Free! Iwatobi Swim Club Anime: Review
Free! Iwatobi Swim Club has just concluded the first 12-episode season of its anime on September 26, 2013, and the hype has been enormous. Inspired by a Japanese light novel about a swimming club called "High Speed" written by Kōji Ōji, the anime exploded into popularity this spring... months before the first episode was released. A short commercial showing four high school boys in swim trunks with abs (and other parts) bulging, posing wet and glistening, was certainly enough to remind the anime world that female viewers make up half the world's otaku, but did Free! deliver?
Be warned, this review very minor spoilers!
Four boys - protagonist Haruka, his best friend Makoto, his rival Rin, and the one-grade-younger Nagisa - swam on a relay team in elementary school, but when Rin moved to Australia to go to a swimming school, the three left behind put their passion on hold. Haru and Makoto are reunited with Nagisa in high school when he enters as a first year student, and Nagisa convinces them to swim together again. The high school has no swimming club, as it disbanded years ago, so it's up to the three, along with classmate manager (and sister of the recondite Rin) Gou and new recruit Rei, to organize the club anew, get back in shape, and reach for the national tournament. But when Rin shows up again, with a bad attitude and fixation on beating Haru, drama with a liberal dose of muscles ensues.
Put together a cast of usually topless bishounen - that is, anime pretty boys - and make them talk a lot about feelings and almost kiss a few times, cut any possible female love interests but still add a multidimensional female character and you have a group of characters that are sure to please in the anime world.
- Haruka Nanase: Haruka, nicknamed Haru, is a quiet second-year student at Iwatobi High School who is in a long-term and serious relationship with H20. His friends (and he's only got like, two) are tasked with the burden of making sure he keeps his clothes on and doesn't jump into aquariums in public places (I'm serious). Haru doesn't care about winning or competitions, he just likes to get wet. He only swims freestyle, which is probably symbolic, and lends the title its name, Free!.
- Makoto Tachibana: Makoto is Haru's best friend and primary caregiver, who has a habit of breaking into his house and watching Haru bathe. Makoto swims the backstroke.
- Nagisa Hazuki: Nagisa, alternatively known as the best character in this show, is energetic, goofy and and not afraid to bare his birthday suit if no swimwear is available. As he is a year younger than the others, he was not with Haru and Makoto in their first year of high school, but when he started, it was his idea to start a swim club. Nagisa rocks the breaststroke.
- Rei Ryūgazaki: Rei, as an apparent late addition, didn't have the opportunity to be featured topless in the promo commercials, but he makes up for it by going around in a two-sizes-too-small swimsuit for a good portion of the show. Rei admires beautiful athleticism and is booksmart, but can't actually swim except for (eventually) the butterfly stroke.
- Rin Matsuoka: Though shark-toothed Rin was a childhood friend and rival of Haru, he was devastated when Haru beat him in a race even after training for a year at a swimming school in Australia. He transfers back to a school in Japan, and joins the swim club there. He is obsessed with beating Haru in a race, and his goal is to be an Olympic swimmer, a dream his father had. He swims both freestyle and butterfly in the anime.
- Gou Matsuoka: Gou is an unashamed admirer of the fit male body. Undoubtedly meant as an avatar to the female-targeted audience, Gou coos and swoons as the boys pull off their shirts and wear skin tight speedos - which they do often. Very often. Unlike her brother, Rin, Gou goes to Iwatobi High School, and she volunteers to join the new swim club as its manager. Gou has no scruples about cheering on Rin as well as her own team, school rivalry aside.
Free! is well recognized for its beautiful animation - and I'm not talking about all the abs. Okay, I'm talking about the abs a little. And the rest of the muscles. Have I mentioned there are a lot of muscles? But on a more distinguished note, the animation is crisp and beautiful, and the actual swimming movements are surprisingly realistic.
As a sports genre anime, a lot of the narrative focuses on swimming, practice, and hard work. However, it's presented in a way that's easy to understand, and a plot that goes beyond the actual swimming, so no love of sports or swimming experience is necessary.
The primary focus is on friendship, and the dialogue does get a bit cheesy at times - but most everything is pretty well presented, and the anime knows how to poke fun at itself. Its sense of humor drives the emotional hurtles of friendship, and the characters are so easy to like, or at least laugh with, that none of the feelings speeches feel too overboard.
The words "anime" and "fanservice" together in a sentence usually illicit images of girls in short skirts that can't seem to properly cover their butts, leading to numerous panty shots, or boobs, boobs, and more boobs. And that isn't wrong in most cases.
But animation companies are increasingly recognizing that their female audiences are there with money to spend. And what do most women like? Here's a shocking tidbit that animation studios are just discovering: they like the same things as guys do - gratuitous, exploitative sexuality - but generally with guys instead of girls.
"The Male Gaze" is a trope in media where the camera slides up, or down, or sideways, or into, a female body. Even when no male characters are present to be "represented" by that camera, the camera itself sexualizes the female character for the audience. However, the opposite can exist as well, though it is much more rare: "The Female Gaze." If this is the style of treating male bodies in a similar manner - running down chests and lovingly focusing on butts - that is something Free! does in excess.
The other ingredient to a successful female-targeted anime is a a dash (or several cups' worth) of gay. For whatever reason, some men are shocked that many women enjoy watching gay men as many men enjoy watching lesbians, but this hasn't been a secret to the anime industry for decades. Even male-targeted anime will often throw in a few "fanservice" scenes - male characters obsessing over one another, touching, tossing out any hint a fangirl could eat up for her latest slash fanfiction. Free! is no different. Without being an actual BL (Boy's Love, the female-targeted gay genre) anime, the boys do everything but kiss - and I feel the need to stress the word yet. Free! is liberal with shove-against-the-wall-and-gaze-into-eyes scenes, and even features an almost CPR scene (you can almost hear the fangirls wail as it ends just before lips touch).
Just the opening and ending theme songs are blatantly honest about what kind of show this is going to be, and with champagne! This is a show about ripped young men who rank at least a three on the Kinsey scale running around almost naked, and that's that.
Free! is entertaining and surprisingly funny. It rides on humor - just take a look at the ending theme song to see how it celebrates its own cheesiness, and is all around fun. It's fast moving, genuine, and silly, and explores themes of friendship, motivation and passion (not that kind of passion. Yet.)
It's absolutely recommended to anyone who enjoys sports or high school anime. It's more realistic than it seems, even when the guys are good swimmers, none are above the threat of mediocre ranks or are guaranteed a chance at the national tournament. It's a fast-paced feel-good show about friendship, with a finale that delivers.
My rating: 8 out of 10.