In Mamio Valley, a pleasant patch of rural Japan, death disturbs the peace of a blazing autumn afternoon. A black limousine glides along a forest path, scattering a flock of crows and confusing the man tending a half-neglected shrine. On the rooftop of the town’s school, a young robot girl basks in the sun, recharging her solar batteries. She is unaware that her ‘grandfather’, Dr. Murao Mima, has died beneath a cloud of suspicious circumstances. During his final moments Dr. Mima recorded a message for his android ‘granddaughter’, instructing her that she can become human before her most recent body fails, but she must make human friends to do so.
She needs approximately thirty thousand of them.
This is the beginning of a strange Pinocchio tale, a modern myth that explores the boundaries of humanity in an age of automation. This is a story that delves into the darkest depths of the Japanese entertainment industry. This is the journey of Tokiko “Key” Mima, whose mechanized innards conceal a secret that evil men would kill to obtain. This is Key the Metal Idol.
Spurred on by the advice of her grandfather, Key travels to Tokyo in search of enough people to complete her transformation. But the big city is fraught with peril, ranging from unscrupulous pornographers, to religious cults seeking to exploit Key’s strange powers, to deranged industrialists desperate to uncover the key to her grandfather’s robotics research. Reunited by chance with Sakura Kuriyagawa, a childhood friend, Key soon discovers that the quickest way to achieve her goal is to become a celebrity – an object of love and worship for thousands of ordinary people. But how can she hope to become an idol singer if Key cannot sing or dance? And what is behind Key’s fascination with Miho Utsuse, the idol whose meteoric rise to stardom has been secretly funded by the weapons manufacturers of Ajo Heavy Industries?
Created fifteen years ago to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Pony Canyon’s involvement in the realms of Japanese animation, Key the Metal Idol blossomed into a fifteen episode OAV series packed with music, mystery, and mysticism. The visuals feature sharp-edged character designs by Keichi Ishikura and the animation was produced by Studio Pierrot, a production house whose decades-long history includes such properties as Urusei Yatsura, Naruto, and Victorian Romance Emma. The score and soundtrack overflow with somber, haunting melodies and powerful vocal performances. The voice-acting is compelling, with a scene-stealing performance by Shou Hayami as the tyrannical industrialist Jinsaku Ajo. Hayami’s intensity is balanced against Chiyako Shibahara’s turn as the tormented idol singer Miho and Junko Iwao’s subdued, disconnected portrayal of Key. Key the Metal Idol belongs to a genre that can be best described as “techno-spiritual”. It combines the animistic principles of Japanese mythology with the advanced technology of modern living, fusing science and spirituality into a single tangled gestalt. Key is an anime where the faint words of a lullaby can issue from the speakers of unplugged computers, where the living essence of human beings can work miracles or provide the power to animate monstrous metal shells.
Yet despite its metaphorical and mystical trappings, Key is also a scathing indictment of both Japanese pop culture and its loyal fans. Key depicts a world where popular performers are a disposable resource. Like the countless dolls, automatons, and puppets that pepper the production, in Key entertainers are exploited, ruined, discarded, and replaced. Physical abuse, emotional agony, and sexual exploitation are all present once you scratch beneath the glossy surface of fortune and fame. The fans, oblivious, progress to the next passing fad with nary a peep of complaint. It takes a quirky kind of courage to hold up such scrutiny to the very medium that gives a work its lifeblood, to castigate the fans whose adoration allows a project to exist. Perhaps this is why Key the Metal Idol is the only major directorial effort from Hiroaki Sato to reach American shores…
Key the Metal Idol is not a perfect show. The staccato pacing grinds to a standstill in the final two OAVs, which endeavor to explain away all of the mysteries that make the earlier episodes so intoxicating. But even a few directorial miss-steps cannot wreck a show that lives and dies by its elusive, poignant, poetic imagery. Symbolism runs deep within Key the Metal Idol; the show demands careful attention from the audience if they are to understand how the pieces of each episode create a coherent whole. I assert that Key plumbs the human psyche with as much unflinching resolve as its more famous contemporary, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and with as much style as its techno-spiritual successor, serial experiments lain.
Yet where is Key the Metal Idol today? Despite releases by Viz Media on VHS and DVD, the series is all but forgotten, consigned to the edges of memory while the otaku await with bated breath for the next ground-breaker to arrive. Where are the fans, the praise, the accolades, the critical analysis? Where is the appreciation for a girl with a heart of ceramic and steel?
All I know is that I am one of Key’s thirty-thousand friends.
Distributor: Viz Media
Originally released: 1994 – 1997
Running Time: 570 minutes