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Key of Life DVD Review

Key of Life DVD cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Key of Life

Japanese Theatrical Release: September 15, 2012 / Running Time: 128 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Writer/Director: Kenji Uchida

Cast: Masato Sakai (Takeshi Sakurai), Teruyuki Kagawa (Kondo/Shinichiro Yamazaki), Ryoko Hirosue (Kanae Mizushima), Yoshiyoshi Arakawa (Kudo), Yoko Moriguchi (Ayako Inoue)

1.85.1 Anamorphic Widescreen, Dolby Digital 5.1 (Japanese), Dolby Stereo 2.0 (Japanese)
Subtitles: English / Closed Captioned / Extras Not Subtitled or Captioned
DVD General Retail Release Date: January 7, 2014 (Film-of-the-Month Club Debut: August 1, 2013)
Suggested Retail Price: $24.95 / Clear Keepcase / Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Also available on Amazon Instant Video

Buy Key of Life from Amazon.com: DVD • Instant Video

The Japanese are renowned for their anime, Samurai films, monster movies, and supernatural horror. Plain comedy?
Not so much. Key of Life, written and directed by Kenji Uchida, shows that Japan can make a good comedy just as well as the rest of the world.

This film opens introducing us to three distinctive characters. Magazine editor Kanae Mizushima (Ryoko Hirosue) announces to her colleagues that she is getting married. She has scheduled a wedding for December 14th, which gives her one month to find a man and one month to get to know him. Privately, the 34-year-old workaholic wants to make her dying father happy. We meet Takeshi Sakurai (Masato Sakai) in a failed hanging. The out-of-work actor lives in a dumpy apartment and is late on rent and taxes, but has turned to suicide over heartbreak. Then there's Kondo (Teruyuki Kagawa), a fastidious hitman.

Magazine editor Kanae Mizushima (Ryoko Hirosue) announces her wedding plans before finding a man. Actor Takeshi Sakurai (Masato Sakai) uses the various costumes and IDs in his new home to become a master of disguise.

At a public bath house, Kondo slips on a bar of soap and hits his head. Also there, Takeshi seizes an opportunity for reinvention, swapping his locker keys with the unconscious assassin when no one is looking. The episode leaves Kondo with the common movie affliction of amnesia. He has no recollection of himself, so he accepts the new name and colorful casual clothes he's given and even the age of 35, which seems low to him (and us).

The film makes that contrived premise work. Takeshi has no family, friends, or significant employment history. Kondo is guarded and mysterious in his line of work, relying on drop-off boxes and voice mail rather than face-to-face communication.

And so, the serious killer gets acquainted with acting and a modest, uncleanly pad, while the eternally broke struggling actor lands a juicy full-time role, using his newfound wealth to pay off old debts including the recent ex who still pains him. Kanae fits into this place-trading comedy when Kondo catches her eye as fitting her description of an ideal mate -- robust, healthy and hard-working -- to a T. She helps him get back on his feet and try to remember these life details that understandably ring no bells for him.

Takeshi (Masato Sakai) and Kondo (Teruyuki Kagawa) get caught in a deception in the Japanese comedy "Key of Life."

Uchida treats this far-fetched romantic concept sensibly, grounding the film in understatement. There are few laughs and the tone is fairly melancholic, but the entire thing is entertaining. Even potential wrinkles, like why we should be sympathizing with a hitman or wanting him to find love,
get ironed out with tolerable suspension of disbelief. There's ample enjoyment in seeing the strange but obvious parallels between Takeshi and Kondo adjusting to their seemingly distant new existences.

At 128 minutes, Key of Life is long for a comedy, but again much of the time it doesn't play like the mainstream comedies we think of, more closely resembling an indie film that builds some steam from a mix of critical acclaim and audience delight.

Appropriately enough, Key of Life does seem to be an independent film, though one that's largely still waiting to find its audience. It was apparently released to Japanese theaters, where it was titled either Kagidorobou no method or Kagi-dorobτ no mesoddo (which literally mean The Key Thief's Method), in September 2012, but there is little record of its reception. Days earlier, the film made its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Other film festivals have followed, including London, Hawaii, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, and St. Louis. It's also played in random US theaters here and there.

But your best chance to discover this film arrives in today's Region 1 DVD debut from US distributor Film Movement. That purveyor of little-known world cinema released Key of Life to their Film of the Month Club last August (hence its "Year 11, Film 8" spine designation). That same DVD hits general retail today and is the subject of the rest of this review.

VIDEO and AUDIO

Probably the result of production methods more than disc-mastering ones, Key of Life looks older than it is. The DVD transfer reminded me of how a '90s film might look on a millennial disc. That's not as bad as it sounds (were you disappointed with DVDs a decade ago?), but it definitely doesn't represent standard definition at its finest, lacking sharpness while colors look a tad drab. Most who haven't made the leap to Blu-ray will find this 1.85:1 presentation just fine.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack doesn't grab your attention with directionality or channel separation. In fact, I'm not sure that it gains much over the Dolby 2.0 stereo mix that for some reason is the default setting. Nothing about the mix is worthy of complaint, but nor is it worthy of admiration. On the other hand, the clean, white, grammatically sound English subtitles leave nothing to be desired.

In the Hungarian short film "Finale", two tuxedoed men tend to some surprising unfinished business. Biographies give us information about Japanese-born, American-educated writer/director Kenji Uchida and his "Key of Life" leads.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Key of Life's DVD is lighter on bonus features than most Film Movement releases,
though it remains satisfactory in this regard.

The biggest inclusion, as usual for the company, is a short film. I've come to consider shorts the best kind of bonus features, even when as in this case they are unrelated to the feature presentation. Finale (8:01), a Hungarian short written and directed by Balazs Simonyi, finds two tuxedo-clad men leaving a bar to attend to surprising unfinished work. You can draw a connection to Key in your perception of these characters, but even without that, one appreciates Film Movement boosting the exposure of this light, enjoyable wordless piece.

One-screen biographies of director Kenji Uchida and four leading cast members are included.

This colorful graphic from the "Key of Life" trailer makes its place-trading nature perfectly clear. Takeshi takes a spill on the "Key of Life" DVD's main menu.

As is, generously and fittingly, Key of Life's American trailer (1:30).

The disc opens with trailers for The Deflowering of Eva van End, The Iran Job, and Three Worlds. Those are joined by previews for The Piano in a Factory,
The Drummer, and The Man of the Year.

The disc-opening Film Movement spot is also accessible from a page describing the company's DVD of the Month Club.

Finally, the clear keepcase used allows the reverse side of the cover artwork to feature a paragraph from Film Movement explaining Key's selection and two from Uchida describing the film's origins and running Beethoven motif.

The menu places listings over full-screen clips set to the end credits song.

Gangster Kudo (Yoshiyoshi Arakawa) poses danger for the real Kondo (Teruyuki Kagawa, left) and the fake one too. Kondo teaches Takeshi how to convincingly play fear and death.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Key of Life is an accessible, feel-good comedy that should be pleasing crowds. While that might not happen anytime soon, you should give it a chance to please you with a rental or purchase of Film Movement's adequate DVD.

Buy Key of Life from Amazon.com: DVD / Instant Video

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Related Reviews:
Japanese Films: Shall We Dance? (1997) • From Up on Poppy Hill • Godzilla vs. Biollante • My Neighbors the Yamadas
Trading Places • Grosse Pointe Blank • Holy Motors • The Tree of Life • The Intouchables • 3 Idiots
Film Movement: The Deflowering of Eva van End • Broken | New: Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear • Sweetwater • Nashville

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Reviewed January 7, 2014.



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