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Key of Life

Film Movement // Unrated // January 7, 2014
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Neil Lumbard | posted February 13, 2014 | E-mail the Author
Key of Lfie DVD Review I can still fondly remember a time when it seemed like the independent boom of the 90's led to countless inventive and off-the-wall filmmakers branching out into new and interesting things with the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, and Kevin Smith making a name for themselves as talented storytellers with a mission: to try something new while paying solid homage to the films they loved and grew up on. Key of Life reminds me of these times as something about it rekindles the memories of that magic.

Obviously, Key of Life did not result from the independent boom of the 90's in North America, especially considering its Japanese origin (and as it was made and released over twenty years after that particular filmmaking movement), but it seems to have the same kind of spirit for a taking on a creative new world of filmmaking which is rarely seen and that feels refreshing compared to the majority of films being made today.

In many ways Key of Life seems to have a real sense of adventure that is reminiscent of what one might imagine seeing in an effort made by Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers should they ever team up to make a movie together. (Now wouldn't that be fantastic?) Key of Life deftly manages to combine the sort of genre elements one would expect to find in the films of these significantly more well-known directors. The ambitious filmmaking takes audiences on one genuinely wild ride of cinema that is uncommon for any film made on such a relatively shoestring budget.

One thing that strongly sets the effort apart from the successes of those massive indie achievements of the 90's is that the film has garnered little attention from around the world despite its acclaim and recognition in Japan. This is quite the unfortunate aspect of the film's release as I would like more audience members to be able to see the feature and to enjoy in its many wonders. The filmmaking demands it but audiences are mostly unaware. If the film was replaced with an identical copy in English and with big movie stars attached it would become a blockbuster nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. That is how confident I am in the film. 

Unfortunately, the filmmaker of Key of Life, Kenji Uchida, is virtually unknown outside of Japan. Despite the fact that this is the gift's filmmakers third outing as a writer/director it's inexplicably the first feature by the creative-force to be released in North America on DVD. Festival showings can creative fantastic buzz and appreciation for foreign films by some of cinema's most dedicated viewers but it cannot help to ensure a film will be a box-office hit. Unsurprisingly, then, the films of Uchida have done well with a certain audience of cinema lovers who appreciate some of the more offbeat works by Japanese director's. They just are nowhere close to entering mainstream appreciation yet. I hope that this will eventually be different.

Fans of unique and charming films with compelling storytelling will want to consider exploring this remarkable effort. It won the Japan Academy Award for Best Screenplay, a recognition of Uchida's accomplishment that pairs the filmmaker with former winners of the award: Yamada, Kurosawa, and Koyama, who scripted Departures, the winner of Best Foreign Language Film at the 81st Academy Awards. One can hope that this accomplishment will lead to growing recognition for the young filmmaker and that it will allow for opportunities to be created for him as a filmmaker. I would love for his films to be seen outside of Japan to a greater extent going forward. Unfortunately, Uchida has a long way to go before he is even a common name in houses of the most ardent fans of Japanese cinema.

Key of Life is a combination of so many genre elements; especially aspects of the comedy and drama categories. It is one of the most surprisingly energetic and lively films produced in 2012, and while it has just recently become available in North America it is probably likely to be in my top films of 2014. The film has a tendency to be laugh-out-loud hilarious one moment and then it surprises with a moment of dramatic eloquence you would not expect to find. The writing is such a huge factor in why the film has such a seamless blend of comedy and drama. The script doesn't miss a beat and flows effectively from one scene to the next.

The plot for the film is so outlandish and offbeat that it makes the film all the more compelling to see it unfold. The film begins by introducing us to Kanae (Ryoko Hirosue), a magazine editor of great acclaim, yet someone who doesn't find time for herself outside of working. Within the first few minutes of Key of Life we discover that she intends to marry as she proclaims her wedding is coming up to an entire room of employees. The office asks her who the lucky man is and she answers that she has to figure it out. Flash away from this storyline to a deadbeat, broke, and depressed man considering ending it all: Sakurai (Masato Sakai). He is out of work and owes money to almost everyone that he knows. Sakurai decides to go to a bathhouse and to clean himself up.

Flash aside to an earlier time in the same day and we are introduced to a hit-man taking care of a "job" and who is quite methodical, scary, and morose. This hit-man's name is Kondo (Teruyuki Kagawa). After this "job" is over he too decides to go to a bath-house for a shower, yet what he doesn't realize is that someone is going to drop a bar of soap that will cause him to slip and lose his memories and that this person is none other than the unemployed Sakurai. Upon realizing that Kondo has amnesia, Sakurai discovers that Kondo is a wealthy person because of the clothing he brought to the bathhouse and items in his possession. As he owes money to an enormous amount of people, he decides he'll clear up some of his debt and pretend to be the memory-troubled Kondo, taking his car keys, and going to his apartment. As one might be capable of imaging, things begin to spiral from here.

Because of his amnesia, Kondo winds up assuming the goofy identity of the slacker and his methodical nature is troubled by the news that he is a slob, essentially living in a mess of an apartment and with no work. Meanwhile, Sakurai is in deepening troubles when he becomes involved in the matters of a group of yakuza gangsters who have heard of the mysterious Kondo but had never before met him. It amazingly doesn't stop there as Kanae, who still wants to be a bride (with a deadline that is already looming) meets the amnesiac hit-man and begins to have feelings for him.  Um... whoops? Surprising turns continue to happen as the story progresses along it's unique and somewhat complicated plot-line.

The plot and characters are fascinating and full of zany twists and turns. The fine performances by Masato Sakai, Teruyuki Kagawa, and Ryoko Hirosue help dramatically, providing such an excellent anchor to the plot twists by making the characters believable and unique.  One gets a feeling that everyone in the film worked together on the same page to deliver performances of great note. There is a strong cohesion with the entire cast that makes Key of Life work wonders.

At the core of the film, Key of Life is a story about relationships between people and the amazing ways in which we can often find ourselves in relation to those around us. It is a dramatic work in the sense that it asks some philosophical questions about life, identity, relationships, and romantic love that sets it apart as more than just a goofy comedy of a completely zany case of stolen (and mistaken) identity.  The film is also about the art of performance, which makes the film something that taps into ideas about filmmaking. It does so in a unique way at various stages of the film. For a true film buff it essentially adds another ingredient of magic to the experience.

When I began Key of Life, I had no idea what to expect from the film. I had never even heard of the filmmaker prior to viewing a trailer for the Film Movement release and I hadn't heard of the earlier efforts of this writer/director in any regard. I had low expectations but hoped it might be entertaining considering the fact that it won the Best Screenplay award in Japan. I am glad to have seen the film and that it was not passed over. It almost completely passed me by and it is an enormously funny, charming, and delightful film which is complemented by the expert filmmaking and energetic performances. For some reason, Key of Life doesn't seem to be quite that well-known in North America. Of course, I feel this should dramatically improve over time as more audiences become familiar with the filmmakers work. I recommend the effort to all fans of foreign language cinema.  Don't miss it.

The DVD:


Key of Life arrives on DVD by Film Movement in a presentation that preserves its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The release is also presented with anamorphic widescreen enhancement and it looks quite good for a low-budget Japanese film. The colors and unique cinematography are well preserved with what is a reasonably clean, dimensional, and impressive transfer.


Key of Life is presented with both a 5.1 surround sound presentation as well as a 2.0 stereo track. The surround sound presence is reasonable enough with some good added ambiance, especially for the occasional sound effects and the accompanying music, but don't expect a blockbuster surround experience. There are a few key moments where the surround activity is utilized, though. It's not going to surprise anyone much but it's a decent and crisply defined audio presentation that does a good job of presenting dialogue (the most important attribute).

In Japanese with English Subtitles.


As per usual, Film Movement has included its monthly short film selection.

This entry is the humorous and engaging piece entitled Finale, which was directed by Balazs Simonyi. I genuinely recommend this surprising piece, which is highly creative and quite a bit smart, beginning with some characters we first believe to be the leads before taking us away to a genuinely shady looking duo in a bar who seem to be up to something kinda fishy -- though their appearances could be deceiving.

The release also contains biography information for the filmmaker and some of the actors, a note on why Film Movement selected Key of Life, and excerpts from an interview with director Kenji Uchida. Trailers promoting other Film Movement releases are also included.

Final Thoughts:

Key of Life is one of the most surprising films I've seen in years. It's ambitious, inventive, smart, and genuinely moving while offering audiences plenty of laughs, drama, and a number of zany twists and turns that will keep things fascinating from start to finish.

The film managed to win Japan's Academy Award for Best Screenplay, which is a tremendous honor for the wonderful effort. I would recommend this film to anyone who loves Japanese cinema or quirky and smart comedies with a bit of edge. It is a gem that deserves a significantly larger audience. This is a film with plenty to offer. (I imagine it later being remade with someone like George Clooney in a main role: it's that impressive).

As far as the quality of the DVD is concerned, the picture-quality and audio-quality are more than adequate and a delightful short film accompanies the main feature, which adds up to an entirely notable and well worth owning release by distributor Film Movement.
Highly Recommended.

Neil Lumbard is a lifelong fan of cinema. He aspires to make movies and has written two screenplays on spec. He loves writing, and currently does in Texas.

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