Japanese Title: 鍵 泥棒 の メソッド
Romaji: Kagi Dorobou no Mesoddo
Release Date: 15th September 2012 (Japan)
Running Time: 128 mins.
Director: Kenji Uchida
Writer: Kenji Uchida
Starring: Masato Sakai, Teruyuki Kagawa, Ryoko Hirosue, YosiYosi Arakawa, Yoko Moriguchi
This was the second film I saw at the 56th BFI London Film Festival after The Wolf Children. While I was familiar with the actors involved I had little knowledge about the director or his past works other than the fact that they are considered extremely funny. I selected this as one of my festival picks because I was willing to bet that with its excellent cast it was going to be extremely funny. Thankfully I was right!
Kanae Mizushima (Hirosue) is the editor of VIP Books magazine and is about to get married despite not having a potential husband. She decides to go hunting for one. Sakurai (Sakai) is an unsuccessful actor who attempts suicide but fails. He decides to head to a local bathhouse to wash up. While there he drops a bar of soap which a stranger in the neighbourhood named Kondo (Kagawa) slips on, knocking himself unconscious. Sakurai switches locker keys with Kondo and assumes Kondo’s identity. This is a pretty bad idea because Kondo is a hit-man working for a yakuza. Kondo wakes up in hospital minus his memory and so assumes Sakurai’s life as an actor while trying to recover his memory. Kanae encounters the two men and soon all three become connected in a glorious misadventure.
If I call this one of the best comedies of the year you may dismiss this as me being over-enthusiastic. After all, the identity swap scenario has been seen many times before like in the amusing 1983 film Trading Places but Key of Life wins by having a meticulously written and directed script with loveable and interesting characters.
Have I ever failed at anything before?
The film generates its humour from the script’s razor sharp characterisation and the actor’s great performances. For his efforts Kenji Uchida, the writer and director, won the award for Best Screenplay at the 16th Shanghai International Film Festival, an award richly deserved. He could have also won the award for best director as every shot in this film is calculated to increase the hilarity of the script and performances.
Direction is excellent. The camera is always in the perfect position to observe the characters as they act out their roles while deftly allowing us to absorb set design which is magnificent. Every location has character and within a few seconds of an establishing shot we get a sense of a place and the people who inhabit it.
Kondo lives in a cool minimalist and high tech apartment with secrets everywhere like a costume wardrobe with an amusing set of disguises. It fits in with the meticulous nature of the character and the sense that he is a person with much to hide. Sakai’s life is one of disillusion which is why he wants to change lives. His introduction is just after he tries to hang himself, the apartment light having given way under his weight lies flickering on a floor strewn with rubbish. He lives in a rusty ramshackle flat full of musty old memories, dirty clothes, dishes and mouldy scripts that suggest failed dreams. Meanwhile Kanae lives the life of a comfortable bourgeois.
These sets are the perfect stage for some of the funniest acting I have seen in a film for a long time.
What is acting?
This is a film where performances are central. The actors use the excellent script with its detailed characters as a springboard for performances that give life to the lines.
Teruyuki Kagawa blew me away with his performance in Tokyo Sonata as an increasingly disillusioned and crushed salary-man. He was so convincing that I found it hard to think of him in a comedy role. Here he gives a stellar performance.
With his solemn face and quick and efficient actions he makes a very convincing hit-man bundling bodies into the trunks of cars. Kenji Uchida, by playing everything in a dry manner uses this brilliantly especially when Kondo turns his meticulous nature towards Sakurai’s former profession of acting and finds himself being feted as a great on-screen gangster.
The switch from cold-blooded killer to dedicated actor is convincing thanks to his performance being handled in a straight manner from his grim persona at the start to the disarmingly confused and wary look he carries after waking up in the hospital and the look of genuine pleasure he gets with every word of praise for his acting. I bought it all. Early on, after recovering from his slip he tentatively asks a character “Would you consider becoming my friend?” I wanted to say “Yes!”
How on earth did I come to sympathise with this cold-blooded killer? His acting skills! I even found that his character’s very methodical and focussed nature inspirational and now I have taken up mapping out things in a similar manner! Kagawa gets brilliant support from his co-stars who I found equally endearing.
Sakai has a hilariously expressive face. As the film runs along you become aware that even though he is essentially good-natured this failed actor might just be pretty awful at his chosen profession such are his overreactions and sloppiness which means that when he tries to be something he is not, like playing a tough guy, there will always be something funny for those around him, including the audience, to notice that undercuts his efforts and reveals him to be hilariously lackadaisical. A month later I still burst into laughter whenever I think of his inept attempts at research and disguise. When all is done this cowardly and inept person is still human and we come to care about him.
<DIALOGUE SPOILER> When her shocked co-workers learn that she has decided that she’s getting married, they ask “Who’s the lucky man?” and without missing a beat and with a straight face she says “I haven’t decided.” </DIALOGUE SPOILER>.
She is naturally beautiful and restrained and believably unworldly when compared with her sister and mother. Her performance as the super-successful Kanae is believable and her journey is endearing.
One surprise was that YosiYosi Arakawa (Quirky Guys and Gals, Fine, Totally Fine) plays his role totally seriously. I had expected him to be a figure of fun but for this role he remains a glowering, low-speaking, hard-punching malevolent gangster. It is actually pretty convincing and menacing.
What’s more important is what I do from now on
Key of Life has to be one of the funniest films of the year. Despite the clichéd ‘trading places’ scenario the script has wonderfully observed characters who are part of a weaving story that felt like one big happy adventure. With some great music like the Marriage of Figaro Overture playing throughout and the message of being genuine and doing your best it is warm hearted and hilarious in equal measure and thanks to the three central performances and a wry and dry script peppered with funny lines and scenes, the film is given so much life and fun that when the film entered its final sequence I realised that I came to love the characters and I am willing to bet that you will too.
One last thing, don’t leave before the credits have finished because you’ll miss out on a brilliant dénouement for one of the loveable trio.
For another review and lots of great pictures head over to Bonjour Tristesse.