Key the Metal Idol is a difficult anime series to classify, as it's not specifically a singular genre. The great quantity of robots present in the series qualifies it as science fiction, but there are echoes of the supernatural as well. The restless spirits of the dead linger in the peripheral vision of multiple characters, and telekinesis plays a major role in the plot. Even the entertainment industry's predatory fame factories get a righteous skewering over the course of the series, as do cults. Key the Metal Idol juggles these disparate genres with a mostly deft hand. There are missteps, as expected with something so ambitious, but Key is a series that, once experienced, persists in the memory, like a ghost.
Key the Metal Idol tells the story of Tokiko Mima, a pale, emotionless girl who is bullied by her classmates and called "Robot Key." Rather than standing up for herself, Key buys into their assessment of her. She fully believes that she is a robot created by her grandfather, a brilliant mechanical engineer and roboticist named Dr. Murao Mima. (The first gigantic clue that Things Are Not What They Seem is the question of why a robot's creator would call himself "grandfather" in the first place.)
Key lives alone with Dr. Mima in a tiny village far from Tokyo. One day Key receives some devastating news: her grandfather has died, and he's recorded a final message for his granddaughter. He claims that Key can become fully human if she befriends 30,000 people. Unable to find that many people in tiny Mamio Valley, Key decides to move to Tokyo, where millions of people in the big city are just waiting to become her friend. Friendship, in this case, means emotional support or empathy. Key must create an intense, personal, heart-to-heart connection with 30,000 people, and that will make her human.
Standing in her way is Jinsaku Ajo, the president of the gigantic multi-industrial corporation Ajo Heavy Industries. His company is developing bipedal robotic drones which can be deployed as soldiers while their operators control them remotely. The current technology places great strain on the remote operators, to the point where they can't control the robots after a set period of time. Ajo fully believes that the Mima family holds the "key" (you may groan now) to fixing this issue.
Key's adventures in Tokyo leave her and many of those around her transformed, but it's by no means a simple, happy, fairy-tale ending.
There will be spoilers for Key the Metal Idol in the rest of this article.
This is a man's world
Key's first supporter in her quest to become human is her childhood friend, Sakura Kuriyagawa. Sakura left their tiny village in middle school and now lives in Tokyo while working at a series of part-time jobs (video store clerk, traffic controller, pizza delivery person, etc.) which just pay the bills but don't offer any fulfillment. When Key suddenly shows up in Tokyo with a goal of making 30,000 friends, Sakura latches onto that idea as a way to give her own mediocre existence some meaning. She sets up Studio Key and becomes Key's agent, parading her around the modeling and acting agencies.
Sakura grows frustrated that she has to continuously deal with the leering men in charge of those agencies. All of them seeking the next pretty face, the next nice voice, the next hot body to turn into the next Big Thing. Men who are very eager to lord over female careers, over female lives. And then, when the Big Thing isn't quite so big anymore, it's men who will toss her away and search for the Next Next Big Thing.
This clash of the masculine vs. feminine lies at the very heart of the series. Key's destiny is controlled by men, specifically her grandfather. She embarks on her quest only because she trusts her grandfather's words. Sakura is the only other major female character in the entire series. There are other women, immensely famous pop idol Miho Utsuse for example, but none of them are a part of Key's inner social circle. Tomoyo Wakagi, Dr. Mima's assistant and Key's loyal bodyguard, is male, as is Shuichi Tataki, the president of Miho's official fan club and Production Key's link to the wider world of stardom. Shuichi deftly mansplains the pop idol industry to the inexperienced Sakura, and to add grievous injury to massive insult long-time loyal friend Sakura ends up dead, while Shuichi slots himself into a major heroic role. Sakura's own sacrifices are sidelined once her so-called best friend gains more power and fame, and only Shuichi is smart enough to navigate through it because of his knowledge about the pop idol industry and his many entertainment connections.
Seriously, though, old men are the worst
Besides Shuichi and Tomoyo, the other male characters are a group of older men who are desperately seeking relevance in a world that's about to pass them by. First off, there's the aforementioned Ajo. He's fascinated with automatons and robots of all stripes and is obsessed with creating robotic weapons, which is how he is drawn to Dr. Mima's research. Ajo is perhaps one of the most despicable anime villains in recent memory. He works his employees ragged, and, as the mastermind behind Miho's career, Ajo presses her to continue performing despite the massive toll it takes on her body. His obsession with robots borders on fetishism (he's shown wearing a robot face like a mask and fondles mannikins while pretending to be one and...ugh). When he meets his end (his head graphically crushed while he's strapped into one of his robot remote control systems) the scene is a moment of blessed yet disgusting release, like a pimple-popping video.
Prince Snake-Eye is a cult leader who encounters Key and tries to steer her away from the lascivious idol industry and into something with more morals: his own unpopular cult. He props himself up as the leader of the Church of the Golden Snake Savior, and he thinks that Key would do better with 30,000 loyal believers rather than 30,000 obsessed pop fans. In a bizarre way, he does seem to care for Key beyond her potential powers, but his support always has a sinister, greedy purpose. He wants to witness Key perform miracles, to prove to himself that such things actually exist in the world. This world of religion and absolute belief is depicted as just as heinous as the entertainment industry.
But the worst offender of this group of old men is Key's grandfather himself. A man of science and intellect, he dedicates his life to the development of fully autonomous robots. His research leads him to Mimio Valley to witness a ritual dance performed by a local shrine maiden. The young woman, Toyoko Mima, dances in perfect sync with a wooden puppet, and the puppet has no visible strings or wires. She's controlling the puppet telekinetically. More specifically, she's a conduit for the latent energy of the surrounding villagers. Basically, she's a psychic battery, absorbing energy from those around her and then presenting that power as telekinesis and ESP. Toyoko merely wants to entertain the villagers with her ability, but Key's grandfather, immediately smitten with the young shrine maiden, wishes to investigate her powers at an intense level. He thinks the potential of Toyoko's power is beneficial to his own robotics research so, he proposes.
No dating. No courtship. He just proposes and that's that. He even marries into the Mima family, taking up his wife's surname to show his dedication to her and her family. Because when you want to convince a woman to be your lab rat, you have to marry her first. Mima does appear to adore his wife, and yet he subjects her to all manner of experimentation. His research eventually discovers a pink, gelatinous substance called "geist." Toyoko dubs it a physical manifestation of that which contains her power.
Eventually, the pair has a daughter, and Dr. Mima discovers that the young Tomiko is even more powerful psychic than her mother. This power to absorb "geist" is coded as feminine, as only the Mima women have access to it. Tomiko eventually has a daughter herself, Tokiko, and again, the psychic power has increased from mother to daughter. It's possible that Tokiko is the most powerful psychic among the Mima women, and that terrifies Dr. Mima. To protect his granddaughter and to make sure no one else could control this power (Ajo uses "geist" to run his robots), Dr. Mima suppresses Tokiko's abilities by pumping her full of "geist" extracted from her mother. That amount of "geist" is worth 30,000 the amount of "geist" of a normal person. This explains why Key's friends tally is so specific. She needs 30,000 friends to break the lock that her mother's "geist" has placed on her.
Every single older male character in this anime fear female power, and they will go above and beyond to suppress it. They're also shown failing, time and time again. These older men, who all want to control Key in one way or another, founder in the midst of Key's unrelenting power.
The fame monster
Key the Metal Idol's depiction of the entertainment industry is scathing, but it's not all that surprising. Horror stories abound about abuse in J-pop and K-pop industries. In one infamous incident, a member of AKB48, a popular J-pop girl group, had to apologize to her fans after the paparazzi caught her with a boyfriend. Pop idols are expected to be "pure" and not have social lives (all the better for fans to fantasize about being with them). The entertainment industry is a machine, a factory just as efficient at creating a new product as is Ajo's robot conglomerate.
Miho Utsuse, top pop idol and the woman whom Key aspires to be, has her life controlled to the minute by Ajo, whose company also owns Miho's record company. Ajo uses Miho as another kind of guinea pig. He replaces the real Miho with a robotic double which the real Miho controls behind the scenes using the same control rig like the one which directs his robotic drone.
Miho has multiple concerts in the anime, and the figure on stage at all of these venues is a robot, an automaton, a drone. She's a creation of her managers, and, in a perverse echo of the Mima women's powers, is powered by the adoring screams of the thousands of fans surrounding her. The real Miho, pale and sickly, is pushed to direct her robot double until she collapses. When she does collapse, there's another girl in another rig waiting to take her place. Again, the fame factory and the robot factory mirror each other. The lengths to which entertainment folks will destroy their charges in order to appease fans are horrific, and the fans have no idea that it's happening.
Only human (after all)
Key's quest for humanity is really a quest to unlock her abilities. And she becomes human only after so many people have sacrificed themselves for her. Her grandfather, mother, and Sakura have all given up their lives so that Key might live That realization of love and loyalty and sacrifice and loss makes Key's first emotion as a "real girl" a torturous, prolonged bawling. She detests being human, and she detests knowing that people have died because of her. Being human equals suffering, and Key's final human lesson is to focus on the good among the woeful, just like every other human on this planet. The connections between others make us human, and the final shot of the anime is a fully-human Key visiting the real Miho in a hospital room. It's a fitting ending, a sort of bookend piece. Even if women have suffered unimaginable pain and loss, they can still rely on each other to pull themselves out of the darkness when no one else will.
It's a little puzzling why Key the Metal Idol isn't as well known as other classic anime from the '90s. It's as adept at commentating on existentialism as Evangelion and on post-humanism as Ghost in the Shell, two of its contemporaries. The fascinating visuals, compelling story, and even its great music mean that this experimental should be on one's watchlist.
Also, there are fun easter eggs for David Lynch fans: