Polymar! He will save us!!

Back in the mid 90s, auteur anime director Shinbou Akiyuki was cutting his directorial teeth on a bunch of short OVAs. I’ve seen a couple of these, and while they’re not great, they’re an interesting look into Shinbou’s style, and how it’s developed. One of these OVAs was Shin Hurricane Polymar: a part of Tatsunoko’s push to re-brand their old 1970s super hero properties as edgy adult works. I watched this show three years ago on a VHS that I bought on Ebay for ten dollars, and my response to the work back then more or less amounted to a giant scoff. I’ve sense outgrown my childish desire to be a cynic at every turn, and upon watching the Japanese DVD release of Polymar (picked up at NYC BookOff for one dollar) I appreciate it a lot more. That said, part of it has to do with the fact that I don’t understand most of the expositional dialogue.

In the dead of night, a laboratory is attacked by a band of men in fish suits who call themselves the Plutos. After killing off the two top researchers, the Plutos make off with the fruits of the lab’s labor: a prototype for something called the Polyhelmet. Cut to the next day, and goofy red-haired protagonist Takeshi receives a mysterious package in the mail. Turns out one of the top researchers at that lab was an old schoolmate, and as a precaution mailed the real-deal Polyhelmet to Takeshi. Upon learning of his schoolmate’s death from Kuruma Joe (the third-rate detective he works under), along with having his brain inundated with information from the Polyhelmet, Takeshi realizes something fishy is going on.

Takeshi and his boss figure out the Pluto’s next hit, and Joe insists on being there in an attempt to show off his stuff as a detective, so Takeshi tags along with the helmet in tow. Once Takeshi’s wannabe detective boss is humorously taken care of, Takeshi’s helmet transforms him into Hurricane Polymar. Takeshi now has the power to stop the Plutos from executing their plan to eradicate all of the ten billion humans sucking up the Earth’s resources in order make way for their ideal ocean covered, Pluto ruled world.

While I realize I said something about Tatsunoko’s remakes being “edgy adult works”, that really doesn’t apply to Polymar at all. I don’t know how Casshern or Gatchaman turned out, but Polymar is incredibly silly, even when it’s being serious. A good half of each of the the two episodes focuses around the antics of Takeshi, Joe, and Teru (their landlady) who constantly badgers them for rent on their old, broken down house-turned-detective-agency.

Aside from the anime-style arguing between the tenants and the landlady, the humor in Polymar is primarily slapstick. Much in the same way that wash pans fall on characters’ heads in Tsukuyomi, characters fall through the floor of the deteriorating building, straight into the body of water it’s situated over, right when they need to. It doesn’t have same clever timing or rhythm that Tsukuyomi has, but it inspires chuckles. In true Shinbou style, no two falls are the same, and each time he tries to extract the maximum amount of humor out of the situation, despite essentially using the same joke repeatedly. Sometimes Joe is granted a short soliloquy to a still of his screaming face mid-fall (with inverted colors, naturally), others he’s allowed to hold on to the edge whilst negotiating with Teru, until she kicks him down out of anger. It’s not genius stuff, but it’s kind of funny.

The serious part of Polymar is straight faced super hero stuff. Rather than give characters complicated motivations or come up with some sort of gritty story, Polymar is surprisingly true to simplistic, old fashioned super hero tropes. Villains come up with ridiculously illogical plans while the hero proudly delivers a speech before deposing with the bad guys. Also, in both episodes, there is a scene where Polymar fights to the backing of the show’s theme song.  The degree to which Polymar’s script is faithful to old super hero conventions does give the show an undeniable charm, but I appreciated having some of the sillier bits of exposition fly over my head watching it in raw Japanese. It also clashes with the show’s dark and serious aesthetic, until you realize that you’re watching a guy in a red jumpsuit beat up other guys in fish suits. Polymar doesn’t resolve anything by the end of its two episodes. The Plutos are never completely taken care of, and plot threads are left hanging. If you haven’t guessed already, you don’t watch this for its story.

As far as visuals go, Hurricane Polymar isn’t as deep in the Shinbou aesthetic as The Soultaker is, but it has some distinctive areas. While the more lighthearted sections of the show more or less look like a normal anime, some of Shinbou’s visual trademarks work their way in. In one scene, all of the action is forced into the top half of the screen, only until Joe falls through another hole, at which point his whole body takes up the bottom portion of the screen as he holds on for dear life. Seeing all the elements of the joke laid out simply and straightforwardly before your eyes only makes the situation more hilarious and ridiculous. In another scene, one of Joe’s speeches is matched to some signature Shinbo colored lighting, adding an extra layer of seriousness to something that is completely goofy, making it more funny.

The opening scenes of both episodes are probably the most interesting in the show: Episode one opens with a dark and beautiful purple color scheme as the Plutos attack the laboratory, and episode two opts to use green during another Pluto attack. In both cases shadows are either very dark, or completely black. This use of color and lighting gives these scenes a district sense of drama, tension, and excitement that open both episodes up quite well. Another great scene is a montage where the Polyhelmet shoots Takeshi’s brain full of information–black and white images, numbers, schematics, and text flash in quick succession to a close up of Takeshi as he freaks out.

Most of the other serious scenes happen at night, and while there’s not much in the way of crazy colors, there’s still distinct contrast in the visuals by way of a bloom filter that makes all the whites on screen glow brilliantly, as well as the use of high value colors contrasted against dark shadows. Certain shots have characters bathed in intense lighting effects, and Shinbou even tries to use lens flares here and there to varying degrees of success. While this type of aesthetic is hardly unique for the time, it persists in Shinbou’s later works, like Tsukuyomi and Cossette.

Shinbou’s over-the-top sense of framing and design worms its way in at certain points. Episode one’s opening scene is a host to a handful of Shinbou’s visual fetishes, running the gamut from extreme low angle shots, fish-eye lenses, objects in the foreground, characters reflected in objects, and canted angles. In addition for being used for laughs, the show’s broken down building motif in particular is cleverly used in framing shots. Characters will yell through holes in the ceilings down to the floors bellow, and a shower scene is shot from far away, with the action framed around a destroyed wall. Bakemonogatari has a shot that is somewhat similar in framing, but not so much in setting.

There’s also a good–and at times exaggerated–sense of depth and space in areas: Security gates come down during one of the Plutos’ attacks, and a scientist is framed from behind two layers of these gates–an otherwise simple shot, but the layering of the gates creates a visually arresting sense of depth. In another scene, the camera pans down from the main bad guy to Polymar, but the pan covers a large amount of visual information (machinery and pipes–they’re in a laboratory, as usual) in a short amount of time, which creates a profound sense of distance and space.

There are also scenes with a large amount of camera movement and frame manipulation. The camera will pan over scenery quickly, zoom in quickly, lighting will flash, and the scene is set. A scene will move out of the frame from one end into a spot of pitch blackness for a few seconds, with the next scene sliding in from the opposite side of the frame seamlessly. Polymar gives his speech on justice, followed by a Pluto’s face moving onto the fame right on top of Polymar, transitioning to the next cut. Visuals will at times be squished into certain corners of the frame for a split second to catch the viewer off guard. These sorts of techniques don’t find their way into many of Shinbou’s later works (perhaps because they can be perceived as a bit gimmicky) but you can see similar things in Tenamonya Voyagers and Yamamoto Yohko. I was taken aback by these sorts of things when initially sampling Shinbou’s older work, but I’ve come to like them, and they work in something as silly and over-the-top as Polymar.

Umetsu Yasuomi covers character design, which I believe he did for all of these Tatsunoko remakes. His designs are probably the weakest visual link in Polymar, mostly because they’re incredibly dated. Takeshi, Joe and Teru look as if they’re half decked out in circus outfits. It’s deep in the 90s, and it just looks silly. Thankfully a good half of the show is devoted to guys in cool super hero and super villain outfits fighting each other, so it’s not much of an issue. The animation itself is extremely technically proficient–there’s not one scene that looks off, and there’s multiple instances of multi-tone shading, and airbrushing.

The background music is composed by the same person who composed the music for the original 1970s series, and it mostly consists of triumphant horns and generic guitar rock. Slower scenes are matched to smokey jazz, while comedic scenes hilariously get wonderfully posh sounding string compositions. The music is never offensive, and a lot of tracks are quite good. I’m not sure if they ever released a soundtrack, unfortunately.

On the subject of releases, this OVA only had one in the US: on VHS from Urban Vision. As mentioned earlier, the Japanese DVD can be found for cheap at used goods stores like BookOff or Mandarake. But for most US buyers, those aren’t an option. To that end, I’ve ripped the Japanese DVD, and set it loose upon the internet.

I will first and foremost recommend Polymar to serious Shinbou fans, and secondly to anyone who wants a decent actioner. Even when not doused in Shinbou’s aesthetic, high production values result in a couple of fluid, brutal, and entertaining fight scenes. The humor may put off people just interested in a straight action piece, so skipping straight to the fights may be a good course of action. But for Shinbou fans, something like Polymar isn’t essential viewing, but it’s interesting. His style really blossoms in certain areas, and it nicely encompasses how he works both as a comedian and as a serious director.

2 thoughts on “Polymar! He will save us!!

  1. Interesting. I am becoming a fan of Shinbou and did not know his career went that far back. Thanks for the link and review.

    1. Yup! He’s been in the industry since the 80s! He was an animator on Urusei Yatsura, and he did a lot of directing on episodes of Yuu Yuu Hakusho. There’s one particular episode of Yuu Yuu that’s him all the way, but I forget which one at the moment… I think episode 75.

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