Viz Media’s reprint of Crying Freeman (these three issues collecting the first eight parts of the series’ initial arc) sets the tone in the first issue’s cover. A man and a woman, Yo and Emu, hugging one another–nude, though Emu’s hair covers her breasts–a vast cityscape behind them. Both are physically together, but are looking away from each other for different reasons: she is content, staring upwards to her right and light reflecting off her glasses; he is wary, eyes cast to his left and a knife clutched in his teeth. Love and sex is the explicit center of the image, but violence is lurking at the edge, ready to intrude.
This is the couple’s central dilemma. While painting Hong Kong, Emu sees Yo, a hitman for the Chinese mafia, assassinate rival gangsters. Their introduction appears cordial, with her taken by how he sheds tears after his murders, but this is loaded by the fact Yo cannot leave any witnesses. Mutual attraction, however, complicates the matter. After tracking her down to Tokyo, Yo cannot bring himself to kill Emu, instead the two have sex. Rules broken, both are put in the crosshairs of the Chinese and Japanese mobs, as well as the police.
Ryoichi Ikegami punches up scripts from Lone Wolf and Cub writer Kazuo Koike with striking compositions. Aside from the aforementioned cover image, there’s Yo staging himself within a frame (which held a portrait Emu had painted of him), or the way a “Krak” sound effect cuts through two panels when a gun is fired. Layouts tend towards the asymmetrical, particularly to emphasize Yo’s movements in fights. During a post-coital ambush, he leaps down on two mafia goons, a haze of speed lines as he murders them in large, rectangular panels; the actual moments of death then depicted in panels tiny and square, life trailing away from them. Ikegami, however, breaks this direction whenever Emu and Yo make eye contact. Their close-ups are often a split-panel, micro-symmetry within a chaotic whole. Complementary.
This emphasizes an aspect of Koike’s plot which doesn’t manifest until late into the third issue (around parts 7 and 8): the couple as equals. At rest, Emu appears to the casual observer dainty and helpless. Yet, she is shown throughout tending the estate of her deceased father while pursuing her own artistic ambitions. She verbally shuts down a Tokyo cop, who alternates between threatening and coddling when questioning her about Yo’s identity. She refuses to be condescended to, let alone intimidated. In motion, she pulls a disappearing act on the crooks and cops tailing her, making fools of them. Both Yo and Emu are quiet personalities, far more capable than their demeanor lets on. Oddly perfect for one another, their initial attraction and dalliance drives both to break from lives they are trapped in–she as lonely heiress, he as a gunman for a rigidly-structured gang. Neither seems convinced theirs is a relationship which will last, Yo even says they can’t be together, but what they have seems enough. Better a short time of partnered liberty than a lifetime of controlled loneliness.