Reviewby Mike Crandol, May 1st 2003
DVD 1: Portrait of a Killer
The infamous Chinese mafia family, the 108 Dragons, is looking to expand its operations into Japan. The Japanese police are determined to keep them out, and even go as far as allying with the yakuza to defeat the Dragons. Enter Yo Hinomura, a successful potter (even though his pottery looks like crap) brainwashed by the 108 Dragons to be an unstoppable killing machine. Emu Hino, a young artist, witnesses Yo dispatching one of his yakuza victims and is moved by his tear-streaked face—for every time Yo kills, he uncontrollably begins to cry. Yo, nicknamed “Crying Freeman,” is ordered to eliminate the female witness. But Emu begs Yo not to let her die a virgin, and the love that blossoms from their encounter melts Yo's heart. Yo and Emu escape their yakuza enemies and flee back to China, where Yo takes Emu for his wife and is made heir-apparent to the leadership of the 108 Dragons. But this decision does not sit well with some, and a mysterious opponent kidnaps Emu and the clan elders. Yo must use every ounce of his lethal skill to rescue his family and maintain the rule of the 108 Dragons.
If you're looking for some needlessly graphic violence coupled with flippant nudity and nary an ounce of meaningful character development to be found, run out and buy Crying Freeman right away. This is the worst kind of guilty pleasure anime, an exercise in pure exploitation without any redeeming qualities to make it worthwhile. The wanton gore and sexuality could be excused--even entertaining--if Yo and Emu were anything but the most superficial personalities, or if there were any serious effort made to explore the potential depth of the story. But it's a wasted opportunity, and Crying Freeman is the kind of thing that gives anime its undeserved reputation as a bastion of gratuitous sex and violence.
It shows some promise at first but quickly devolves into a run-of-the-mill exploitation film. The first episode starts out with an intelligent storyline about a turf war between the Chinese mafia and the yakuza, with crooked police thrown in for good measure. When Emu becomes embroiled in the fiasco and Yo is sent to exterminate her, the series begins to show its true colors. Yo sheds silent tears for the atrocities he is forced to commit, yet many of the show's bloodiest acts aren't even committed by Yo but by thugs who gouge out people's eyes without a second thought. Neither of the leads is very likeable; though Yo's back-story is tragic he seems more than content to remain in the 108 Dragons, and Emu's biggest concern is getting some action before she dies. The “still-a-virgin” subplot is patently ridiculous, and the extended sex scene that entails is proof of its shamelessness. This is followed by several dozen more bloody murders and a final showdown with a yakuza villainess who runs around in public topless just because she can. Following suite, Emu decides she doesn't want to wear clothes outside either, and naked Emu and almost-naked Yo sail off into the sunset.
The second half does begin to define the characters' personalities a little better, but it trades up the canny storytelling for a laughable family-infighting plot and one of the stupidest anime baddies ever conceived. Yo and Emu loosen up a bit and actually begin to exhibit some real emotions, yet why they so willingly become the head of the mafia family that destroyed their lives is a mystery. The sadistic old man and woman who brainwashed Yo in the previous episode are now presented as kindly grandparents to the new couple, and though the familylike relationship between the four characters is entertaining it is also very awkward and unrealistic. Things get even worse when the elders are kidnapped by their real granddaughter, a giant woman with a distinctly canine haircut who is upset about Yo inheriting leadership of the 108 Dragons. Not to be outdone by Emu and the topless yakuza chick from the last episode, Yo gets totally naked before taking on the big dog-woman. Upon being defeated she inexplicably becomes Yo and Emu's faithful servant, and the audience is treated to a disturbing bath scene involving the three.
Crying Freeman's art and animation don't do much to recommend it, either. Yo's full-body dragon tattoo is impressive and no doubt gave the animators a hard time whenever he decides to fight in the buff or have sex with Emu. But the bland colors and blocky character designs are not very appealing, and in spite of all the generous flesh this is not a visually striking production. There are a few isolated bits of full animation - such as when Yo stabs a guy in the head, two characters have sex, or Yo kicks somebody through a wall – but even these scenes are choppily animated and often unconvincing. It's all capped off by a cheesy synthesized score that conjures up images of…well, b-grade exploitation films. If nothing else, the music is highly appropriate.
Both Japanese and English vocal casts bring about as much feeling to the table as the story and artwork does, which is to say not much. “Crying” Freeman sounds curiously unrepentant in either language, and both of Emu's voice actresses fail to imbue their performances with any real sense of fear or urgency. The only thing to recommend to subtitled version over the dubbed is the English script translation, which varies quite a bit from the original Japanese and even changes some meanings.
There's no extra material included on this first DVD volume of Crying Freeman, though ADV has wrapped the show up in some fancy trappings. ADV is truly at the head of the game in DVD production; the menu art is way cooler than anything from the actual show and is easy to navigate. The video transfer is good for the show's age, and both audio tracks are crystal clear. The DVD's package art is a little gaudy, but given the content of the program one could say it's most fitting.
One of the earliest anime series brought to America by Streamline Pictures in the post-Akira age, Crying Freeman was modestly popular with fans. A violent, sexually-explicit animated series was something new at the time, and its success can probably be attributed to its being different rather than being good. There's nothing wrong with sex and violence in a “cartoon”, but many later anime releases like Perfect Blue and Samurai X would show America how sex and violence can add depth and meaning to a story. Crying Freeman's blood and boobs are there for their own sake. If you want a cheap thrill, hentai will do just as nicely….and you won't have to fast-forward through the plot points.
Overall (dub) : F
Overall (sub) : D-
Story : D
Animation : C+
Art : C-
Music : C-
+ mildly interesting plot
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