If there is one particular thing that Kazuo Koike is known for in the United States, it is most likely his long running samurai historical-action manga Lone Wolf and Cub. Koike has written other manga as well, and all of them are pretty strange. Indeed most of the series he has written are the type of manga you read as a sort of guilty pleasure. Crying Freeman is that kind of title; it stars a ridiculously handsome super-assassin named Yo Hinomura and his perfect lover Emu Hino. The bulk of the series is Yo murdering rival gangs and secret societies, all the while being beautiful and having pornographic sex with the many women of the show.
Wait, wait, let’s rewind a bit. The story starts out as a young artist, Yo Hinomura, reports a murder, and ends up being kidnapped by a gang called the 108 Dragons. These Chinese gangsters use acupuncture and hypnosis to turn Yo into the perfect assassin. His nickname soon becomes “Crying Freeman” because after he kills, he is released from posthypnotic suggestion and weeps for the person he has just murdered. Emu Hino sees him murder someone, and expects to die because of it – instead, Freeman spares her and makes her his wife.
Later, the series devolves in to the weirdest, kinkiest gangs and secret societies doing battle with one another with Crying Freeman at the lead. He fights gangs made up of Vietnam veterans, strange-ass bear worshipers, an African terrorist group, and others. The stories are all interchangeable, because Freeman is perfect and unkillable. After the beginning of the series, you could read all of the volumes out of order and still maintain the same storytelling. Freeman gets involved in some conflict, it turns out someone is trying to destroy the 108 Dragons, he intervenes as its leader, has fabulous, hot, pornographic sex with some buxom beauty, and then murders a slew of bad guys who can’t hope to touch him.
What Crying Freeman could have been with a slightly different storytelling focus is not so clear, but what is absolutely clear is that this manga is like a giant fantasy. It’s machoism wank material, written in a completely chauvinist way. Defending the content as anything more than that would be a gross overstatement of its purpose and intent. But the manga itself is something of a strange creature, because even though there is all this murder and sex, the books are actually rather boring, likely due to the same repeating storyline.
The art of Crying Freeman is ridiculously complex and lifelike – The artist who illustrated Crying Freeman also illustrated another of Viz’s Pulp titles - Strain. It is the mix of absurdist story and hyperrealistic art that gives Crying Freeman a shot. Without the realistic art, this series would have floundered; it needs that weight to transmit its story.
If anyone that likes the idea of Crying Freeman enough to want to own it actually frequents this blog, I would be surprised – however, getting a copy of all 5 of Dark Horse‘s print run is not that hard. I picked up a set on eBay, and it took me the better part of 2 years to finally getting around to reading them. But now that I’ve finished the series, I can understand the appeal, especially in the 1990s where something like Crying Freeman could potentially do quite well in the direct comic market. You do have to understand what it is, and its major failings, which I have mentioned. You have to want to read the kind of story that Crying Freeman is telling. For me, that story isn’t worth keeping (or even worth reading, honestly). And for many, Crying Freeman is a relic of a male dominated manga market that has not held up well over time.
The current Dark Horse versions are out of print, but are easily accessible secondhand, either through Amazon or through eBay. This is not a comic I would give to strangers or young adults; it’s hardly a manga I would give to another comicbook reader. But there may be some that will enjoy the hyperrealistic violence and sex that is a major component of Crying Freeman. It’s just not my cup of tea.