Anime: Free! – Iwatobi Swim Club
Studio: Kyoto Animation
Original Run: Jul 4, 2013 to Sep 26, 2013
Genres: Sports, Drama, Slice of Life
Nanase Haruka has a deep love for water and swimming. It’s not competitions that matter but to him but the purity of feeling the water down to his bones. All the same, one of his fondest childhood memories is of winning a relay race in elementary school with his three friends – Makoto, Nagisa and Rin. He’s ceased swimming competitively since then but still yearns for the water.
In high school, Haruka and Makoto reunite with Nagisa and a twist of fate brings them face to face with Rin who goes to another school with a renowned swim club. But what should have been a sweet reunion turns bitter when Rin acts hostile to them, renouncing their earlier friendship in favor of announcing his determination to win over Haruka.
The incident prompts the boys to revive the swim club of their own school in hopes of running into Rin at competitions. They even bring in Rei, a former track team member who’s swayed over to swimming by Nagisa’s persistence and Haruka’s grace in the water. As the boys attempt to win and mend old bonds, new ones start to take shape among them.
I’ve heard a lot of praise for Free and I have developed a great liking for sports anime so I was expecting to be blown away by this anime. I was… not blown away. I barely felt a breeze. It’s not that I disliked this show, more that I was bored for most of it and the parts that were engaging didn’t really make up for the boring bits.
As always, positives first: the characters are very likeable and their relationships with each other are quite sweet. There are five main characters with a number of others of varying prominence in their periphery and every single one of them is charming from beginning to end. They’re not terribly deep or complex individuals but they are figures who’re developed enough to make you sympathize with them and become interested in their story. Free is, at its heart, a story of friendships and the way such bonds endure the passage of time, and it deals with these aspects in a delightful and even realistic manner.
The aforementioned elements are also why the show was boring to me. It’s not that I don’t appreciate friendship feels but Free didn’t really tug at my heartstrings the way it should have. I could see that the boys were very important to each other and that was nice to see but I wasn’t invested in any of it.
But my major criticism for Free isn’t its inability to evoke emotion in me but rather its sports aspect. I’m used to sports anime using the games or competitions to explore the emotional states of its characters while at the same time making the sports fun and exciting. In Free, the actual swimming takes a backseat to the boys’ bonding. It makes sense narrative-wise because the story was never about winning competitions and that’s fine but when the actual sports sequences end up being forgettable, it affects the story negatively. It hasn’t been long since I watched Free but the only swim-meet I remember is the unusual relay in its final episode.
To sum it up, Free made me feel nothing. And since it’s an anime that’s heavily sentimental, that’s a definite fail. I can’t say why I never got invested in the story despite liking the characters well enough. It just didn’t happen and am probably going to forget all about this show in a matter of months.
Though I was distinctly underwhelmed by the first season, I did try watching the second one but gave up after one episode. This is not an anime that’s to my taste.
Free’s main gang includes the eponymous Iwatobi swim club members Haruka, Makoto, Nagisa and Rei, plus Rin, a boy from another school who has a complicated relationship with Haruka.
Haruka, the main character, has an intense fixation on water that would cause anyone to doubt whether he’s a fish trapped in a human body. Or a merman – that works too. He’s stoic and blatantly out of touch with his own emotions but as the story progresses, we get to see him understand his own feelings and act on them as he wants to. It’s slow and not-so-smooth process but the end result is rewarding. Despite being the most composed out of the characters, Haruka is also the most amusing due to his rather obsessive love of water and propensity to chuck his clothes at the first sight of it. Makoto is Haruka’s bestie and the nicest of the lot. He’s no pushover though. He’s just kind, compassionate and understanding in a ways that would make anyone wish they had a friend like him.
Nagisa is the manically energetic guy who straddles the line between irritating and endearing and sometimes trips into the former. Still, his drive is a blessing for the show since nothing would get done without his initiative. Rei is a bit of an odd case in that he comes across as serious and severe but quickly proves that he’s as quirky and dorky as the rest of them.
As for Rin, he’s probably the most interesting among the whole cast. He acts like a jerk some of the time only to turn around and be a fluffball. His feelings and motivations are also quite tangled and it’s easy to see that he’s struggling with the memories of his past and the way they interfere with his perception of the present. One of the best moments in the show is when he manages to reconcile the two and pursue his happiness.
There are a number of other fun characters in Free such as their efficient, muscle-obsessed manager Gou/Kou, the faculty adviser with a curious past Amakata, their old swimming coach and Rin’s teammates.
Art and Music:
Whatever its faults, there’s no denying that Free’s art is gorgeous with an abundance of cool colors that are soothing to the eye. As it’s an anime about swimming, we get to see a lot of water and each and every shot of it is stunning to the point that the water feels like a character of its own. The character designs are meticulous and distinct and there are barely any off-model faces.
Free has good, though not amazing, music going for it. The opening is Rage On by OLDCODEX (they also worked on Kuroko no Basket so are sports anime their thing?) is pretty fun to listen to, with some parts that are actually pretty great. The ending theme, SPLASH FREE by STYLE FIVE, is hilariously over the top in a good way. The dubstep (?) OST is nice as well.
If you’re into stories that heavily focus on intimate friendship, then Free could work for you. If you want a sports-centric narrative, then look elsewhere.