The first time I saw Free! was at a showing of High Speed!: Free!: Starting Days in a theatre packed with girls. I hadn’t seen the anime before and almost blindly went in as I knew it was about swimming and I like swimming. It was probably one of my favourite cinema experiences. Not because I enjoyed the film (the plot was easy to follow without having seen the anime, but I didn’t get any references and the characters and their relationships had already been established which made it hard to understand their actions and motivations) but because the whole theatre erupted in screams, whistles, puns and laughter every time something happend. After the screening I just felt like I had to know why the crowd kept screaming, laughing etc. during the film and started watching Free! What I expected to be a parade of fanservice turned out to be a surprisingly good anime about growing up, friendship, and, of course, swimming.
Note: This is a review of Iwatobi Swim Club and Eternal Summer. I didn’t take any notes during the screening of High Speed!: Free!: Starting Days I attended but once I get another chance to watch it, I will review it as well.
Animated by the studio that gave us Hyouka and Sound! Euphonium, it comes as no surprise that Free! is gorgeously animated. Especially the way water and swimming are animated is eye popping. I will keep this short. Free! was produced by Kyoto Animation. What hasn’t already been said about KyoAni?
All sports anime idealise the sport they depict. Sure, the main character in a sports anime may have almost-but-not-quite supernatural powers but this kind of idealisation is nothing to be criticised. However, a good sports anime also shows you what it feels like to do a sport. Free! is no exception to this. It idealises swimming but not what it feels like to swim. As a swimmer myself, I was amazed by how well Free! depicts what it’s like to be in the water, how you want to break through it when you see the pool and how your body feels as you reach through it with every stroke. Paired with KyoAni’s fluid (heh) animation, this makes for a great motivator to start swimming.
The group around the Iwatobi Swim Club (ISC) consists of Haru, Makoto, Nagisa and Rei, as well as on-again, off-again member Rin. They are all friends and to some degree rivals, though some more so than others. Friendship is a central theme in Free! and the way the anime handles it is both funny and charming. The target audience will surely even find it endearing. When it comes to their friendship, the cast of Free! refers to themselves as “nakama” (仲間), instead of “tomodachi” (友達). While both terms can be translated as “friends”, the former’s meaning is that of very close friends whom one conisders partners or even family. Given the bonds the ISC shares, this usage of the term is only natural, especially in Haru and Rin’s case. Rin has spent years alone in Australia, away from friends and family, trying to become a better swimmer but only becoming a loner and distant as he couldn’t fit in with the others while Haru seemingly only exists to swim and lives alone since his first year of high school as his parents are often away. Both find a home at the Iwatobi Swim Club. The members of the ISC become the surrogate family they needed, offering the support and motivation they were looking for.
Free! actively targets the BL audience. While the characters remain on a friendly basis, Free! always hints that the characters are more than just friends by having them ceaselessly display their affection for one another through constant hugging and straight up telling each other that they love them. This is all rather refreshing actually. A series in which the male characters are not afraid to be affectionate towards each other - homoerotic under- and overtones aside - is a rare breed among, not only anime, but many current shows in general. While Free! is definitely not subtle about the relationship between the characters (in one episode, Nagisa is afraid to tell his parents that he likes swimming, fearing they won’t accept it), it still deserves credit for trying, though it could have portrayed it better.
To get this out of the way: yes, Free! can be very melodramatic, but it can also be surprisingly dramatic if it wants to be. While the first season is rather light on the tension (and heavy on the melodrama), the second season has the characters thinking about their respective futures, which makes for a great source of relateable and emotional drama. Furthermore, one of the characters suffers from an injury very common to swimmers leading to some very credible dramatic development.
Yes, this anime is very heavy on the fanservice. Yes, even if you are not attracted to men you can still enjoy it. I’ve heard many complaints (from guys) about Free!’s use of fanserive which all boil down to feeling unconfortable at seeing male upper bodies which is what you will see. A lot. However, Free! is an anime about swimming and when you go swimming, chances are you will see male upper bodies as most people don’t wear scuba diving gear when they hit the pool. It’s more than a little hypocritical to be unphased by fanservice involving girls but to complain about how uncomfortable Haru’s abs make you feel. If they do make you feel uncomfortable, though, you’d better never go swimming.
The fanservice itself fits the anime perfectly and it’s not like the camera constantly lingers on certain body parts like in the above GIF. With the exception of one scene early on in the anime, the fanservice never is just there for cheap thrills. Instead, it’s often played for laughs in a genre-savvy manner. In one scene, Free! features a few fanservice-y shots followed by the face of the Iwatobi Swim Club’s female manager drooling, not making fun of its fanbase but of itself. Free! knows why most people are watching it and has no qualms about it. The fanservice is never in your face and (almost) never exploits the characters. Instead, it is gloriously over-the-top and just highlights the light-hearted parts of the anime. If done right, fanservice is natural to the anime and can be sexy and/or funny. Free! manages to do all of that.
As beautiful and enjoyable as Free! makes swimming look, it doesn’t focus on swimming as a sport nearly as much as it should have. I would have liked for a bit more emphasis and insight on the different swimming techniques or how to exercise for swimming tournaments. While Free! touches upon those topics, it never goes into details about them. Training sessions often become the time when the characters discuss personal issues while the training literally happens in the background. However, Free! is a slice-of-life anime disguised as a sports anime. As such, it uses the sports anime frame to tell the story of its characters’ friendship but sadly, it is only a story about the boys’ friendship and not really about the characters as my next point will explain.
I have heard and read a lot of unjustified criticism about Free!, like how it’s merely a parade of fanservice and only panders to a female audience. Both of those points, however, overshadow Free!’s real issue, namely, the characters. Many of the characters are as flat as pancakes but also just as sweet. One cannot dislike them because they are conceptualised to be liked. For instance, Haru is the tsundere, Nagisa is the manic pixie dream boy and Rin is the Byronic bad boy with a tragic past. The biggest fault the anime has is that it never really tries or at least doesn’t try hard enough to take its clichéd characters out of the boundaries of their tropes, even though there is a slew of opportunities which would have allowed for some very natural and relateable character growth and development (a point of critique that can be made for many anime that follow a group of characters, sadly). This is not to say that all characters are flat and underdeveloped. Both Rin and Haru get decent amounts of character development. However, given that the anime often focuses on all the members of the ISC, it’s sad to see that many of them don’t receive the development they deserve.
Sadly, the last couple of episodes feel very rushed and the pacing is completely off. Resolutions to rather important cliff-hangers as well as the finale tournament are packed into one episode, making the pacing and plot suffer accordingly. The pacing of those last few episodes takes away much of the dynamics which made the anime so much fun to watch. In fact, those last episodes will leave a sour taste and unless the viewer’s a big fan of Free! it will dampen the enjoyment of it greatly.
Going into Free! I tried to keep an open mind and not let all the opinions I heard sway me in any direction. Nevertheless, I still expected there to be lots of fanservice but I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Free! is much more than just that. However, if viewers feel unconfortable about fanservice - either fanservice in general or the kind that involves males - they shouldn’t be surprised if they end up disliking the series, even when there’s a lot less fanservice than porspective viewers might have heard. Those who go in with an open mind, though, will find a well-animated and entertaining Slice-of-Life anime. At the same time, Free! had the potential to be something bigger and better. If it had embraced its sports aspects more openly and more seriously, the characters, drama and plot would have all benefited from it.
A word on the recommendations: The reasons why I chose Tsuritama and Haikyuu!! as recommendations for fans of Free! is because I feel they do what Free! does but better. If you liked cute boys being adorable during a summer setting, chances are you’ll love Tsuritama, which amps up the summer feeling to 11. If you enjoyed cute boys doing sports together but wanted more of a focus on sports, than you’re going to adore Haikyuu!! It also has one exclamation mark more than Free! so there’s that, too.*
*I over-simplify the plots and characters of the recommendations and of Free! of course. There’s much more to all of these anime.
When The Gespenst is not busy swimming or watching anime about swimming, he’s busy tweeting about those things on @TheGespenst.
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