KEY THE METAL IDOL (1994)

 

Format: 13 24-minute episodes on two DVDs,

               two movie-length episodes totaling 196 minutes on a third DVD

 

Rating: R (N, AC, AL, GV)

 

American Production: Viz Video (distributed by Pioneer)

 

Japanese Production: Pony Canyon/Studio Pierrot

 

Grading

 

Premise:

A

Story:

A

Writing:

A-

Character Design:

B-

Animation:

C+

Artistic Merits:

B-

English Dub:

B

Musical Score:

A-

Songs:

A-

Opener:

A-

Closer (most/last):

B+/A- 

 

 

Humor Content:

n/a

Action Content:

B-

Drama Content:

A-

 

 

DVD Presentation:

A-

DVD Extras:

B

 

 

OVERALL:

B+

 

Synopsis

      Tokiko Mima, aka Key, is either a robot who could outwardly pass for a slight teenage girl or a girl who thinks and acts like she is a robot. Whichever is the truth, the dying words of her creator/grandfather inform her that she can become fully human, but to do so she must draw strength from the friendship of 30,000 people. To do so she travels from her isolated home valley to Tokyo, where she runs across old friend Sakura and becomes acquainted with several other individuals who become important to her quest, including the president of the fan club of a popular idol singer, a sleazy video producer, the leader of a religious cult, an entertainment industry prodigy, and the president of a heavy industry company and his henchman. Ultimately she decides to emulate Miho Utsuse, a top idol singer, but this is a path fraught with peril; not only do the forces of a music industry work against an unglamorous and seemingly talentless individual like Key, but sinister forces connected to her “grandfather’s” past come to regard her both as a godsend and as a dire threat. It also seems that there is a lot more to Key than what first meets the eye. . .

 

The Long View

      The initial temptation of any American viewer would be to regard Key as a variation on the story of Pinocchio, but all similarities end once you get past the basic premise. This is a completely original story with a great degree of depth and complexity; a lot of things are going on behind the scenes, and everything is far more intricately connected than what it might appear to be at first. The questions posed by the premise - what is Key’s true nature, and why does she need 30,000 friends to become human - are compelling ones that draw the viewer to equally compelling mysteries that come up as the story progresses. Among these are the truth concerning this “gel” that the industry president is using to power and manipulate his robots, how the president is connected to Key’s “grandfather,” what power resides in Key that occasionally causes subtle changes in her appearance and voice but allows her to do some truly incredible things, and what brings on those changes?

      Nearly as intriguing as the main story is the side story about the idol singer Miho, who outwardly enjoys considerable popularity but is really an exhausted shell of a person who has become little more than a tool in the experiments of her sponsor (the company president) into remote-controlled robots. Given the insights the series provides into the production behind an idol singer (and they are accurate ones, I’m told), I have to wonder if Miho’s story isn’t a sharp jab at the apparent way the girls who become idol singers are used up and spit out by the Japanese music system. This impression is furthered by the way Beniko, an up-and-coming singer who is brought in as a back-up, is treated. None of this stands separately from the main storyline, however, for the ultimate fates of Miho and Key are intertwined.

      Although there is nothing bad about the artistry of Key, it is not the strong point of the series. The subtle shifts in the appearance of Key when her powers manifest (and you have to really watch for these or you’ll miss some of them) are interesting, as are some of the effects of what would be camera work were this a live-action series, but there are many series out there that do better in all purely artistic respects. Where Key really shines is in the storytelling, the characters, and the music. The story plays out as much like a mystery as a drama, revealing truths only bit by bit until the movie-length 14th episode, which devotes most of its 90-minute length to laying out the Whole Truth Behind Everything. This approach is somewhat tedious, but by the time you’re done with it you’ve undergone a revelation which forces you to totally reevaluate everything you’ve seen up until that point. As the revelations continue into the climatic movie-length 15th episode you’ll finally get the full sense of how complex the story really is. There are depths of psychological and spiritual implications here that are only hinted at in the first 13 episodes. And trust me when I say that even if you figure out some of the pieces to the overall puzzle, you haven’t figured out anywhere near everything. There are things going on here which may surprise even the most jaded anime fan.     

      The characters are the second big selling point. Key certainly acts robotic except during those brief moments when her power manifests, yet she does seem capable of reactions that are distinctly human. To further the robotic impression the Japanese voice actress for Key speaks in a distinctive, deliberate cadence, while the voice of the American voice actress is electronically adjusted to give it a mechanical resonance. Sakura, Key’s friend, sometimes gets very frustrated with Key’s behavior (which is reminiscent of a mentally handicapped person) but still deeply cares about her, so much so that she sets aside her own personal priorities to help Key pursue her dream. Then there’s Suichi, the handsome Miho fan club president who becomes fascinated by the mystery surrounding Key while failing to realize that Sakura is infatuated with him. He’s not so dense that he doesn’t pick up on the fact that something very odd is going on with Miho, however. Miho herself is an interesting but tragic character, and it’s hard not to feel for her exceedingly confident replacement Beniko when she is brutally schooled in her true value in the scheme of things. The cult leader Prince Snake-Eyes, who could have been easily been played up as a comic relief character, is instead given serious treatment as a pathetic man who feels he has been divinely inspired and who can perceive more of Key’s true nature (although doesn’t properly understand it) than most. Hikaru Tsurugi, the entertainment prodigy, comes across as a dangerously unstable but still brilliant and insightful individual who becomes intrigued enough by Key to take her under his tutelage. Less well-developed is Tomoyo, the assistant to Key’s “grandfather” who was charged with looking out for Key until she achieved her humanity and tirelessly devotes himself to this task for reasons that should become clear to most viewers in the revelations of the 14th episode.

      Every good story needs a good villain, and Key has one whopper of a bad guy. He is Jinsaku Ajo, the aforementioned president of a heavy industry company that specializes in advanced robotics and also the controller of Miho’s production company. He has extensive past connections to Key’s “grandfather” and in his own warped view comes to regard Key as a threat, perhaps even an avenging angel sent to settle the score for his involvement in her grandfather’s death. Ajo is more than just the common cold-hearted, unscrupulous bastard, however; the more you learn about this guy, the more twisted and repulsive he becomes. This is a man so obsessed with robotics that he regards his bipedal robotic killing machines as his “sons” and places far more value on them than on human life. He doesn’t think twice about sacrificing his employees to his experiments (or anyone else who crosses his path, for that matter) and is perfectly willing to work his star Miho to death to achieve his goals. He is as evil, and yet also as pathetic, as villains come. His cold-hearted chief henchman, called only D, isn’t any better.

      The third selling point of the series is its music. Since this is a series about idol singing, it is loaded with snippets of songs ranging from instrumented ballads of the type that might be heard in a Broadway play to pop-rock radio standbys. (I should stress, however, that these are parts of performances by the idol singer characters rather than production musical numbers.) One particular song, a gentle piece called “Lullaby,” becomes integral to the story, and its performance in full late in the series is a critical part of the series climax. Both the opener and the closer for the first 13 episodes feature great songs, while the closer for the last episode features a more upbeat song (“Galaxy in my Hands”) that is even better. For those who take enough of a liking to the songs to want to hear the full versions and don’t mind listening to them in Japanese, I heartily recommend the soundtrack album, which is available in the States.

      The English vocal work in Key is well-done, although not all of the songs translate smoothly. (But that is a common problem in anime.) I am ambivalent on whether I like the Japanese or the English approach to Key’s voice better; try it both ways and see which way you prefer. The sound of clockwork mechanisms used to highlight important moments of introspection on Key’s part is a neat touch. The Next Episode features are worthless and misleading, however; skip them. Do watch carefully through the credits for the last episode, though, because there are some neat touches in it and an important and satisfying bonus scene at the very end.

      The graphic content of the series is not severe or pervasive, but there is enough nudity and graphic violence scattered through the series that I felt sure any MPAA review would give Key an R rating overall.

      There is a considerable amount more I would like to say about this series but can’t without delving into the series’ big secrets. Suffice it to say that an educated Japanese viewer would probably draw a great deal of symbolic meaning from the series. Understanding the nature and perception of a miko and pondering how it applies to the series can help, however. Do be forewarned that this is a thoroughly absorbing series, the kind where you will easily find yourself watching several episodes in a row unless you are supremely disciplined in your viewing habits.

 

DVD Extras

      The DVDs for Key the Metal Idol are one of the most economical values in anime, since each one gives you an average of almost 170 minutes of programming for the same price as a typical anime DVD. Among the extras are:

·  Interview With Director (text)

·  FAQ

·  Character Info

·  Concept Art (extensive)

·  Voice Credits breakdown (side-by-side - a very nice feature that I wish was done more often)

·  Company Info

 

Principle English Voice Actors

Role

Voice Actor

Tokiko Mima (aka Key) 

Nicole Oliver

Sakura

Megan Leitch

Tomoyo

David Kaye

Suichi

Jerry J. Todd (early episodes), Peter Kelamis (late eps)

Miho Utsuse, Beniko

Saffron Henderson

Jinsaku Ajo

Brian Novak

D

David Sobolov (early eps), Mark Gibbon (late eps)

Hikaru Tsurugi

John Drummond

Murao Mima

Harvey Gold

Toyoko Mima

Willow Johnson

Prince Snake-Eye

Don Brown

Senichi

Terry Klassen

Toshihiko

Andrew Francis

Aoi

Cambell Lane

Maestro

Alec Willows

Komoda

Paul Dobson

Tsukiyama

Jason Gray-Stanford

Ajo’s staffers (A and C)

Ward Perry and Michael Dobson

 

 

 

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