Directors: Daisuke Nishio and Shigeyasu Yamauchi
Screenplay: Higashi Shimizu and Ryunosuke Ono
Based on the manga by Kazuo Koike and Ryoichi Ikegami
Voice Cast: Chiharu Kataishi (as Emu Hino); Toshio Furukawa (as Yo Hinomura/Crying Freeman); Dump Matsumoto (as Báiyá Shàn); Gara Takashima (as Nina Heaven); Kōhei Miyauchi (as Bǎiba Lóng); Masako Katsuki (as Kimie Hanada); Yoshiko Sakakibara (as Bagnag)
Viewed in Japanese with English Subtitles
Synopsis: Artist Emu Hino crosses paths with an assassin codenamed Crying Freeman by accident during one of his killings. Real name Yo Hinomura, Freeman is a former potter turned brainwashed member of a secret Chinese society of paid assassins, Hino rightly concerned that her is soon to end before her thirtieth birthday because of her interaction with him. However due to the love that blossoms between them on the night of her supposed death, Freeman not only spares her but begins a rollercoaster that includes leading the assassins' guild together and having to face every underworld criminal, lust crazed leader of mercenaries, ancient bear cults, fellow assassin guilds and wrestlers that wants to take their territory.
For a disclaimer, the only actual Kazuo Koike manga I've read is Color of Rage (2008), one of his obscurer titles. Koike however has had a LOT of his work adapted to anime and live action cinema to the point that in terms of context in adaptations, a significant picture of his style is found within them all, one of the most successful manga creators of his kind whose influence spans arguably beyond manga and anime as well, more surprising knowing he only writes his stories, leaving the illustrations to a variety of different collaborators over the decades. His storytelling has visibly influenced pop culture, from Frank Miller being influence by the Lone Wolf and Cub (1970-76) manga for his comics to Quentin Tarantino being influenced by the live action adaptation of Lady Snowblood (1972-3). That's not even taking account that his Gekiga Sonjuku program, which taught manga writers/artists like Fist of the North Star creator Tetsuo Hara, Vampire Hunter D writer Hideyuki Kikuchi and the legendary Rumiko Takahashi, which is nothing to laugh about in terms of the effect he brought to the medium.
The issue with Koike as a storytelling though, to found with this adaptation with Crying Freeman by Toei Animation, alongside other examples like the 1990-2 anime adaptation of Mad Bull 34, is that he is arguably an originator of a very extreme style of gekiga manga; gekiga, a more serious or explicit form of storytelling for adults in theme and content, in his hands leads to a form, from the issues of challenging deadlines and having to constantly make sure readers stay with a series, which pushes the limit of logic and good taste to a delirious level. In fact it actually pushes both off a cliff, which makes even the adaptations of his work a challenge for viewers who may be put off by the extreme content within something like Crying Freeman, or a challenge in how it can become utterly nonsensical if an attempt to rationalise it all is tried. This will be impossible to ignore with this adaptation of Crying Freeman over its six episodes, as much an OVA series which you have to overcome the problematic gender representations, nonsensical plot points and tasteless decisions as you can appreciate its mad illogic even if some of the stranger moments from the manga were likely removed.
Really the biggest issue in terms of good taste, where Crying Freeman does feel of its time, is in its portrayal of women, the one real issue I have with the series even in terms of an erotic crime narrative. It's because it leads to what is a frankly bland lead being the kind of figure whose only personality is how perfect he is and how any woman - daughter of a Triad leader, leader of an African assassination guild, even enemies - can fall in love with him and become part of what is affectively a harem in spite of only saying he loves main female character Hino. There's so much sex and nudity over six episodes that its actually possible for a viewer to feel numb if marathoned in how absurd it gets, female character designs objectified to the point either you find it distasteful or just absurd to an unintentional extent. Only the sexual violence the sets up the plot of episode 4, even if its slight in depiction, feels like the show steps too far, something that the episode is stuck with as its from the original source material. The rest, if disconnected from that one scene, feels like a mere bugbear or a farce in how hard it's trying to be; if you can get past the initial reaction to the gender politics, it does become comical, especially as there's no discrimination - between men and women of any age and size including a female character named Báiyá Shàn who is a enormously tall and large woman - suddenly taking their clothes off for sex, to fight or no rational reason in terms of plot in the slightest. In the same way, some of the more ridiculous moments are also too absurd to be offended by even when they're un-PC, the concept of full body blackface for one of the more bizarre examples coming off as less offensive but being so unexpected and something you'd thought to never see in an anime its silly as long as you bear in mind why it would be deemed in poor taste for other potential viewers, and that at the same time the same character than poses as a female golfer, the world of Koike more the result of being scatterbrained than deliberately provocative.
Crying Freeman is a cautious tightrope being stoic, serious action and being as dumb as a plank, and if there's a virtue in spite of its many flaws, it's that the OVA is at least unpredictable. The first episode, which was adapted into the entirety of Christophe Gans' 1995 live action film of the manga, is pretty conventional but from episode 2 on it starts waddling off in into the great absurd quickly, even in the first two sequel episodes being two short stories clipped together into one hour long one for added strangeness. Whilst the main character is the bland perfect hero, the real interest is all the strange plot machinations and characters around him, where the best form of revenge by a female lover of one of Freeman's targets is to dress in a skimpy, entirely metal corset that she can electrify people with upon contact. Where to take revenge on a wrestler who harms one of the women in his life, Freeman actually gets inside a wrestling ring in front of a crowd wearing a luchador mask, or that there's a female leader of a mercenary group called Nina Heaven who captures Freeman as her sex slave to dry hump when he refuses to cooperate with her obsession with him. Whilst Koike's more divisive work more feel too grimy and tasteless to approach, even in terms of the adaptations, there's as much this sense of utter randomness which negates the more tasteless material; it still needs to be brought to mind when experienced, but Crying Freeman the OVA as it goes along is so lost in its own train of logic, you give up the moral high ground or high ground of "quality" and attempt to survive at the end.
It's actually not the strangest material Koike would produce just from the adaptations - the live action Hanzo the Razor films are as extremely poor taste in premise as you can get, even more problematic in gender politics, yet strangely compelling especially as they're still high quality, artistically minded Japanese pulp cinema, whilst Mad Bull 34 has everything from the lead police anti-hero smuggling grenades in his trousers tied to his pubic hair and a Predator-like serial killer in the finale episode roaming New York City. (Even one of the more serious and critically acclaimed adaptations, the Lone Wolf and Cub films, get stranger in later sequels, not in terms of poor taste but plotlines which meander with odd tangents and ideas to how events weave together, soldiers suddenly springing from the snow like anime henchmen or the maddening tangent in one such sequel where the protagonists can only get the entirety of a piece of information from multiple messengers). Where one finds entertainment in Crying Freeman is knowing full well how absurd it is, even offensive, but viewing it with as absurd, its hyper masculinity impossible to take seriously and instead the heightened events within its gritty world standing out as more as pure fantasy, where Freeman naturally has his own submarine early in the series and that's considerably normal next to everything else that happens.
Also ironically, whilst there are action anime with less nonsensical qualities, Crying Freeman does have one legitimate virtue in its style in spite of its low budget; when an anime like Black Lagoon (2006) (reviewed on this blog as number #45) should be superior to this in every way, it yet suffers from feeling homogenised in style and tone whilst this scuzzy, scrappy OVA does have it in buckets even if it's gone off and tastes a little rancid. Baring a transition in look that helps the later episodes, an increase of shading and black in details, Crying Freeman for all its moments of roughness and inexplicable creative decisions nonetheless possesses the aesthetic tone that I find myself attracted to, one shared in late eighties and nineties anime even when scraping the bottom of the barrel. A lot of it is to do with how drastic the changes between hand drawn and computer assisted anime are in appearance, but it's as much how even cost cutting techniques like narration over still images are still a technical design choice even if for cost cutting measures. As much of this is the material too, both the dank underworld environments of metropolises and criminal hideouts, but also in terms of the realistic character designs right down to the elaborate tattoos - dragons, tigers, phoenixes - that many characters have on their bodies. In many ways, whilst it could've been a lot better written and less pointlessly tasteless, even some of the tackier aspects of Crying Freeman in their perverse, janky flair could add a lot to modern anime if honed and done as a purposely aesthetic choice. If something like Black Lagoon, which just missed out greatness for a lack of excitement at the end and feeling too clean in presentation, could marry Crying Freeman's style with aspects far better done in its modern equivalents, then everyone would win.