(6 52-minute OVA, 1988 to 1994)
My previous exposure :
I stumbled on the first three episodes while channel-surfing on late-night TV as a young’un (despite being somewhat under the advised age). It left quite an impression, to the point that I’m now revisiting it properly despite it being quite outside my advertised preferred time period. Oh, well.
What’s it about ?
The assassin codenamed Crying Freeman used to be an ordinary Japanese potter until he stumbled onto proof of the Chinese Mafia’s bad deeds, and was foolish enough to take them on. The organization (called “the 108 dragons”) in retaliation brainwashes him into the ultimate assassin, leaving him the only freedom of crying in despair after he kills someone. (The “Freeman” part is obviously ironic.) Years later, history repeats itself as a young woman called Emu stumbles onto one of his assassinations, and as a crucial witness becomes a hostage between the ambitions of the police, the 108 Dragons and the Japanese mafia. When Freeman goes and tries to assassinate her, she just has one wish : she doesn’t want to die a virgin…
At least, that’s the initial plot of the first OVA. You’d normally expect some standard “having sex breaks Freeman’s conditioning and he rebels against the 108 Dragons” plot… but that’s not what happens next at all. The 108 dragons are a surprisingly accepting bunch, see no problem in sparing Emu, and even promote the two of them to being the new leaders of the group at the beginning of Episode #2. To say that it’s a jarring change of gears is a grand understatement ; and it’s not for the better, as much of the ambiguity and tragedy of the original premise goes right out of the window as Freeman basically becomes a generic 90s antihero.
… Who likes to fight in the buff. Not only is it a very bloody series with tons of graphic violence, but there’s also a lot of nudity and it often veers into softcore porn. Not exactly the kind of stuff young!me was supposed to be watching at that age…
What did I think of it ?
There’s no two ways about it : it’s a trainwreck. But at least it’s an (unintentionally) hilarious one, so I didn’t mind spending a few hours revisiting it.
As stated above, it has the germs of an interesting (if somewhat well-troden) premise, but it then chooses to completely disregard it in favour of something much more bizarre. Shifting Freeman into a position of leadership is just a baffling move (especially since he’s a Japanese outsider in a Chinese organization), and it’s thus no surprise that one of the major leaders balks and betrays the 108 Dragons immediately. (Of course, the dude then allies with the Camora, who immediately backstabs him, but that’s the kind of things that happen.) Even more surprising is the introduction of Bayasan, the obese adult womanchild and black sheep of the 108 Dragons who tries to wrestle the organization’s control. She fails, obviously, but there’s something endearing about her incompetent enthusiasm. And she sticks around as comic relief, which contributes to make some of the latter episodes less boring (if not actually funny – this series can’t really do humour).
The most bizarre episode is probably the third, because of its weird pacing : at its heart, it tries to transition Emu into less of a damsel in distress, by giving her some training and having her pick up a magic evil sword… but then in the middle we get 35 minutes of Freeman fighting a random African crime syndicate (who tries to hijack a plane he just happened to be on), and in the process sleeping with two other women (one of whom permanently joins his harem). And it’s not even the most sexist episode (it’s a toss-up between rape-tastic #4 and evil!self-made-woman-who-spends-all-her-screentime-masturbating-at-Freeman #5).
Another weird thing about the series is that the 108 Dragons are suddenly whitewashed into being a somewhat honourable group, despite all the assassinating going around in the first episode (and the leader of the Japanese Mafia pointing out that they don’t deal drugs, unlike that Chinese scum !). From then on, it’s just a series of rival groups trying to take them over. Episode #6 is the only other one where the 108 are depicted like an actual criminal group (although that’s mostly slander by the bad guys of the day). Mostly, they’ve become passive and reactive, with an incredibly high internal body count for an organisation that was supposed to be so frightening in the first episode. This isn’t a ringing endorsement for Freeman’s leadership… (Although, conveniently, most of the old guard dies quite early on, so who’ll complain ?)
This series is a mess on so many levels it’s laughable. The plot makes no sense (and is inconsistent from one instalment to the other) ; Freeman as a character is stripped of all drama very early on, leaving the “Crying” gimmick as an artefact of a forgotten plotline. The artwork is very much a product of its time, stiff and emotionless. The fight scenes are okay, but hardly worth watching (and they progressively lose in creativity as the series goes on). The sex scenes aren’t as gratuitous as they could be, but they’re not of much interest either (and the sexism of the whole thing makes them all the less palatable).
If you’re ever planning to watch this for a laugh, stick with the first three episodes. The last three are distinctively more boring, as the writers were clearly struggling to find new plots.