Key is a spooky, soft-spoken fifteen-year-old who lives with her "grandfather". She's also an android, although no one believes her when she tells them that. She's been inhabiting a succession of robotic bodies built by her grandfather, a robotics expert called Dr Mima, in an attempt to mimic the natural effects of ageing. One day bad people come for him. His dying message to Key is that she can become human if she makes 30,000 friends.
Unfortunately making friends has never been Key's forte. Extrapolating from her current rate of progress, 30,000 times "never" equals a bloody long time. After thinking about it for a while, she sets off for the big city to become a pop star (or "idol" as they're known in Japan). After that, things get weird.
This series is definitely an odd one. To be honest I don't find it well written, but its strange construction gives it an edgy unpredictability. The online reviews were confusing, leaving me intrigued but unsure what to expect. After watching the first episode I still hadn't a clue what kind of story I was watching, but I was definitely interested in finding out.
It's hard to describe, like the violent collision of three or four completely different genres into a single dark, slightly exploitative but ambitious vision. It rips off The Terminator and Blade Runner while remaining entirely its own skewed creation. Evil businessmen are selling robots in illegal arms deals. These robots later show up for real, punching one guy so hard that his brains become a twenty-foot smear down an alleyway, while another of their victims goes through a brick wall which then falls and crushes him. Sleazy criminals are kidnapping girls to make porn. We meet strange robotics geniuses and even, wonder of wonders, a girl with a part-time job.
And in the middle of all this is Key, the eponymous Metal Idol. She thinks she's a robot and that her creator ("ojiichan") has promised that she'll become human if she makes 30,000 true friends who'll cry for her. A robot with a Pinocchio complex. Right. We have no idea whether or not she's delusional, but Key dutifully sets off for Tokyo in search of those 30,000 friends. She's an odd one, with the animators going out of their way to stress her alienness. She has spooky violet eyes, scary hair and sometimes insect-like movements. She's an intriguing lead character in her own autistic way, but there's no attempt to make her cute like Hand Maid May or Chobits. Quite the opposite, in fact.
These disparate story elements don't so much blend as collide. The story mixes them up randomly, keeping you off-balance even with its cliffhangers. Instead of ending on the usual dramatic moments, this show loves to stop on offbeat character moments where it almost feels wrong to run the closing titles. It wrongfoots you. There's something dreamlike about this show, despite its nudity and brutal violence. Oh, and you'll never guess who lives and who dies either.
It's quite an experience, but at times I got the sense that the author had lost control of his story. Even its release schedule was unconventional, being an OVA series that was released in four "programs" over 1994-97. Most of the episodes are 25 minutes long, but parts fourteen and fifteen are movie-length: 95 minutes each. They wouldn't work split into four standard-length episodes. The show's complete running time is that of a twenty-part series, but in some ways it's more like a single long film than an episodic series. Frankly it might be better at half the length. Even the characterisation isn't great, despite some powerful backstory in episode 14. Everyone except Key feels slightly second-hand, albeit stolen from completely unrelated genres and thrown together as if in a comics crossover.
This show takes itself seriously, avoiding the likes of super-deformation and comedy reaction shots. It's also very much of its time, with an eighties aesthetic and a hangover of seventies exploitation. It's far from being bad, but I'd call it more strange than good. However this very strangeness has an edgy feel that you won't find in other shows, even outstandingly strong ones. I don't know if I'll ever rewatch it, but in many ways it's fascinating.