Reviewby Theron Martin,
Key the Metal Idol
Complete OVA Series
Tokiko “Key” Mima is a robot in the form of a lifelike 17-year-old girl, who lives with her automaton-expert grandfather. When her grandfather dies, he leaves behind a final message explaining that Key must complete the task that he could not: to make her fully human. To do so she must accrue the power of 30,000 friends. Since her home of Mamio Valley is nowhere near populous enough, she goes to Tokyo, where she runs into Sakura, her former best friend who had moved away years earlier. After seeing top idol Miho Utsuse perform, Key decides that the solution to her problem is to become an idol herself. Though incredulous at first, both Sakura and her love interest Shuichi Tataki (who is also Miho's fan club president) eventually come to support Key in this endeavor.
However, dark forces are also at work in Tokyo, since the CEO of a robotics company and Miho's production company is obsessed with developing automatons at any cost. He's not above ruthlessly exploiting his idols or even killing others in pursuit of this goal. He believes that Key's quest for humanity could be the key to perfecting his “sons,” but she could also be an avenging angel sent to punish him for his role in her grandfather's death.
In many respects, Key the Metal Idol is an aberration of an anime series. It was released as an OVA of 13 standard episodes between 1994 and 1996, followed by two movie-length episodes released in 1997. It also stands out for its storytelling, not closely resembling anything else made before or since in a medium dominated by formula and copycats. Many of its major characters don't fall into conventional archetypes, and it's equally difficult to classify the series by genre; it has distinct sci fi, supernatural, drama, and idol anime elements, but none of those labels fit well enough to encompass the story as a whole. Impressions of its premise tend to change dramatically once the whole truth starts to come out; it's not just a Pinocchio knockoff or a series about idols changing the world.
If anything, this series is the ultimate antithesis of a modern idol series. Whereas idol anime tend to be cheery, high-spirited celebrations of idol singers and the entertainment business, this a damning rebuke of the way that the idol industry chews up and spits out its performers. How else could you interpret a scene where an idol singer gets brutally beaten for impertinence or another idol is drugged up so she can be forced from her hospital bed to perform? Other moments are subtler but just as biting, such as the implications made by remotely-controlled automatons replacing idols on stage without notice, the fact that a pornographer is also an idol talent scout, or some later spoiler-laden reveals. In an era saturated with idol series, this 20+ year old title may be more relevant than ever before.
On the surface, Key the Metal Idol spins the tale of two vastly different individuals whose lives are inextricably linked and the people who get caught up in their affairs, for better or worse. One is Key, whose status of being either a robot girl who wants to be human or a human girl who thinks she's a robot is left vague for most of the series. While she could be considered a precursor to the Emotionless Girl archetype popularized by Neon Genesis Evangelion's Rei Ayanami, that label never feels right. Despite her robotic behavior, there's definitely a personality and emotions under the surface, yielding occasional bursts of personality under the right circumstances. How she came to be this way and why is the series' core mystery, which keeps viewers guessing right up until the big reveal in episode 14; even if you think you've figured out most of it, the full truth is still mind-blowing on a level I've rarely seen elsewhere in anime. Her story is surprisingly compelling one; it's easy to see why she's able to attract the attention and support of so many despite her seemingly bland personality and appearance. If you want to see what moe looked like before the big moe boom of the mid-2000s, look no further.
The other pivotal character is Jinsaku Ajo, who easily stands alongside the most despicable villains anime has ever seen. Bad guys who laugh as they slaughter people aren't automatically more disturbing than nuanced villains, because they're so divorced from reality that a viewer can't relate to them, but Ajo is all the more intimidating for his relatability. He's both an uncompromising, demanding father figure and a ruthlessly unsympathetic boss. He's a bully and a misanthrope, but possesses just enough of a conscience to make pathetic excuses about killing his former partner and fear retribution. He's also the kind of person who carries his obsession to creepy levels; his fetish just happens to involve robots, but he carries out these feelings in ways relatable to real-life villainy.
Surrounding those two is an appreciable supporting cast whose members frequently have more depth than initially apparent, especially Sakura and Prince Snake-Eyes, a cult leader who develops an interest in Key; characters like him normally aren't allowed to be so self-aware or intuitive. The same could be said of the plot, which is atypical in that the main protagonist and antagonist don't come into conflict until the later stages of the story. Until then, each pursues their own goals, which sometimes results in their paths figuratively intersecting. The story also progresses at a metered pace, regularly shifting between Key's journey and the machinations of Ajo. Key's aspirations to become an idol don't pop up until a few episodes in, as a result of her slow-building interactions and decisions beforehand. Assorted musical performances come up along the way, but it never feels like the performances are just advertisements for the latest single. Action scenes also occasionally pop up, but they're included more as highlights than focal points. It all mostly comes together well in a compelling package.
But the critical word there is “mostly.” As strong as the writing is, there are a couple of big flaws, and episode 14 is the main source of these problems. The vast bulk of its 90 minutes are composed of an info dump to end all info dumps. Breaking this information into chunks and bouncing between two main scenes softens the drudgery, but can't even come close to eliminating it. Unfortunately, this wasn't easy to avoid given the way the story is structured; the only other option would have been to spend a couple of episodes exploring the critical backstory before Key came into the picture, which might not have worked any better because the present-day reflections of the voice behind these infodumps are essential to telling the story. Episode 14 also introduces a new character as a major presence in the story, even though his existence is never alluded to before this episode. Sakura's surprising reveal and long-term connection to Key is handled significantly better. Outside of this episode, the only other major problems are Prince Snake-Eyes' spiel sometimes running long and some minor logical gaps in episode 15. Ultimately, these problems aren't enough to prevent a satisfying ending, and be sure to watch for a brief but important epilogue after the final credits.
Key the Metal Idol is also a distinctive-looking series, perhaps in part because both its director and character designer have very limited anime résumés aside from this project. Visually, the titular character does not fit into any conventional mold for anime heroines, with the washed-out colors of her normal appearance sharply contrasting with the more vibrant colors that show when her persona breaks through. Other characters tend to be either broad or at least broad-shouldered, with the notable exception of the very sleek Tsurugi. Heavier lines and rich yet dark coloring are hallmarks of the cel animation effort by Studio Pierrot, which uses a surprisingly high number of animation shortcuts for an OVA production but nonetheless achieves some dramatic visual effects when it counts. Significantly, the idol performance scenes don't resemble anything seen in other idol titles; Miho is dressed like one would expect from a teen idol in a brief flashback to her debut, but the present-day performances feature much sexier, more mature looks. Graphic violence only pops up occasionally but can be quite intense, while nudity (both male and female) is more common, although it's rarely lurid and mostly used in a symbolic context.
Aside from its insert songs, the soundtrack for this series is a mix of effective heavier numbers for dramatic scenes and less impressive mild numbers for other scenes, with a mix of electronica and orchestration. Scattered throughout are numerous instances of cranking gear sounds, which often signify that some major development is approaching. The insert songs power the soundtrack, however, especially feature song “Lullaby,” which is the only song heard in full and critical to the plot. Other songs, which are primarily Miho performance numbers, are a mix of rock anthems and soulful adult contemporary numbers – definitely not what you may be used to hearing in other idol series. Opener “Into the Night” is an all-time-great in both visual and musical senses, with achingly soulful singing paired with mechanical sounds and loads of symbolism. Regular closer "Watashi ga Soba ni Iru" by the same singer also has a soulful, yearning sound to it but much simpler visuals. Episode 14 has an ominous, purely acoustic electronica closer, while the final episode uses the much more uplifting “Galaxy in my Hands,” which is also a quality song.
The English dub for this release is the original dub from The Ocean Group made for the 2000 DVD releases. It's a strong effort that features a bevy of excellent casting choices and distinctive performances; it even recasts two major supporting roles after episode 9 with so little difference that you may not notice the change if you're not specifically listening for it. The stand-out performance is John Novak's rendition of Ajo, while Nicole Oliver's performance as Key takes a different approach than the original Japanese performance by Junko Iwao. In Japanese, her robot persona was delivered in a stilted monotone, while the monotone was maintained in the English version, but the stilted delivery was replaced by a mechanical resonance. Every song is also dubbed with remarkable accuracy, to the point that performances in English even match the vocal quality and pitch of the originals amazingly closely. Script alterations in both song lyrics and regular dialog remain reasonable.
This Discotek release includes clean theme songs, assorted commercials, and a brief “behind the scenes” piece as extras. The latter replaces a print interview and FAQ done with the director and taken from an interview originally published in Animerica, but entirely dropped are the character profiles, concept art, and translation of opener and closer credits during the episodes which were seen on the original Viz Video DVDs, as well as a couple of other special bonuses. (On the Discotek release, the translated credits are only present as an extra.) The biggest difference is in the visual quality. The color saturation is improved compared to the original 2000 DVDs (see this picture for a comparison shot, with the left-hand image being the newer one), but that comes at the expense of being so much darker that details are hard to make out in some scenes. The general sharpness and cleanliness of the images isn't much of an improvement, either. As a result, I don't see any value to getting this release if you already have one of the earlier ones.
But don't let this stop you from checking this series out if you are a newcomer. Even if the series wasn't a major departure from most other anime, and even without the series cutting themes on the music industry, Key's story is compelling enough on its own. Will you be one of the 30,000 friends that Key needs to become human?
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : B
Art : B
Music : A-
+ Original and unique story, one of the great anime villains, excellent opener and insert songs in Japanese or English
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