While many have been in development hell or simply will outright never happen, Hollywood adapting anime & manga into live-action productions is not a new concept by any means. Even though stuff like Ghost in the Shell & Death Note are actually happening right now, & we shall never forget Dragonball Evolution, there's has always been a Robotech, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Akira, or Battle Angel Alita that's been in purgatory, sometimes for literally decades. Still, live-action adaptations of manga not done by the Japanese have been done ever since at least 1979's Lady Oscar, the French/Japanese (but English language) movie adaptation of The Rose of Versailles. There was actually a bit of a surge of these kinds of movies in the 90s, which gave us films like Fist of the North Star, The Guyver, & Guyver: Dark Hero (the last of which is actually pretty good), but what I'll be focusing on here is one that was produced by our neighbors to the North, yet has never seen a release in the United States.
Written by Kazuo Koike & drawn by Ryoichi Ikegami, Crying Freeman debuted in the pages of Big Comic Spirits back in 1986 & ended after a two-year run, totaling nine volumes. Essentially upon ending, the manga was adapted into a six-episode OVA series from 1988-1994, with each episode running ~50 minutes. During the 90s, Viz would give the manga its first release in North America, while Streamline Pictures handled the OVA, with ADV Films finishing up where Streamline left off at in the early 00s. In the mid-00s, Dark Horse re-released the entire manga across five giant tomes, while Discotek Media would give the OVA a re-release on DVD in 2011. Among all of this, though, were a trio of live-action movies. The first two were Hong Kong-produced adaptations, The Dragon From Russia & Killer's Romance, that were both released in 1990, while the other was a French/Canadian production released in 1995.
The first feature film to be directed by Cristophe Gans, who would go on to direct Brotherhood of the Wolf & Silent Hill, the Crying Freeman movie was written & performed in English, complete with a cast of recognizable actors (some already known, while others would become more known), which gave it a little more of a feeling of legitimacy that its contemporaries of the 90s tended to have (minus Fist of the North Star, maybe). Still, even though it was heavily promoted by Viz in both Animerica magazine as well as the compiled graphic novels, the film would never see a release in the United States, and to this day has still never seen a release here, though it apparently did sneak onto cable in the 00s; there was rumor of a release in 2004, but it never happened. Meanwhile, the movie has gone as far as having been given an HD remastered Blu-Ray release in France a few years back. Therefore, let's see if this was an example of us missing out on something good, or if we've been lucky all these years by never getting it on home video.
Yo Hinomura is a potter by trade who lives in Hokkaido, Japan, but he also hides a deadly secret by being the master assassin of the almost mythical Chinese organization known as the Sons of the Dragons; he is specifically called a "Freeman". After being brainwashed via acupuncture, Yo will drop anything he was doing if called upon to assassinate someone by the Sons. His remaining humanity, however, always leaves him crying after completing a hit. After killing the son of Shido Shimazaki, the leader of Japan's Hakushin Society, in San Francisco, though, he realizes that his hit was seen by Emu O'Hara, a Canadian painter. Instead of killing Emu, though, Yo tells her his name & eventually decides to abandon his position as a Freeman in order to live his life with Emu. Unfortunately for him, though, his latest hit brings about a minor war between the Sons & the Hakushin, which will require Yo to do one last mission before trying to escape his fate.
The Crying Freeman movie adapts the first story arc of the manga, titled Portrait of a Killer, which is admittedly the tamest of the manga's arcs. You see, Kazuo Koike is infamous for being a completely bonkers manga writer when given free reign, which has given Freeman a fair bit of infamy for some of the later portions of the manga. In comparison, this first arc is very straightforward & relatively "normal" by Koike standards (likely in case the manga had to end after this arc if it wasn't popular back in the day), which may disappoint fans of the original material who wanted to see some of the more insane characters & content of the later story. At the same time, though, by being an adaptation of the earliest part of the manga, this movie is actually a very good example of how to adapt an anime/manga into an American live-action production right. No joke, this is actually a good movie.
The movie is essentially split up between two halves. The first half introduces the major characters, focuses on Yo's mission to kill Shido Shimazaki himself in Vancouver, & sets up Yo & Emu's relationship. It manages to mix all three up very well, with each step in the story leading into the next fluidly & understandably, while also tossing in some hints for what comes later. It's here that we're introduced to Detective Netah, an Interpol agent who's teamed up with Detective Forge from Vancouver to help protect Emu, as they find out that Yo is supposed to kill her for having seen the San Francisco assassination. The second half, after going over how Yo went from simple potter to secret assassin, focuses exclusively on Yo & his "guide" Koh as they respond to the war call made by Ryuji Hanada, who takes command of the Hakushin Society; Emu only really appears in the beginning & end of this part of the movie. The first half is a bit of a mix of stylish action & budding love, with even a twist or two I didn't see coming, while the second half is definitely more focused on the action, which it delivers on very well. Don't be worried about the content being toned down, though, because even though this was never released in North America, it would have easily been given an R rating by the MPAA. There's sex, bare brests, & even some nice blood spurts, though don't go expecting buckets upon buckets of blood. While I'm sure many will look at that aspect of the bloodletting as a negative, I thought it helped accentuate the moments where they were used. There's no doubt that this wasn't a Hollywood-produced movie, so keep expectations in line.
I can only say so much for the movie as an adaptation, seeing as I have only seen the first episode of the OVA years ago, but from what I remember I can say that the movie is fairly accurate to its original material. Sure, there are obvious changes to be found, like the use of non-Japanese locales or changing a couple of names slightly (Emu O'Hara instead of Emu Hino, Netah instead of Nitta [though everyone pronounces it "Nitta", anyway], Sons of the Dragons instead of 108 Dragons), but they're mostly just alterations made to fit where the movie was produced than anything; if I wanted it to be 100% accurate then I'd wish for a Japanese-made movie instead. In terms of the story, what I remember from the OVA, which is essentially the first half of the movie, it was more or less the same, right down to the sex scene between Yo & Emu (though obviously toned down in terms of how much is shown), & I'd hazard a guess that the second half likely stayed true to the original manga as much as possible, though I have read that there were some minor changes, mainly in killing off a couple of characters that live on until later in the manga, which makes sense seeing as this is a standalone movie that needs closure.
Cristophe Gans doesn't have many movies to his name, but having seen Silent Hill years ago & now seeing this, I can tell that he's someone who likes to go for some visual flair. Whether it's a specific way he handles a scene or even just framing a shot in a particular way, it's obvious that Gans isn't one for simply getting the job done; he wants images that stay in viewers' minds or deliver some bit of symbolism. I'd say it works more in Crying Freeman than it doesn't, & overall it's a very nice movie from simply a visual perspective. The music by new-age artist Patrick O'Hearn (Destroyer: Shadow of Death, White Sands) is another highlight, focusing on delivering a generally uneasy ambiance, complete with both orchestral & rock compositions.
As mentioned at the beginning, the cast for the movie features a fair amount of notable names, and all of them put in fine performances, though some portrayals might rub hardcore Freeman fans the wrong way. For example, playing Yo is Marc Dacascos, who at that point was probably most well known for playing Jimmy Lee in the infamously terrible (but oh-so enjoyable) Double Dragon movie from 1994. In fact, Dacascos' two roles here were less than a year apart, making it likely that he literally went from playing Jimmy Lee to playing Yo Hinomura; talk about a stark contrast. Anyway, Dacascos, though born in Hawaii & having both Chinese & Japanese heritage, doesn't exactly have a "Japanese" face (no other way to put it), which makes it harder to buy that he's a Japanese native. To be fair, though, the movie simply states that Yo had a Japanese father, so one could assume here that the mother was foreign for this adaptation. Regardless, I feel Dacascos does a good job, with his actual age at the time (31) matching his character well enough; Yo is supposed to be an emotionless killer, which Dacascos pulls off here. Julie Condra (Madeline Adams in The Wonder Years, Syndi Teller in Eerie, Indiana) plays Emu, and though she only features so much in the film I think she pulls off the character well enough with what she's given. In a neat correlation to Yo & Emu, in fact, Marc Dacascos & Julie Condra would later fall in love, get married, & have three children. Now that's a cool piece of trivia!
Koh is played by Byron Mann (Ryu in Street Fighter, Yao Fei in Arrow), who is probably the most fitting for his character, I'd say; he mixes being a trustworthy partner with the potential of backstabbing at any time surprisingly well. Netah is performed by Tchéky Karyo (Fouchet in Bad Boys, Serge in The Core), and while he does a fine job with the role I had one nagging problem with his performance: He hides his accent. You see, Karyo is an actor who's so instantly identifiable & enjoyable partially because of his thick Turkish accent, but in Crying Freeman he tries his absolute hardest to hide that very accent, making him sound very bland in the process. I don't even see any reason why he had to hide it in the first place, as Netah's an Interpol agent, which means that he could be any nationality Karyo wanted; why not simply be Turkish? Ryuji is played by Masaya Kato (Seijuro Yoshioka in Yakuza Kenzan!, Toshinari Eguchi in Shinjuku Incident), who hams it up slightly, but it works well enough, seeing as Ryuji is essentially a psychotic yakuza. Finally, there's Yoko Shimada (Kimie Hanada), Rae Dawn Chong (Detective Forge), & the late Mako (Shido Shimazaki), who also deliver good performances, though Mako's is an extended cameo more than anything else. While I can understand complaints regarding the choice in leads, the supporting cast more than makes up for it.
Once again, I went into a live-action adaptation of some sort of anime/manga universe with lowered expectations, only to wind up really enjoying the end result. Granted, Crying Freeman is a better film than G-Saviour, with a stronger narrative, better direction & music, & far more impressive acting, and after finishing this film I find myself disappointed that this never did see a home video release in the U.S.; in fact, I'm not quite sure if it even saw release in Canada. If anything, though, now would be a better time to release Crying Freeman here in America, seeing that there is a high-definition remaster out there & live-action adaptations of anime & manga are becoming more of a thing over here. At the very least, Crying Freeman's one of the better examples of this concept being executed, so if Death Note & Ghost in the Shell wind up dropping the ball, one could potentially always look to the past for something better... As long as it's either this movie or Guyver: Dark Hero.