Sometimes life doesn’t play out quite the way you thought it would. Dreams will only take you so far, especially if you lack the resolve to follow through with them. Unfortunately this is something that Takeshi Sakurai knows all too well. Down on his luck and planning to end it all, he happens upon a coupon for a bathhouse and decides to venture out of his apartment. But surely this one simple outing will not be a memorable one…right?
Wrong. Whilst storing his “possessions” into a locker, Sakurai notices that a particularly well dressed individual has also decided to visit the bathhouse, placing his noticeably full wallet in a locker near his own. As if the universe itself was mocking him. However, this chance encounter becomes a turning point in both the lives of Sakurai and said individual (henceforth known as Kondo). After an unfortunate accident involving a bar of soap, Kondo is rendered unconscious after a truly spectacular fall. It is during the ensuing commotion that Sakurai decides to perform a little “locker key switcheroo” and pilfer Kondo’s wealth. As you do. But surely such a crime would be immediately discovered. Unless, hypothetically speaking, the blow to Kondo’s head resulted in amnesia…it did? Well alright then. However, Key of Life does not leave loose ends. As such, the now unused identity of Takeshi Sakurai now falls to the man formerly known as Kondo. Hence the switch is complete and two lives are turned upside down. Did I mention that the real Kondo is actually a hitman? Because that’s kind of important.
Whilst a quick glance at Key of Life reveals its existence as a comedy, the film possesses a depth to it that truly takes it above and beyond a simple identity flip. Immediately after assuming Kondo’s identity, Sakurai spends an entire day repaying everyone to whom he owes money. Though the source of some brief comedic greetings and farewell, the fact that he did not simply burn his appropriated wealth on trivialities reveals to us that he is not inherently a dishonest or conniving person. No matter how much his recent theft may beg to differ. He even attempts to return the identity soon after, content with simply being out of the debt of friends and well wishers, again another example of Sakurai’s innate honesty. However, these moments also reveal that he is unable to resist his base desire for a “good life” leading to him retaining Kondo’s identity…and everything that comes with it.
Though with all of Sakurai’s nervous encounters and worsening situation, Key of Life expends a lot of focus on the amnesiac Kondo and his journey to remember a life that was not his to begin with. Though we, as the audience, know that Kondo’s true identity is one of crime and murder, you cannot help but feel for the guy as he stumbles through “his” life. This alone is a testament to Teruyuki Kagawa, the actor who plays Kondo, who can portray both a stone faced assassin and an innocent wannabee actor in a believable manner. This greatly benefits the film’s overarching notions of identity and creates a compelling story when Kanae, a hardworking magazine editor looking for a husband, befriends Kondo. Of course, adding elements of romance into the film.
As if the plot did not possess enough to build upon itself within the “identity switch” concept, the introduction of romance creates an interesting situation for all concerned. As an audience, we are somewhat thrown into a state of uncertainty as we attempt to find the character we should be rooting for. As much as one may feel for Kondo as he struggles to regain his memory, we alone know the truth of his life. Thus it begs the question: should Kondo be judged for actions that he did not commit? Or is such a path of thinking too philosophical? The film certainly attempts to aid us in our query, through its continuously humorous depiction of the hitman life. Rather than his stark apartment containing a plethora of weapons, we are instead treated to his visually appealing closet. Full to the brim with outlandish costumes and all manner of crafty spy gadgets, along with a few truly unbelievable fake IDs, it is oddly difficult to despise this character…despite us having only caught the briefest of glimpses to begin with. Music was also rather skillfully used to this effect, with the introduction of classical tunes being a central theme for the true nature of Kondo. It is also the film’s lack of reliance on said medium that makes the audio all the more powerful when utilised. Even a humble car alarm is transformed into a sound that will make you simultaneously laugh and awww.
Not a particularly action packed film, Key of Life propels itself via scenes of solid dialogue. Though they occur in a number of locales, the camera favours framing characters on the edges of shots. With one on either side, we are forced to “Step back” and absorb the entirety of the image, instead of focusing on one singular point. Said effect does however cause a minute adjustment in focus between characters as they speak, literally forcing us to create a visual back and forth in each scene. Such placement also showed us that, despite having adopted each other’s lives, Kondo and Sakurai are two very different people merely forced to exist together by…less than traditional means.
Key of Life is, in a word, quirky. The ridiculous premise is made possible through the film’s comedic leanings, whilst the pursuit of romance adds an odd sense of balance to the film. Though numbering three, we are treated to the development of what amounts to four characters, as Kondo slowly regains what he lost. That being said, it is somewhat ironic that, for an identity switch film, we are not actually treated to a true switch in identity. As Kondo is essentially lost due to amnesia, we are instead presented with two iterations of Takeshi Sakurai, the realisation of which only adds to the films sweet lunacy. If I were to express a negative about the film, it would be that it ekes towards being a touch too long. Though with the content presented, it is not a major mark against it. As the credits roll and a tune that truly suits the feeling of the film begins to play, there is a brief scene that occurs that I felt really tied a bow on the events that unfolded. So be sure to stick around for that.
At the end of the day, Key of Life knows exactly what it is and revels in its own absurdity. Taking what could easily be the plot of a thriller, the film forges a comedy that will make you think, “Hey, maybe life isn’t so bad after all.” Which nowadays is becoming an ever rarer commodity. So take my advice, enjoy it where you can find it and grasp the Key of Life.
The film aired as part of the Japanese Film Fest Encore, for more information of the Japanese Film Fest check out the official site here.