Key of Life: Written and directed by Kenji Uchida. Starring: Masato Sakai, Teruyuki Kagawa, Ryoko Hirosue, Yoshiyoshi Arakawa. Running Time: 128 minutes.
Rating: 4/4 Stars
Sometimes, I despair about the state of comedy in film. Sometimes, the franchises of series like Scary Movie, or The Hangover (which I still can’t believe is a trilogy), loom so large over comedic films that it’s no longer possible to even come up with great comedy, let alone write it, present it, and get the green light to make it. Sometimes, just hearing that a film is billing itself as a “comedy” makes me cringe.
Then, I see a movie like Key of Life. Then, I am reminded that yes, there are STILL great comedic films to be made. I am reminded that being genuinely funny doesn’t require swearing, boob/penis humor, or “shocking” graphic content. I am reminded that comedic characters can be as wacky, quirky, or strange as can be, and yet still feel like real people. I am reminded that a movie can be roll-on-the-ground funny and still have the skill to bring real emotional depth into play when it has to. I am reminded just how much fun a movie can be when it never stops having fun with itself.
Sakurai is an out-of-work actor, seriously contemplating suicide. After one failed attempt, he tries to revise his spirits by going to a nearby bathhouse, which an elite hit man fresh from his latest “job” happens to be frequenting as well. Through a series of accidents, the hit man slips on Sakurai’s soap and hits his head (in hilariously over-the-top fashion), giving him a severe case of amnesia. Seeing this as his chance to alter his fortunes, Sakurai takes the man’s identity (by quietly changing his own locker key/ID with the man), and uses the hoard of cash he finds in the man’s car and apartment to start paying off the personal debts that had been weighing on him. However, he soon realizes the extent of his mistake when the man’s Yakuza contacts suddenly appear and order him to do another hit.
Meanwhile, the hit man (whose “name,” we learn, is Kondo) wakes up in the hospital bed, believing that he is Sakurai, and slowly attempts to regain his memory in ways that are sometimes hilarious, and sometimes rather heartbreaking. His efforts are aided by the editor of a local magazine, a woman in her mid-30’s desperately searching for a husband so she can meet her wedding deadline- when asked who her fiancé is by her colleagues, she responds, “I don’t know. But I’ve scheduled two months to find the right candidate.” Sakurai (the real one) tracks down Kondo (the real one) as well, feeling both increasingly remorseful for his subterfuge and increasingly terrified that the Yakuza will find out who he really is and kill him.
That sounds like a classically absurd identity-swap setup, and that’s because it is. Thankfully, the writing is consistently hilarious enough that it doesn’t matter how often you’ve seen this sort of film, or how quickly you call the ending- I don’t think I went more than 3-4 minutes at a stretch without laughing out loud, and during the movie’s best scenes, I was howling about every 15 seconds. Scions of Shakespeare can tell you that there’s nothing wrong with using a standard setup as long as you do it well, and bring something of your own to the table. The biggest strength of the movie is how much you find yourself caring about its oddball crew of characters- without his memory, the rough-and-tough hit man is pretty much a big teddy bear, and despite how hapless he is, you do understand Sakurai’s despair.
Key of Life, like nearly all movies, is by no means perfect- I kept expecting it to spin into an In Bruges-esque black comedy, but aside from a few faints in that direction in the first act, the movies stays quite strictly within the bounds of a thematically-gentle screwball comedy. It also slows down towards the end more than I would have liked (although it parlays that with an absolutely perfect final shot). There’s a vague subplot about a possible connection between Sakurai and the fiancé of one of Kondo’s past hits, but it never really goes anywhere (at least not to my satisfaction). However, as I have said before, it is not perfection that makes a film deserving of four stars- it’s how much of a genuinely satisfying experience watching the film provides, and Key of Life was the most satisfying movie experience I had at Nippon. With the possible exception of Asura, but we’ll get to that in my next review.