iSugio

Free! – Review

by Miguel Douglas

@isugoi

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The story revolves around Haruka Nanase, a boy who has always loved to be immersed in water, and to swim in it. Before graduating from elementary school, he participated in a swimming tournament along with his fellow swimming club members, Makoto Tachibana, Nagisa Hazuki, and Rin Matsuoka. After achieving victory, each of the boys went their separate ways. Time passed, and in the middle of their uneventful high school lives Rin appears and challenges Haruka to a match, showing Haruka his overwhelming power. Not wanting it to end like this, Haruka, gathers together Makoto and Nagisa once again and brings a new member named Rei Ryugazaki to create the Iwatobi High School Swimming Club in order to defeat Rin.

From acclaimed studio Kyoto Animation comes Free!, a series that completely caught me by surprise – as I am sure it did for many other viewers as well – for just how pandering it appears to be towards a certain demographic. Being based on the novel by Koji Oji which had received an honorable mention in the second Kyoto Animation contest in 2011, Free! appears somewhat as a counter to many of Kyoto Animation’s previous projects that dealt primarily with a female-centered cast. Works such as Lucky Star (2007), K-On! (2009), and K-On!! (2010) have proven to be some of Kyoto Animation’s most popular works as of late, engaging us as viewers into the worlds of those series and their cutesy female cast as they triumph over obstacles and offer up witty, comical back-and-forth banter amongst one another. Free! follows in this tradition, but instead of having a largely female cast, it is a series that focuses extensively on the testing friendships of a group of teenage guys amidst the backdrop of swimming – all the while delivering some very candid fanservice for those viewers who adore the male body.

This approach in and of itself will probably turn off a lot of the male viewership who feel ‘awkward’ watching this sort of show. There are undeniably instances – whether intentional or not – where viewers may question the sexuality of the some characters. While this is definitely not the entire focus of the series, it does pop up from time to time but rarely exceeds outside being simply fanservice. For a series where abnormally perfect, Olympic-shaped male teenage bodies are showcased in practically every episode, the series does deal with swimming, so this should be expected, but it also works on two fronts. For one, Free! is seemingly a series more directed towards a female audience, and it was like Kyoto Animation simply thought, “Hey, we’ve had a LOT of shows featuring mainly females. How about we produce a show featuring mainly males? Not only that, but have the an excuse to show their bodies in every episode! It may work!” I personally find it to be a seemingly risky approach for such a high profile studio, but it is in a positive way risk in my opinion. It showcases the diversity that Kyoto Animation offers, and definitely shows how are they attempting to reach a different demographic with this particularly series. This is not to say the series is strictly for females or male homosexuals, as there is a lot of material here for practically anyone to enjoy.

For those viewers, either male of female, who stick through the entirety of the series, then Free! is a slice-of-life drama that mainly follows swimmer Nanase Haruka as he attempts to create the Iwatobi High School Swimming Club and defeat his arch rival Rin in a swimming match. Haruka is a very stern character devoid of much emotion, with swimming being his passion and defeating Rin being essentially his main goal throughout the series. Rin on the other hand is viewed more as attempting to redeem his loss, with the reasons for his change in attitude providing some surprising character development throughout the series. It this back and forth struggle that makes the series predictable but definitely entertaining to watch as these two character prepare to duel one another once again.

It is quite a simplistic approach to say the least, with the rivalry between Haruka and Rin being the focal point of the series as a whole, with a lot of comical elements thrown in along the way. Their rivalry is also very amusing to see grow, with an almost bloodlust intention to defeat one another, often being very reminiscent of some of the intense rivalries found amongst the characters in fighting series, for example. It provides the series a focus that I felt was needed, as without it, the series would have simply drifted from one funny bit to the next. But while the series does indeed focus mostly on Haruka and Rin, the rest of the cast seems mostly delegated to the background for a majority of the series. Haruka, Rin, and another character by the name of Makoto, all get some solid character development, but for the most part the remainder of the characters pretty much take a backseat in terms of development, usually present only to provide comical relief from all the seriousness brought about by Haruka or Rin. It is unfortunate, but does not deal a death blow to the series as a whole.

Overall, one can view Free! largely as a successful experiment for Kyoto Animation. It essentially is a series that curtails to a female demographic, with a lot of homosexual undertones expressed throughout the series as a whole. This, again, can be troublesome for some judgmental viewers, but if one focuses more on the narrative of the series, it follows in the tradition of past Kyoto Animation works. Similarly to K-on!, Free! is a series about teamwork, dedication, and striving for your goals, all which are elements found in the aforementioned series with aplomb, with those values just being expressed through a male cast rather than a female cast this time around. With great animation, a heartfelt take on ambition, and a funny cast – and if you are also not bothered by the series’ abundant fanservice – then Free! highly succeeds as a unique series from a studio that is willing to try something new.

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Author: Miguel Douglas

As an avid viewer of both Japanese animation and cinema for more than a decade now, Miguel is primarily concerned with establishing a critical look into both mediums as legitimate forms of artistic, cultural, and societal understanding. Never one to simply look at a film or series based solely on superficiality, Miguel has dedicated himself towards bringing awareness to Asian entertainment and its various facets.

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