satoshi Miki and Yuya Ishii.
The film opens with Kanae making her stoic, almost emotionless announcement to her bemused editing staff, none of whom know where to look when she declares that she has no boyfriend and is open to suggestions. Oh and she has a one month window to get to know the lucky fellow before the wedding in December. No word on when a baby is likely to be conceived however.
Meanwhile Sakurai has his suicide note already written but the rope he used to hang himself with was insufficient. He is in debt to numerous people, including his landlord and his acting career is going nowhere so the money he finds in Kondo’s car comes in handy to clean his debts and allow him to start again with a new identity.
The real Kondo, now living as Sakurai is trying to get around the fact he is now a 35 year-old singleton (despite obviously being at least 10 years older) living in a grotty apartment with no money or prospects. He makes notes of every aspect of “his” life to help rebuild it which warms him to the equally organised (or in her case anal) Kanae, who thinks she has found Mr. Right, although love is something that she believes will come lately.
Problem is that Kondo already has a fiancé, Ayako Inuoe (Yoko Moriguchi), whom we meet when yakuza Kudo has some monies outstanding from the job we saw the real Kondo do at the start of the film which he wants the new Kondo aka Sakurai to rectify.
Don’t worry if that sounds needlessly complicated as Uchida successfully brings all the disparate elements together for a fairly satisfying conclusion (one key aspect is suddenly rectified without warning to expediate the journey to the denouement. It may sound like a stretch to imagine a hitman becoming an actor and vice versa (perhaps not the latter) but it happens and every facet, character trait and development is utilised in a manner that makes sense.
While much of the humour is very low key with some of it possibly not fully translating for western sensibilities, it makes for a solid undercurrent for the main story to drift along, providing us with a measuring stick for how the characters are adapting and growing in their new roles, surroundings and lifestyles.
At the heart of this quirky tale is the theme of being who you are and not what you are. Each of our main players has something to hide (even if one isn’t aware of it) yet deception isn’t the key motive here – Sakurai being the obvious exception since he wilfully stole Kondo’s identity and lifestyle – but it is the people themselves that make the difference to each other and their own lives.
Sakurai actually features less out of the three, allowing the relationship between Kanae and Kondo to grow but we get enough of an idea of how he is coping through his big spending sprees and amazingly successful impromptu acting showcases in front of Kudo and his men.
The truth has to come out eventually and the final act of this film explores the fallout this revelations and how this fateful triangle reconciles them. Uchida leaves a lot of it to circumstance rather than addressing it head on but gives the characters enough room to tie their individual loose ends together as well as their collective ones.
It is the pitch perfect performances of the three leads that carry the entire emotional weight of the film, letting their body language and expressions do the talking. None of the three characters are what you call typical in look or personality yet the actors are able to make them feel real and mostly easy to identify with – Sakurai again singled out for exemption.
Masato Sakai and Teruyuki Kagawa both undergo physical and personality changes for their roles, the latter from reputable hard man to humble nobody, a challenge he meets with a keen sense of pathos. Ryoko Hirosue manages to make Kanae less irritating and obdurate than she should be, making her almost fragile in places, while comedy actor Yosiyosi Arakawa is actually an effective villain.
Maybe in need of a minor trim to the runtime, Key Of Life is a cleverly constructed and confidently executed story in that delightfully low key yet deeply affecting style that is uniquely Japanese yet universally appealing.