Sway (Miwa Nishikawa, Japan, 2006)

Two brothers, achingly trendy Tokyo fashion photographer Takeru (Jô Odagiri) and shy homebody Minoru (Key Of Life‘s Teruyuki Kagawa) reunite at their mother’s funeral. The next day a walk across a rickety wooden bridge with Chieko (Yoko Maki), a local girl employed in the family business and a former girlfriend of Takeru’s, results in tragedy and Minoru finds himself on the end of a murder charge.

The biggest surprise in Sway – and arguably the most impressive – is that this isn’t really the murder mystery/courtroom drama it increasingly appears to be – but actually a subtle, well observed portrait of two brothers, one of whom is a whirlpool of jealousies and insecurities, the other a wise and compassionate individual so full of love he’s quite willing to placidly shoulder the burden of his brother’s sins even if it means going to prison. Odagiri and Kagawa are both excellent in their respective roles, as is Yoko Maki as the pretty girl manipulated into bed by Takeru. I’ve only seen one other of Miwa Nishikawa’s films, her excellent 2009 drama, Dear Doctor, and no surprise that, there as here, her trademark is a strongly character-driven story with a superbly subtle mise-en-scene. She’s clearly a filmmaker to watch. Sway is one of those films that can perhaps initially seem underwhelming, especially the way its last scene pointedly avoids the expected violent showdown between the two brothers as they meet up again years down the line. But the more you reflect on this afterwards the more impressive it seems and the more you find yourself wanting to watch it again.

Key of Life (Kenji Uchida, Japan, 2012)

A struggling actor named Takeshi (Masato Sakai) opportunistically swaps identities with a feared underworld assassin named Kondo (Teruyuki Kagawa) after a bizarre accident in a bath house leaves the latter with amnesia. Meanwhile Kanae (Ryôko Hirosue), a tightly wound and emotionally repressed businesswoman decides it’s time she got married and unexpectedly finds herself falling for amnesiac killer Kondo after she bumps into him outside of the hospital. As Kanae and Kondo begin to fall in love, Takeshi is busy enjoying Kondo’s luxury car and flat. But when Kondo’s former employer requests a further hit job Takeshi begins to discover just how out of his depth he really is. Just as it seems Takeshi is destined to be exposed as a fraud and Kanae and Kondo to be happily married the real assassin regains his memory…

With this, his third film, director Uchida might be in danger of becoming a one trick pony, but when the trick is as entertaining as this I’m not sure it really matters. Deeper, thematically richer and more ambitious than 2005’s not dissimilar A Stranger of Mine, this is a rollicking comedy-drama in which a series of coincidences bring a group of complete strangers into each others orbit and it boasts three superb performances from its principals. The standout for me being Teruyuki Kagawa’s alternately scary and touching turn as Kondo, a sort of Japanese Keyser Soze whose mere name evokes fear and trembling within the underworld but whose post-amnesiac existence proves unexpectedly moving. But nothing in Uchida’s world is quite what it seems and so it proves here as character, story and tone (the moment when Kondo remembers his real identity is brilliantly staged with the simple expedient of a shadow on a wall) are gleefully juggled by its talented writer/director. At 128 mins one could argue this runs a bit long but looking back I can’t think of a single scene I’d want to lose. Uchida clearly loves his characters and wants to do fair by them and the thematic point he’s going for – that love and success only come when you follow your instincts – are as heartfelt and sincere as they are hilarious (and as with A Stranger of Mine there’s a post-credits scene here that is an absolute hoot). Key of Life never goes for the cheap gag or pratfall. Its humour stems entirely from the absurdist situations its characters are put into and Uchida is better than any other contemporary writer I can think of at hiding the contrivances necessary to make the plot work so that it all seems to stem quite naturally from the characters themselves. This really is first class stuff and if you can find it I highly recommend it (as indeed I do A Stranger of Mine).