Key of Life (2012)

Nothing ever goes right for small-time actor Sakurai. So when opportunity strikes at a local bathhouse, he decides to switch lives with somebody else. Unfortunately, that somebody turns out to be master hitman Kondo and suddenly Sakurai is thrust into the role of his life. Meanwhile, the actual Kondo awakens as an amnesiac wandering onto film sets and into a really bad wardrobe.

Needless to say, hilarity ensues. But KEY OF LIFE is more than just screwball hijinks. Through writer-director Kenji Uchida’s mischievous twists and stone-cold humor, the film hysterically asks if we live life according to the script we’re given, or if destiny is open to rewrites. Actors Masato Sakai and Teruyuki Kagawa (Tokyo Sonata) attempt both possibilities with vivacious sympathy, while Ryoko Hirosue (Departures) quietly delights as the lonely but resolute magazine editor who cluelessly shrugs off common sense and pencils in her own happy ending. (x)

Key of Life is one of the best Japanese comedies I’ve seen. I caught it last week at the San Diego Asian Film Festival and was blown away, it’s immensely smart, charming, and funny. Going into the film all I knew is that it’d be a identity-switch premise, similar to Freaky Friday or Trading Places. The film doesn’t open with either of the switching characters though, instead it begins with a woman declaring to her office that she plans on getting married by the end of next month. When asked whom the groom will be, she responds that she hasn’t decided yet. Each scene thereafter introduces both male characters, one is a struggling actor who fails a suicide attempt, and the other is a hitman who executes a kill in stunning style. The tone of the film jumps from romance, screwball, to mystery-thriller and it’s always engaging. Writer-director Kenji Uchida’s filmmaking reminds me of the Coen Brothers, it’s sharp and the humor had me constantly laughing out loud, except there’s no cynicism. The whole experience is brilliant and heartwarming, and the comedy has a bright, unique Japanese sensibility to it.

The screenplay won the award for Best Script at the Japanese Academy Prize and rightfully so, it’s the best Japanese comedy of 2012 and one of the best films I’ve seen in a while. I highly recommend it.