Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Crying Freemanby Jason Thompson,
Episode XL: Crying Freeman
Apart from Lone Wolf and Cub, which just about everyone agrees is a classic, most of the manga of Kazuo Koike are the kind that people are embarrassed to like. True, he's a bestselling author, he's super-popular in Japan, and he even taught the Gekiga Sonjuku course in manga, which several successful manga artists attended when they were fledgling noobs. But most of his manga are pulpy and trashy, full of violence and sex and rape—even Lone Wolf and Cub is deep down, beneath its historical veneer which makes people give it a pass or think it comes with the time period. VIZ had trouble selling Crying Freeman in the US because comic stores thought it was too pornographic; Dark Horse at one point announced plans to translate Koike's AIUEO Boy, aka The Starving Man but later backed out, either because of content issues or the use of real-life public figures (such as the band THE WHO and a character who might have been modeled after feminist Helen Gurley Brown) as characters. Daryl Surat, one of America's most outspoken Koike fans, criticized American fans for not appreciating Koike. "Virtually nobody in America knows who he is. Most who do know do not like him, writing him off as a chauvinist lunatic and perhaps only recommending his work for "ironic" entertainment." In order to really write about Kazuo Koike as a mangaka, you might have to throw your moral judgments out the window.
And yet, for a time in the late '80s and '90s—the time before the shojo manga boom, when manga was still primarily marketed to men in the sweaty man-market of oldschool comic book stores—Koike was one of the more popular translated mangaka. Part of this was due to one of the artists he worked with, Ryoichi Ikegami, the talented, unique artist who collaborated with Koike several times on manga like Offered, Wounded Man and Crying Freeman. (Ikegami also drew Strain and Sanctuary, written by Buronson, aka Sho Fumimura.) Ikegami's super-realistic artwork, his incredible figure drawings, look nothing like what most people think of as 'manga', and lots of American comic fans who wouldn't be caught dead buying typical "big-eyed" manga used to buy Ikegami's stuff. For a time in the '90s, rumors say, American comic writer Frank Miller wanted to work with Ikegami, but VIZ couldn't convince Ikegami to get into the project.
In his courses at Gekiga Sonjuku, Kazuo Koike emphasized the importance of characters in making manga. It's all about the main character: Lone Wolf and Cub's ronin Ogami Itto with his giant samurai sword, his quest for revenge and his ever-present baby cart, Hanappe Bazooka with his magical index finger that can turn women on or blow stuff up, Or in Crying Freeman, Yo Hinomura, a naked superman, his entire body tattooed with a massive dragon, a Japanese artist kidnapped by a Chinese crime syndicate and turned into the world's greatest assassin. But one character is not enough to make a story. Ogami Itto had his infant son, Daigoro, the vulnerable and whimsical counterpart to Itto's stone-cold bushido. Yo Hinomura has a woman: Emu Hino, his true love.
The story begins from Hino's perspective. Hino, a sheltered 29-year-old artist who has no close family, is painting when she accidentally witnesses an assassination. The killer is a handsome man, and Hino is struck by a startling detail: when he kills his target, he cries. "His tears were without end, flowing down like spring water," thinks Hino. "I knew there must be something different about a killer who could shed such tears." Spellbound, Hino gives him a handkerchief to wipe his tears, and he leaves. But since Hino saw his face, she knows she doesn't have long to live. When the assassin shows up at her house later to kill her, she makes a request. "I am still a virgin. Before you kill me, would you make love to me?" The beautiful killer turns out to be as innocent as she is. "I too have never made love to another," he admits. When she takes off her clothes to put on her bridal gown, he shyly turns away. Pretty soon they're making passionate, Mature-Readers-only love. When the time comes to kill Hino, the assassin can't do it. Rather than kill her, he helps her escape from the police and the yakuza who want her to help them find the assassin. "I want to help her," thinks the beautiful killer. "I want to protect her. I wonder if these feelings I'm having are…love?"
Pretty soon Hino learns his story. His name was Yo Hinomura, and he, like her, was an artist, a Japanese potter (the "Yo" in his name means "kiln"). When he found evidence of a murder and tried to go to the police, he was kidnapped by the 108 Dragons, a secret society of Chinese assassins. But instead of killing him, the 108 Dragons see the makings of an assassin in him and decide to use him. "Beauty as bright as the sun, deep as the azure oceans, wisdom secreted away in his brow…supple limbs, outstanding reflexes and physical capabilities…He is the perfect specimen!" cackles Fuh Fung Ling, a toothless, 99-year-old female assassin. Using acupuncture, the 108 Dragons hypnotize him and force him to murder someone with posthypnotic suggestion. The murder goes off without a hitch, but as soon as Hinomura delivers the killing blow, his inner guilt and sensitivity makes him weep uncontrollably. His captors give him the codename "Crying Freeman" ("Because indeed, you are a man who desires his freedom!").
The 108 Dragons whisk Freeman away for years of training in China, and tattoo a giant dragon on his body. Before too long, he is able to run incredibly fast, dive hundreds of feet into the ocean from the top of a skyscraper, and pick up a charging shark out of the water with his bare hands. (He does most of this naked; like the oldschool superhero artists who invented spandex superhero outfits, Ikegami likes to draw the human body free of clothes, only he can get away with it.) Freeman normally kills with a knife or a gun, but he is just as deadly with his bare hands, and he'll use whatever he has to; in one particularly cunning scene he wipes out a roomful of yakuza with poison gas. The yakuza are the enemies of the 108 Dragons, as are the Camorra, the secret society of mafia assassins. All over the world, bizarre and freakish crime syndicates are all vying for power. Freeman's adventures are like a combination of a '60s-70s paranoid spy thriller with the balls-to-the-wall craziness of an '80s action movie. Japanese cults, American paramilitary organizations, swordsmen and assassins and wrestlers all want to kill Freeman in order to take over the 108 Dragons, or just because.
Among all this, there is one constant: the love between Hinomura and Hino. Crying Freeman is basically a love story. When Hinomura brings his new girlfriend back to the lair, his bosses are initially pissed off, but one of Freeman's friends convinces the bosses that having a girlfriend could be a good thing for their super-assassin. In a touching scene, they are married, and Hino receives a full-body tiger tattoo to match Hinomura's dragon tattoo. In a further odd detail, she is sterilized, because the 108 Dragons disallow succession by blood. (Presumably, on a meta level, this is so that the mundane concerns of raising a family while never interfere with Freeman's freewheeling assassin lifestyle.) It's a tiny bit like Lone Wolf and Cub in that Hino, while not a helpless four-year-old boy, is the potential weak link in Freeman's heart. The "Hiyoku Renri" story in volume 2 answers the question of what Freeman would do if his beloved Hino were endangered and taken hostage. But Hino is not just a hapless maiden, she's a true match for the world's greatest assassin; later on, she picks up an ancient samurai sword and becomes an accomplished swordswoman.
Somewhere in the middle of all this, Kazuo Koike forgets about the whole idea that Freeman is trying to escape the assassin lifestyle. "Such a thing as true freedom can never exist in the world of man," old Fuh Fung Ling tells him. "Freedom is a thing of the heavens, a place which only a dragon can reach! All you need is the ambition, and you can become the dragon, Freeman!" In other words, it's a sort of Ayn Randian conclusion: forget about being a boring schmoe, the only way to really be free is to become the world's most badass assassin. The whole 'not really wanting to kill people' thing which was Freeman's original character motivation being eliminated, Freeman proves his loyalty to the 108 Dragons and—surprise!—becomes their new leader, with Emu as his co-commander and wife. And then they ride off together naked on top of their secret dragon submarine!
All this happens in volume 2 of 5, and the rest of the manga is basically a series of globetrotting adventures and assassination jobs. In typical fictional assassin style, they don't show the heroes killing innocent people very much; the victims are usually some kind of bad guy. (They also don't explain how the 108 Dragons earn income; early on, someone says that they are notorious drug traffickers, but this is also conveniently forgotten.) Freeman doesn't get stronger and stronger like in a shonen manga—he's always strong—but things get wilder and wilder. There's little connection between stories. One chapter, he's working undercover as a hairdresser; the next chapter, he's a construction worker. This is a manga of quick reversals and chaos. Sometimes there's no real explanation for why Freeman wins. When Freeman's trapped in the island fortress of one of his enemies, he just has to give the signal and suddenly, a fleet of 108 Dragons battleships surrounds the island! Or if he's running from bad guys on the beach, a troop of gunmen jump out of the sea! To be fair, the enemies also have limitless connections: in one storyline Freeman is attacked by a paramilitary organization that sends bomber jets filled with parachuting men out of the skies, while hordes of frogmen fill the sea. In another scene, Freeman must fight a boxer to the death in an arena filled with blood-crazed ex-Green Berets, who hoot and holler and go wild while their boss, Nina Heaven, a snake-tattooed criminal mastermind, watches naked and masturbates in front of the crowd. It's impossible to make any sense out of Crying Freeman; you just have to go along for the ride.
The challenge for Ryoichi Ikegami's hyper-realistic artwork, then, is to make this madness look believable. Unlike Sanctuary and Strain, which are similarly macho but less ambitiously ridiculous, Ikegami's work with Koike always pushes the boundaries of reality, and yet any given page looks as real as a movie. One of Ikegami's talents is the ability to draw people who look really different from one another, rather than just reusing the same basic face and body for different characters. Bony, lean yakuza Razor Ryuji with his toothy face; Lucky Boyd, the crew-cut, big-jawed evil white guy; Tateoka the Poet, the eyebrowless, unearthly assassin; Romanov, the scarred Ukrainian muscleman who makes Zangief from Street Fighter look like Michael Cera. I don't know whether Ikegami drew from live models or if he just had an unbelievably good memory for human bodies, but the results are stunning. Amusingly, it's usually the slightly ugly characters who are distinctive; the wrinkled, old, fat and weird-looking ones. Yo Hinomura and Emu Hino, while attractive, are less memorable; Hinomura has the same face as all of Ikegami's heroes. "Damn it! A good-looking man doesn't have any distinguishing characteristics!" a frustrated detective says while trying to assemble a description of Yo. One of the manga's most memorable characters, is Bai Ya Shin (translated as "Ivory Fan" in the old VIZ edition), an 8-foot-tall, obese, super-strong Chinese woman who is the granddaughter of Fuh Fung Ling. Freeman and Hino treat Bai Ya Shin as a sort of sister, albeit one who hangs out with them naked all the time and gets off watching Freeman and Hino have sex. Bai Ya Shin is used for comic relief, often shown peeing and so on, in keeping with Koike's water sports fetish (consider the women-peeing-on-men scenes in Lone Wolf and Cub, Wounded Man…). And of course Ikegami LOVES drawing fat people, so much so that in the satire Even A Monkey Can Draw Manga they call him "Fatty Ikegami."
Ikegami is also a good action artist; although his character designs may look nothing like what Westerners think of as "manga," he has a good grasp of manga storytelling and flow. Sometimes the perspective of the figures don't quite match the backgrounds, a good sign that assistants have been there, but it's far better than Ikegami's later work like the mediocre Strain. The torque of a twisting leg as Freeman runs, the impact of a bullet striking a person's head; all this looks dynamic and "cinematic." The hyper-realism gives the violence more impact; there's not as much gore as in the works of some shonen mangaka like Hirohiko Araki or Masayuki Taguchi, but it looks much grosser because the characters look so real. Oh, and the sex looks really realistic too. The first sex scene between Freeman and Hino is like a documentary on "what it's like to have sex with someone." There are closeups of tongues on nipples, pumping butts, etc., but also hugs and kisses. (Although the sex scenes with other women are a little rougher.) The genitals are always a black stain of censorship mosaic or a blinding burst of white light, but it's pretty obvious what's happening.
Oh yeah, in case I didn't mention, Crying Freeman has sex with tons of women. This is usually in a job context, and apparently doesn't invalidate the true love between Freeman and Hino. "An assassin who can win over the hearts of women in this world will become immortal!" Freeman's trainers tell him early in the story. His beauty is one of his strengths; Shien Ju, an assassin tattooist sent to kill him, is so awed by working with Freeman's perfect body that she can't bring herself to assassinate him, and instead gives him a blowjob. This is before Freeman meets Hino, but later on he sleeps with other ladies. Most of the women he sleeps with, in typical Koike style, are so enamored of him afterward that they become his love slaves. Bugnug, the bodybuilder-esque leader of a South African terrorist organization (presumably fighting against apartheid, but this apparently isn't important to Ikegami), falls in love with Freeman after a fight. What's Freeman's secret? One of his enemies describes Freeman's equipment as follows: "The glans of his penis is more prominent than that of other men, but outwardly there are no other distinguishing characteristics. The size and length could be said to be average." When women see him naked, their eyes glaze over a little and their mouths go slack. There's even a flashback of him sleeping with women during his training, which seems to contradict his statement that Hino was the first woman he slept with, not counting blowjobs. One of the bad guys tries to accuse Freeman of infidelity: "What's your wife? Do your female subordinates all devote their hearts and their bodies to you?" Freeman answers calmly, "They do. And they become my family." This answer just annoys the bad guy, perhaps understandably. Anyway, as the manga progresses, Freeman gathers a number of female 'followers.' They apparently get along with Hino just fine, although there are no scenes of them and Hino doing much together. What's their relationship like? What would they talk about? Would a badass, handsome super-assassin struggling to remain faithful to his wife have made a more interesting manga? I'm probably overthinking it.
You can't criticize a fish for being a fish, so you can't criticize Crying Freeman for being a shameless male fantasy. You can, however, criticize it for being a little boring. It reads like an X-rated Mary Sue fanfiction, where the hero can do anything and has infinite resources at his command and is loved by everyone. There are no antagonists who are Freeman's equal, like Yagyu Retsudo in Lone Wolf and Cub, and there is no real direction to the series; after Freeman and Hino become the leaders of the 108 Dragons, you could pretty much read the story arcs in any order. The series ends on a surprisingly quiet note, but the real climax is the ending of the second to last chapter, which features a sex scene with Hino drawn in first person from Freeman's perspective, while she loudly declares her love for him the whole time. This is really the core of Crying Freeman: YOU are the fabulously wealthy, incredibly handsome hitman. YOU get to kill dudes. YOU get to have sex with this lovely woman who is devoted to you, while also sleeping with other fine ladies. It can only be understood from the first person perspective, and Ikegami's awesome art puts you there in the thick of things, in high definition realism. But a story which is about YOU isn't a story about a character, and so by Koike's own definition of good manga, Crying Freeman ultimately fails. It's not much of a story, although it certainly is beautifully drawn, imaginative porn.
Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
Banner designed by Lanny Liu.
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