So, I wanted a light-hearted anime to get me back into the medium after finishing my Game of Thrones-marathon. I had previously watched some of Ergo Proxy, but it felt a bit dark to hop into after GoT’s overbearing nature. I’m not sure what I expected out of it when I started watching, but
Free! is a good anime.
And there’s really not too much more to say about it. KyoAni basically made K-ON (just going by what I’ve seen and impressions, as I haven’t actually seen K-ON!)but with dudes in tight clothing and swimming.
The story of Free! is about as simple as it gets, seeing as this is a sports anime in a school setting. There’s a group of people who like a sport. The sport happens to be competitive swimming. They start a club at their school (Do Japanese people not have local or regional clubs on youth levels? It seems like there’s always in-school clubs that are the go-to places to train. Then again, maybe I’m one of the minority of people here.) They go through some stuff to be able to start the club and get members, and then it’s off to the races (literally) after a training arc. The writing is usually pretty good, and there was some intrigue about the characters’ common past, but it wasn’t executed particularly well when actually revealed and the writing in general took a nosedive from there. Not to the extent of tearing the show down, but it feels like the show is kind of treading water until the second season, and just wanted to get all the story out of the way so it could focus on the team in the future. I understand that philosophy, but I don’t agree with it. There needed to be a better mix between the story and sport, seeing as some of the scenes towards the end felt extremely redundant.
As with most sports series that aren’t hyper-specific in the mechanisms of the sport, Free! is a character-focused show. It’s got a pretty decent sized cast (7 central characters) and most are given ample screen-time. Do note that they are extremely generic for the type of series this is. If you’ve seen a sports series, you will have stumbled into more than a few of these.
- Haru is the resident sports fanatic. The twist on this in Free! is that he’s kind of indifferent when it comes to actually competing (though I assume it will change in the future, since I just found out there’s a sequel airing right now), and just wants to be in the water – so much that he tends to soak in his bathtub when he’s not in school. From what I can tell, he lives alone, or at least very independently. Only time he shows some actual motivation is when his rival is involved. Always swims freestyle (front crawl), which is where the title stems from.
- And that rival is Rin. A member for what seemed like a short time of the same swimming club as Haru when they were kids (they’re currently 17), he later left for Australia to chase his dream of becoming an Olympic swimmer, which he chases to fulfil it for his father, who never got to reach it. While acting hostile and/or indifferent to Haru and the rest, he’s clearly no antagonist and still wants something from them, but whether that’s just competitive rivalry or friendship is yet to be seen. Said to be very good at butterfly stroke, but is shown to be proficient at others as well.
- Makoto is the reliable guy, and obviously also team captain (with Haru taking the supposedly superfluous position of vice-captain), keeping the group together. He’s got a deep-rooted problem that makes his life in the swimming club a bit odd when it’s time for a training camp of just vacation – he’s afraid of the ocean. I’ll get more into that later. Swims backstroke for the club.
- Nagisa is the energy bunny and relentless optimist of the group. He also fulfils what I suppose is the moe-role, but for guys (I’m sure there’s even a fucking term for it). Breaststroke-specialist (heh) for the club.
- Rei is the guy they picked up to fill final spot on the team. He’s the brains of the squad, and only joins after thinking that Haru’s swimming looks beautiful (he only likes beautiful things, apparently, so the clichés won’t stop on the Rei-train any time soon). However, as he joins the club, a problem of his might throw a spanner in the works – he can’t swim. This is used for comic relief until it’s not funny, but to the series’ credit, they do get away from it rather quickly after.
- To the sort of expendable charters then. First is Gou (but she likes to be called Kou), the younger sister of Rin. She steps into the position of club manager to help the club initially get started and is the one to plan training sessions and the like. She’s pretty obsessed with muscles, which is used to some comedic effect at times.
- And finally there’s Miss Ame, the class’ home-room teacher, and then club advisor (you basically need one to be legitimate, is my understanding after my years of watching anime). It’s hinted she’s had a job that’s related to swimsuits, and it’s strongly hinted that is was as a swimsuit model.
The cast is pretty alright, but it’s, as said earlier, very generic. The gimmick that brings the boys together is that they all have girly names, and Gou has a manly one. All the characters have a role to play, and it’s made more important than them actually having characters (even though they clearly do, but they’re moulded to fit the part).
Free!’s strength is probably how damned easy it is to watch. It’s incredibly easy-going, even in it’s few serious scenes and you can follow the story (the little there is to be followed anyhow) with ease. You could probably watch without subs and still have a good idea about what’s going on. I suppose that’s actually a pretty big achievement in itself, now that I think about it.
Adding to the delight of watching is the absolutely superb animation. The character designs are excellent and very well animated. I think they mix normal animation and CG during some of the in-water scenes, but I could be mistaken. In any case, it’s gorgeous. It’s easily the best animated show in Kyoani’s portfolio.
Voice acting is good in general, although some of the actors kind of flub the emotional dialogue at times, just reverting to the normal style of voice-cracking screaming/shouting, or just not sounding like they care.
There is some fan-service in the series, but to discuss it I would have to bring up gender roles and sexuality in media in general, which would be tedious and stuff. It’s very bearable, and you might in fact like it.
In closing, if you like watching good-looking anime boys do things, you’ll enjoy the series. If you enjoy sports stories, you’ll enjoy this. Free! is an amalgamation of the two and does its thing very by-the-book, so you get what’s on the cover. It’s good, but not more, and that’s okay.