Key the Metal Idol (Volume 1: Awakening) Review
Key the Metal Idol is a medium-length series (15 episodes in total) that seems to fall under that sub-genre of animé that has become quite popular since the mid-90s, due in part no doubt to the earlier vogue of cyberpunk fiction... what I call the 'computers and consciousness' theme.
The central question at the heart of all such shows is 'Can the boundary between human consciousness and the purely electronic realm of computers be crossed?' Two other well-known animé that fall into this category include Ghost in the Shell and Serial Experiments: Lain. It's also a recurrent concept in live-action films, the most recent example of which is AI: Artificial Intelligence. However, Key the Metal Idol seems to use this as a hook to draw the viewer in, before striking off in a totally different direction... and it's these extra layers of enigma which make it a worthwhile watch in its own right.
At first glance, the show's premise appears pretty straightforward. A powerful corporation (Ajo Heavy Industries) ostensibly in the field of 'industrial machinery' is secretly trying to perfect a telepresence battle android (the 'PPOR') to sell to government and military interests the world over. It's been funding the research of Murao Mima in the hopes that he would succeed in miniaturising the 'heart' of the android, but this scientist has had a side project in the form of a robotic 'granddaughter' he seems to have created for himself.
Tokiko Mima, a waif-like seventeen year-old who calls herself 'Key', leads a somewhat isolated existence in the Japanese countryside. Teased by her classmates at school for her robotic demeanour, she has few friends and lives alone with her 'grandfather', a noted robotics engineer. Her life is thrown into turmoil when he dies, leaving behind a message which tells her she can become a genuine human being if only she can make 30,000 friends before her power supplies run out. And so she sets off directly for Tokyo, where there are enough people to take a stab at this imperative.
Viz has made this series available across 3 separate DVD releases. The first 13 episodes of the show are standard TV length (just under half an hour each), and the first 7 of these are included on the Awakening (Volume 1) disc. I'll be reviewing the other two Key the Metal Idol titles over the coming days, so I hope to be able to give you a good overview of the entire series here.
The episodes on this first DVD do an excellent job of introducing the viewer to Key's universe. Almost every recurring character is established and fleshed out early on. All of the absolutely essential backstory is provided. (Although, granted, not any more than that – it's very obvious that the author is afraid to give away too much less he undermine the very mysteries he's setting into motion.) And a number of plot threads kick into action right away, each one focusing on either Key herself or her arch-nemesis in the form of Ajo Heavy Industries.
The creators have succeeded in structuring the show so that it flows well and the pace, albeit quite slow, remains fairly consistent throughout all seven episodes. This allows the story to develop its own quiet rhythm, punctuated only by the slightly-artificial 'mini-cliffhanger' endings the author apparently felt were necessary to encourage the audience to come back for more.
As you might imagine, an innocent like Key gets into trouble pretty much the moment she arrives in Tokyo. Aimlessly wandering the streets, she's picked up by a 'photographer' for a 'model agency'... whose main line of business actually seems to be making adult videos. Luckily for her, she's rescued by a chance encounter with a childhood friend of hers, Sakura – who holds down three different part-time jobs but hasn't really decided what she wants to do with her life yet.
2: 'Cursor I'
As Key settles in as Sakura's temporary houseguest, we get to see a bit more of the other lead characters in action. There's Sakura's friend Shuichi, fan club president for the famous pop idol Miho Utsuse... who herself seems somehow connected to Jinsaku Ajo, the megalomaniac CEO of Ajo Heavy Industries. Also lurking in the background is Tomoyo, Dr. Mima's old lab assistant, who has followed Key to Tokyo in order to keep an eye on her.
3: 'Cursor II'
Key begins to fixate upon the idea of becoming a pop idol herself as the surest way to making 30,000 friends. In the meantime, Ajo's team are trying to determine whether she might be where Dr. Mima cached his last technological secrets before dying. When Key's presence (care of Shuichi) disrupts Miho Utsuse's latest concert, the company sends out two PPORs to hunt Key down, remotely controlled by a dangerous operative known only as 'D'.
As if to confirm earlier hints that Key possesses a phenomenal power whose exact nature is hidden even from herself, this episode sees her disabling both PPORs and rescuing their secondary target from certain death. However, this display is witnessed by hundreds of passers-by... including Prince Snake-Eye, a spiritual leader who sees in Key a way to revitalise the faith of his cult followers.
5: 'Scroll I'
We begin to learn more of just what Ajo and his cronies are up to, and Sakura and Shuichi have a long chat about Key and what must have happened to her when she was young to make her believe she's a robot. Prince Snake-Eye manages to catch Key off-guard and tries selling her on religion as the true path to making the 30,000 friends she needs.
6: 'Scroll II'
Prince Snake-Eye convinces Key to come to his temple. The child of two of his followers is deathly ill, but their faith precludes medical intervention... so he hopes that Key can cure the boy with her 'supernatural' powers. However, Ajo's lead soldier 'D' has finally tracked Key down, and a confrontation between him, Tomoyo, and Prince Snake-Eye ensues.
Yes, it's the conclusion to the first 'big showdown' episode, and as such works very well as the final episode on this disc. I don't want to spoil anything, so let's just say that the end of this instalment finds all of the involved parties regrouping and deciding what their next moves will be.
The picture quality on this disc is good without being great. Perhaps I unfairly raised my expectations when I learned this show was originally made in 1997, but for something produced so (relatively) recently, one would have thought the video masters would have been in near-pristine condition. They aren't... there's subtle graininess visible in the early episodes, and throughout the show there seems to be some inconsistency in that most of the video will be fine and then suddenly you'll get a scene that comes across as really soft.
A similar statement can be made regarding the actual animation itself: it's perfectly acceptable and looks nice enough, but it's clear that absolutely no risks were taken... most scenes are rather bland and understated, and the style itself seems dated, like something you'd expect out of late-80s/early-90s animé. There's the very occasional bit of macroblocking in the background and random pixelation crops up now and then, but nothing major. (In fact, considering that Viz managed to fit 210 minutes of video on this dual-layer disc, they've done a superb job pegging the bitrate just right.)
I did really like the character designs for this show. Both Key herself and Sakura are interesting to look at, and since the story spends a lot of time on what each of them is doing, this is really important. Tomoyo and 'D' are also pretty cool, particularly when they get a chance to interact with one another. The rest of the leads become progressively more standard, until you get to Ajo and his unscrupulous scientists, who are super-stereotypical.
The subtitles are OK – a nice readable yellow – but there seemed to be at least one glaring typo per episode. Par for the course, I suppose, but one that really shouldn't have slipped by the proofreaders is the title page of episode 6, which proudly reads: 'Ver. 6: Scrol II'. Ah, well.
I guess in all fairness I'd have to say the show looks fine, but you have the nagging feeling that it could look a lot better. The image quality simply isn't up to the standards of DVD reference material like, say, Serial Experiments: Lain, whose production values were visibly higher.
The sound on this DVD is definitely a step up from the video. Due to the sheer number of episodes I had to watch, I decided to only listen to the original Japanese track all the way through and then spot-check the English version. That said, from what I heard, the audio quality is very good indeed. From the few brief direct comparisons I did, the Japanese track seems to be slightly louder and maybe even a bit richer than its English counterpart.
Both versions use stereo separation to good effect whenever possible, but as this show has many more talking scenes than action scenes, you may find there's not as much left-to-right fun as you might like. However, the people who designed the DVD tried to make up for this by incorporating cool stereo effects on the menu transitions, which I liked.
One real standout for Key the Metal Idol has got to be its wonderful music (both thematic and incidental). From the moment the main menu loads and the clockwork rhythm kicks in, you know you're in for a treat. Both the opening and closing songs for the show are absolutely lovely, although the former is my favourite. Most of the time when I watch animé, I think the theme songs are kind of catchy but would get old after a while. Not so with the music here, which is so evocative that even though I don't understand the Japanese I feel I could happily listen to it whenever.
In case you're wondering, no translated – or even transliterated – lyrics are provided for either of the songs. This seems a conspicuous omission considering that I've watched a number of other Viz properties where they've been included in the form of subtitles. Anyway, perhaps this was a conscious decision, as the company made the interesting choice of re-recording both theme songs in English as well. Although these are beautifully executed and have the same haunting feel as the Japanese originals, they appear to have been translated word-for-word into English... which makes for some pretty nonsensical lyrics, and leaves you to wonder whether it was all worth the effort on their part.
While we're speaking of differences between the Japanese and English versions, a few quick words about the dub: it's not bad. I think the voice actors who play Key and Sakura in the English version do a respectable job, though I'm less sanguine about some of the choices for the male characters. A bigger problem, really, is the translation for the dub script, which seems to suffer from the same problem as many... a desperate attempt at Westernisation. The end result is that a lot of the subtleties in the Japanese dialogue get ditched and a lot more random cursing is inserted at the usual points (e.g., fight scenes). Again, it's not bad... but I prefer the Japanese track and the more-faithful subtitles.
All around nice menus on this disc. The DVD authoring department took the whole 'robot/android' motif and simply ran with it. The animated main menu pans, fades, and wipes its way through a mechanical background overlaid with a nice image of Key herself. In the background, there's a looping 30-second sample of the intro to the opening theme song. Sub-menus available from here include 'Set Up', 'Jump to an Episode', 'Extras', and 'Viz'... each with a superb 'guillotine' transition that whooshes you on to the next set of options.
Although the 'Set Up', 'Extras', and 'Viz' menus are all composed of static pages, the 'Jump to an Episode' section is also nicely animated, the first screen offering a choice of the seven episodes on the disc while another 30-second loop from Key's 'lullaby' song plays behind it. Selecting any of these brings you to another screen with five animated chapter breaks leading to the various parts of each episode (including useful hop-off points like 'intro' and 'next episode').
'Set Up' is basic and functional, with toggle options for language (Japanese or English) and subtitles (on or off). 'Extras' and 'Viz' are both packed quite full of selections, so I'll cover them in the next section.
Menu access times throughout the disc are nice and fast, despite all of the cool transition effects and sounds, so between that and the consistent, stylish theme, I'd say we have a winner. Shame the looping theme music clips couldn't have been just a bit longer, but I suppose there's a limit to what would comfortably fit.
OK, first let's get the pseudo-extras out of the way. That would be anything under the 'Viz' menu... and trust me, there's a lot of stuff here. The layout is a bit clunky though, as the first thing you're presented with is a choice between 'Pokémon' and 'More Viz Products', even though the former only takes up one static page while there's a whole tree of pages under the latter, including 'Websites', 'Comics', 'Magazines', 'Graphic Novels', 'Merchandise', 'Music', 'Shop by Mail', and 'Video'. That last option is the one with the most content, as you can watch any of 16 different minute-long trailers for other Viz titles, which is fairly entertaining. I'm surprised, however, that they didn't do something similar under the 'Music' section, with, say, 30-second audio samples of songs from some of the CDs they're selling.
Anyway, on to the real (read: Key the Metal Idol related) special features. First off, there's an 'Interview with Director' and a 'Frequently Asked Questions'. These are really one and the same, as the briefest inspection shows them to both be segments of the same interview with Hiroaki Sato, published originally in Animerica (vol. 5, no. 2). There's nine pages of content in total, and Sato makes pains not to let slip with any spoilers, so you won't ruin your enjoyment of the show if you want to read through these first. Although the material is fairly interesting, one drawback is that the interview text isn't all that big and is presented against background pictures which make it difficult to read.
Next off is the 'Character Information' section, which is both helpful and aesthetically-pleasing. Included are profiles of six of the lead characters from Key the Metal Idol. One only wishes there were a few more characters represented, but it's a nice touch all the same. There's also the obligatory 'Conceptual Art' gallery, containing 43 stills. Some of these images are quite nice, but it's really hard to make out any detail because this is another of those 'framed' galleries where the stills only occupy one-quarter of the overall screen space.
Finally, there are the 'Voice Credits' and 'DVD Credits', the former taking up two pages and commendably listing the Japanese voice actors before their English counterparts. All in all, not a bad set of extras.
There's good value to be had with this first Key the Metal Idol DVD. Not only do you get an unusually-generous 210 minutes of video, but the seven episodes this represents form a satisfying story arc with a 'breather' at the end. Which is to say, when you finish them you'll probably be keen to know what will happen in episode 8, but you won't feel tortured if you can't get your hands on the next disc right away. Whether or not the show's slow pace will rattle you is another matter and depends more on personal preferences.
That said, there's quite a bit going on in this show, and not all of it makes any particular sense. As I've stated earlier, I believe this is deliberate obfuscation on the part of the author, and I suspect (and hope!) all will be revealed by the conclusion of the series. It does feel as though he wants the viewer to carry on guessing, and it's a lot of fun to oblige him. I think the most intriguing facet of this guessing game is the question, 'Is Key really a robot?' Although not necessarily of the same calibre as 'Is Deckard a replicant?' (Blade Runner), it possesses a similar mystique.
She thinks she is. Her 'grandfather' said she was. Ajo Heavy Industries certainly seems interested in her 'technology'. But everyone else seems to think she's just a lonely kid suffering from delusions of robothood. Fortunately this is just the first among several interesting puzzles posed by the show, so it's hardly a one-trick pony. I'll let you know how I get on with the next title in the series, Dreaming (Volume 2).