Three episodes into Key The Metal Idol, I already had burning questions that needed to be answered, and they just weren’t about the story. I wanted to know who the hell Hiroaki Sato was and how he got such a sweet deal. This guy got full creative control, writing and directing 15 direct-to-video episodes (the last two of which are feature-length!) in a business that is openly committee-run. Aside from serving as an animation director on Akira— no small feat— the man seems to have remained in the shadows before and since Key: his only other directorial work was the anime adaptation of the Yoshimune slot machine. This leads me to one conclusion: sometimes, in show business, you just get lucky. Sato deserved it: you will probably never see anything quite like Key‘s surreal mixture of science, religion, and idol pop.
Our heroine is the robotic Tokiko Mima, who calls herself Key, has to lay out in the sun to charge, and says things like “Is not Key well constructed?”. Key’s grandfather leaves her with a quest on his deathbed: if she can gather 30,000 friends, she’ll become human. Key quickly calculates that she has to leave for the big city and moves out to Tokyo, where she comes under the care of childhood friend Sakura.
Since the only way Key is likely to make 30,000 friends is if she gets famous, the show follows Sakura and Key’s attempts at getting Key into show business. As it turns out, in the world of Key, show business is tied into absolutely everything: Miho Utsuse, Japan’s leading idol singer, is run by Japan’s leading arms dealer, and he has nefarious goals and a very strange robot fetish. As Sakura and Key meander towards Key’s dream, they start to get tied up between the arms dealer, a small-time cult, the buff, otaku-cool Miho fanclub president, and the very messy Mima family history, to name a few of the players.
The mystery is well-paced to a point: every episode reveals a little bit more of what’s going on until the story gets itself into a corner where it’s got a lot of explaining to do before it continues. Unfortunately, it decides to stop everything and do all of that explaining at once. The fourteenth episode of Key is a 90-minute info dump of the entire backstory. You’re told, via a series of interwoven conversations, exactly what circumstances things have been taking place under. By the end, any mysteries are effectively solved and all that’s left in the last movie is to see the climax happen. Even though these are things you’ve wanted and needed to know for the whole series, the delivery is so flat that it’s hard to get through: in my case, I started to clean house while watching to keep myself occupied. Key will teach you how it feels to be both on the edge of your seat for the next revelation and incredibly bored at the same time.
Single, major speed bump in the plot aside, Key is absorbing stuff: the idea of a pop star having a mysterious, real-world power has been pushing anime fans’ suspension of disbelief since Macross, but it’s played a little more down to earth here than it is there. The story combines a pile of typical otaku interests— robots, the military, idol pop— and reassembles them, ducking cliche at every turn, into a story more mature and ultimately human than the sum of its parts. Key is weird and it frequently dips into the surreal, but it’s strange with purpose and in the end the story is very satisfyingly resolved. When you watch enough anime, a story having a good ending starts to become shocking.
In the wonderfully earnest messages at the end of each DVD, you, the viewer, are directly reminded that you are one of the 30,000 friends Key needs to fulfill her dream. I don’t have access to worldwide sales figures, so I must wonder whether or not Key has made all her friends by now. If she didn’t, that’s an awful, fictional shame and we should all get on fixing the fictional problem immediately. If she has, well, what’s one more?