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From the earliest days of my anime fandom, I’d known about Key The Metal Idol. It wasn’t super popular, but its fans were ardent and fairly persuasive. Despite knowing several of these fans and being “around” Key discussion on message boards, I didn’t really have a firm grasp on just what this show actually was until I started watching it for the first time…this week. Though I was familiar with back-of-the-box summation “Key is a robot whose creator tells her she can become human if she makes 30,000 friends,” that knowledge didn’t prepare me at all for the Key experience. The first three episodes of this show are fairly remarkable in their exemplary direction and highly specific, well-conveyed tone.
Hiroaki Sato writes and directs these episodes (referred to by the series as Versions), though he of course has the help of episode directors Kazunori Mizuno, Masashi Abe and Nobuhiro Kondo respectively. Sato must have clearly communicated his goals because the direction feels incredibly cohesive across all three episodes. And, it’s a style of direction that demands your full attention. Quick cuts abound, particularly in the first episode. I believe this technique is meant to simulate the sensations of Key’s mind attempting to get a grip on what’s happening in a world that won’t slow down and allow her to understand it. It’s all rushing by too quickly.
The show slips in and out of present reality into both flashbacks and dreams, without going out of its way to point these shifts out to the viewer. However, there is a loosely coherent nature to the transitions that keeps them from feeling completely random. A passing shower on Key’s way home triggers her primary school memories of drinking water in front of her classmates to prove she wouldn’t rust. Someone grabs Key’s hand to guide her away from danger, and this surfaces a memory that begins with clasped hands letting go. Key and her friend Sakura were parting at the train station, again during primary school. There is usually a thread to make sense of the hopping around.
At times, though, the association is unclear because the memory (if it’s even a memory…I’ve not dismissed the notion these are implanted) is so vague, and the audience doesn’t have all the necessary information to understand it. I’m not too worried, though. Because of the show’s confidence in its storytelling and its smart construction so far, I trust that all these things will fit together in time.
No discussion of these episodes is complete without mentioning their final scenes. I don’t think I’ve seen another anime that intentionally places its best moments right at the end of its episodes in the way the Key does. Episode1 two, in particular, seared its final scene into my brain. It’s very late, and Key is watching TV. She has headphones on so that the noise won’t wake Sakura. The headphones mute the noise for viewers too, but, given the visuals onscreen, we don’t need to hear anything. Key is transfixed by a Miho concert\, the same idol singer she whose music videos captured her attention in the video store earlier that evening. As the young robot girl watches, something happens inside of her that’s difficult to describe. Key longs to be one with the music. She slowly moves from a sitting position to begin crawling toward the television. An ominous melody begins to gradually rise in volume for the audience. Key reaches her hand out for the screen, the music is full volume, and– Credits.
The conscious decision to place some of the most sneakily tense, emotionally impactful scenes in the lead-up to the credits differentiates the experience of watching Key, especially when coupled with the stylistic techniques outlined above. The show has a rhythm and flow all its own. Above I say that the show requires your focus, but this is not to say that it’s difficult or a chore to focus on it. On the contrary, its idiosyncratic rhythms make Key1111 magnetic. It’s much harder to stop watching it than to start.
For anyone missing their 90s tech, this show will push that nostalgia button. Boxy CRTs and big headphones are commonplace. Music videos blare J-pop through video stores whose shelves are lined with VHS tapes. But, Key‘s got more than just actual consumer technology of days gone by; it trades in an aesthetic soaked in future-tech as envisioned twenty-five years ago. Detailed schematics of elaborately constructed computers and lovingly drawn robots abound in these episodes. Hulking battle bots are controlled by a person sitting in a body-sized unit that is itself plugged into two huge computers in the back of a van. Some viewers will be comfortable not even engaging with the story and its mysteries, opting instead to simply let an authentic and representative iteration of this milieu wash over them.
Key‘s direction and aesthetic contribute heavily but not comprehensively to its most palpable element, its tone. There’s often something specifically melancholic about cyberpunk stories in that, even when bad things aren’t happening and characters are doing what they please, the world wants to plunge itself totally into the digital, the virtual. Humanity is depicted as being in the process of disconnecting from itself, and there’s something sad about that. But in Key we have a robot, a piece of technology, that is actively trying to connect with others, to engage with them on a personal level. This helps the show avoid feeling too despairing, despite the presence of some pretty horrible people.
There’s so much more to the tone than I have space to unpack. Honestly, there’s a kind of eerie, mystical feeling about Key that I didn’t expect. Key is a rather sombre character, and if another character isn’t directly addressing her, she is silent. Actiony moments or scenes with lots of dialogue are often surrounded by scenes without either. As previously mentioned, these scenes transition between dream, flashback and present reality, and this weaving in and out of chronology and reality imbues the whole affair with an ethereal quality.
But, more than any directorial technique, it’s Key herself who drives the mystique. In shot after striking shot, the robot levels her unwavering gaze upon a world that won’t give her easy answers. At times she seems insightful enough to see through schemes, then at others she naively interprets expressions very literally. What exactly is the catalyst for her emotional outbursts, and why do they change the color of her hair? She is simultaneously the protagonist and the obstacle to be overcome. The lock and the…well, you get it.
The first three episodes of Key are addicting, electric, quite honestly haunting. It’s really impressive that the creatives can balance telling an engaging story with conveying a distinct mood. Often, anime projects sacrifice one for the other. I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s there to analyze and ponder, but hopefully I can loop in the things I left out of this column into the next one as things expand/progress. This is as evocative an anime as I’ve seen in quite some time.