Key the metal idol
This title has a long history with me. I watched episodes 1-14 years ago, but without the conclusion just didn't feel I could write a fair review. Thanks to Aarsen A., after an embarrassingly long delay on my part, I can now complete it... but it's not going to be an easy review to write.
Meet Key, whose certainly up there in the running for weirdest anime girl ever. She's waif-like, grey haired and without energy or expression. This is not surprising because Key is quite willing to explain, in a dull monotone, that she's a robot. Her only defence being that she is "well constructed". Her grand-father is, although I should say was as the show opens with his untimely death, a brilliant robotics researcher so no one is really sure what Key is... apart from being exceptionally odd. His death leaves Key completely alone in the world.
Key has been left with a goal however. Her grandfather, in a tape recorded message, has apologized that he has failed to make her human. He is saddened that in short order she will break down. However he offers one slender hope, if she can make 30,000 friends, the energy of their feelings will make her human. It seems improbable, insane even, but Key sees no option but to try. But what can a robot, bereft of any perceptible resources or talents, do to find that many people? Meanwhile, in the shadows, another group of people who see within robotics power to be seized are bringing their own plans to fruition. Plans in which, unknowingly, the existence of Key will set off a chain reaction of events.
That synopsis is not entirely fair. While it does focus on Key, who is the title character of this anime, it doesn't fully suggest how deep and involved the `other' story is. Which, considering how much time we spend on it and how many other characters are involved, is somewhat misleading. On the other hand I don't want to spoil that story because it's sort of cool. So let me basically say that a couple of really scary individuals are also working on robotics, and they'll stop at nothing to achieve their goals. They're intense, they're diabolical and they're twisted.... there's some good drama in there.
And indeed the show has a talent for this. There are quite a number of characters who get involved in Key's quest, on both sides of the story, and many of them are quite interesting. Each of them has goals, has secret strengths and weaknesses, and is capable of projecting fairly intense emotions at the viewer. This is some pretty heavy, and quite talky, drama with a fair few moments that are psychologically heavy. Quite a few characters are living on the edge of madness, and a couple of others see humans as nothing more than raw resources, and the show is quite willing to let this side out. If you can't handle this, or were expecting cute anime robo-babe, then it's probably best to start running from this title now.
Part of the reason I took so long to review this title is because I found it rather unpleasant the first time. And thus wasn't in a hurry to re-watch it. It's just so bereft of positivism, Key's quest seems so hopeless, and some of the characters had serious issues. It's all a little gloomy and depressing. But having developed callouses on my sensitivity I can handle it now, and as such got caught up in the central story.
And the essence of this story is, really, what is Key and what is going to happen to her. Is she a human who thinks she's a robot, and what could have made her that way. Is she a robot who can possibly actually become human. For that matter what's actually going to happen if she does get 30,000 people to be her friends. And the show relentlessly teases us with this, Key showing flashes of a hidden power, being shown elements of her rather grim family history, to let us know that there are secrets hidden away within her. Sure, there's lots of other stories, some of which have secrets of their own, but they're either simpler or less central than the question of just what Key is.
And as such this series, which is at times slow moving and extremely talky, will live or die on the conclusion. The building of pressure, of putting the pieces of the puzzle together, finally coming together in an event that makes everything become clear. Suddenly revealing the whole picture of which we'd only seen parts and echoes before. Sadly I have to say, having finished the last episode (the last two are each 90 minutes long), I was ultimately disappointed. The last episode was, in all honesty, a bit of a mess. Lots of story threads ended, often suddenly, but rarely well. The final events seemed illogical and not particularly well connected and the secret of key a lot less exciting than the one my imagination had been building for me. At some point in time I'd also disconnected from Key, I honestly didn't care any more.
I think the show lost me when another character exited the story, in what was frankly a rather unnecessary way. The character dying of a lack of (something) when a near infinite source of (something) is about a meter away? And unlike Key, who proved to basically have all sorts of powers and protections warding her, this other character had nothing but an unrealised dream... which Key basically reads off as an epitaph. Just yuck, and indicative of the generally sketchy and ill conceived way in which the entire story was wrapped up. It also felt that Key was following a scripted path, running on auto-pilot, which made her much less interesting as a character. If she'd grown through her own actions, without mystical gibberish and unlikely plot co-incidence, I would have cared more.
So while it does have it's moments, and a superb ability to generate dramatic intensity and powerful characters, the payoff just isn't there. Too much of the buildup leads to nothing and, really, the core plot itself is sort of stupid once revealed. And visually, urgh, what was the idea with the final scenes? Feel free to watch it, perhaps you will see the depths I missed, but I think a lot of people are going to feel sort of disappointed once the credits are rolling.
This show has a really cool opening, have to give it props for that. And the use of music, and the clever way in which it is staged and edited for dramatic effect, continue on in the production. It really does have excellent direction. The character design, apart from Key strangely enough, is quite good. They've tried to use her visual appearance to emphasise her odd behaviour, but it comes at a cost in character and visual appeal. The action, which is extremely rare, is actually quite good although the "guided rock salt slingshot" wins an award for the most impractical weapon ever presented in anime. There are indications of budget restrictions though, rather a lot of the movement is less than smooth. The dialog is excellent, backed up by some skilled voice acting (and singing), that always hints at hidden depths and will keep you watching. The music and sound are also good, and used really well to emphasise certain moods and events. This is really pretty solid production, a little bit dated and not particularly flashy, but well suited to the dramatic tale being presented.
Key is a young girl who knows she's a robot. She's also got a time limit, her dying grandfather telling her that without 30,000 friends to help her become human she is doomed to break down. It sounds a bit like the setting for a cute robo-babe story but this dark and often grim drama is anything but that. Ultimately the build up, while skilled, reaches a conclusion that indicates the writers had been flying blind and making it up as they go along for quite some time. Thus much of the patient development work just seems like a disappointing waste of time. The show is also quite slow moving, though it does have an excellent ability to present character drama.
Note that for this series I'm not going to be linking to any partial reviews. This series, in my humble opinion, can only be judged after all has been revealed.