Haruka Nanase has a love for water and a passion for swimming. In elementary school, he competed in and won a relay race with his three friends Rin Matsuoka, Nagisa Hazuki, and Makoto Tachibana. After claiming victory at the tournament, the four friends went their separate ways. Years later, they reunite as high school students; however, Rin couldn't care less about returning to the way things used to be. Not only does he attend a different school, but the sole thing important to him is proving that he is a better swimmer than Haruka.
After the bitter reunion, Haruka, Nagisa, and Makoto decide to form the Iwatobi High School Swim Club, but they will need a fourth member if they hope to take part in the upcoming tournament. Enter Rei Ryuugazaki, a former member of the track team whom Nagisa recruits. As the time to compete draws near, the four develop a close bond while training intensely to come out on top and settle things between Haruka and Rin once and for all.
About two weeks ago, I went into Gaia’s AMC forum to post a poll, asking the community what 2013 anime I should watch next. I expected Silver Spoon or Gatchaman Crowds to win, and they received 7 and 10 votes, respectively placing in second and third place. The winner, with 24 votes, was Free! Iwatobi Swimming Club, the notorious #SwimmingAnime that came into existence thanks to a viral animation sample, and an almost revolutionary ‘give us this show’ petition.
So, with almost half of that poll’s 60 voters daring me to dive head first into manservice oblivion, what was I supposed to do? Was I supposed
to turn my head, and avoid making eye contact with that glistening banana-hammock of a show? Or was I supposed to test my mettle as a critic against one of the most manhood threatening shows to be aired last year? Well, let’s think about that. I love Princess Tutu and Ouran High School Host Club, and I was a motherf(yay)ing brony for two years. So bring it on, you rabid hords of Fujoshi! I watched your #Swimminganime, and now, I’m going to review the crap out of it!
The story of Free! begins with four ten year old boys. They consist of Haruka, a quiet boy who only feels at home in the water; Makoto, a laid back best friend character who’s afraid of the ocean; Nagisa, an excitable little moppet who should, by all conceivable logic, be voiced in English by Greg Ayres; And Rin, an outgoing boy whose connection to his friends can only be trumped by his much much larger ambitions. They were brought together by their love of swimming, although they quickly adopt an inside joke that ‘fate threw them together for having girly names.’ In any case, after their first big relay tournament triumph, Rin leaves the group to go to a middle school in Australia to train so he can become an olympic swimmer. Nagisa also winds up going to a different school, and the fellowship is disbanded.
That is, until the first year of high school, when Haruka, Makoto, and Nagisa are finally reunited, and Nagisa convinces them to start the long-defunct Iwatobi Swim club back up again! Because, as we all know, “High school club” has been it’s own ubiquitous genre ever since Haruhi Suzumiya started grabbing up all the money in the world. With Rin’s little sister as their manager, a shy teacher for their faculty adviser, and a brand new team mate in the meticulous beauty-obsessed Rei, and the sudden reappearance of Rin as their new rival from another school, their swim club has only just begun to tread water!
Before we go any further, I should probably address the pink elephant in the room... People refuse to watch this show because it looks gay. Now, I don’t feel like turning this review into a gay rights rant, nor do I want to make any statements about whether or not I consider homosexuality(or lack thereof) an indicator of quality. Maybe there are some good yaoi shows out there... I don’t know. The ones I’ve seen so far sucked. So instead, I’m only going to address whether or not Free is, in a literal sense, gay. Like Hakkenden was.
About a year ago, I was dared by a friend to rent and watch Magic Mike. At the end of it, I said the exact same thing that I said in regards to Free. “Wait a second... That wasn’t that gay at all.” Yes, both shows feature plenty of scantily clad men to thrill and chill the straight women and gay men of the audience, but both stories take place in a setting where wearing next to nothing makes perfect sense in context... Stripping in one, swimming in the other. I can understand some guys not wanting to watch a show about male strippers, but if the sight of guys taking their shirts off to swim makes you uncomfortable, then buddy, you’ve got issues.
And the show isn’t even a yaoi. There’s barely any romantic content in the first place, save for one side character’s crush on Kou, but when you really pay attention, Free! is nothing more than a gender swap of Kyoto Animation’s many female-centric slife-of-life shows. Yes, the guys use cutesy honorifics and nicknames, and they seem to have an uncommonly close relationship, but nobody throws around the word “Gay” while watching Lucky Star, K-ON! or Tamako Market... Well, maybe in the pejorative sense... But in any case, while there may be some shounen-ai elements floating around in this pool, they’re subtle, and too subtextual to really effect the story in any way.
And speaking of the story... Okay, a few paragraphs ago, I briefly compared this show to Magic Mike, but unfortunately, the comparison shall go no further. Magic Mike was an awesome movie, and Free! is just kind of... Okay. I hate to be mean to it, because the characters are likeable, and I *was* constantly clicking the next episode button, so it was able to hold my attention pretty well... Free! is Kyoto Animation’s first ever sports based anime, which automatically means it has more plot than half of the work they’ve put out thus far, but even with that to boast about, Free! is still just a little too passive for it’s own good. They go to a few swimming competitions, but the stakes of these events are never more than just “We wanna swim together and get a higher budget for our club.” The only time this story has any gravity to it is when our heroes are stuck in the ocean during a storm, and they never seen to desire anything other than “Let’s be friends and strengthen our bond.” That makes for a very pleasant tone, but it doesn’t make for a very engaging series.
The only thing in this story that really develops is the relationship between the five leading males. Their growth as individuals is negligible, aside from Rin, although I can’t really complain, because they’re all really likeable characters. Their occasional coach is only ever used when he’s convenient, and their faculty adviser makes little to no effort to distinguish herself as anything other than a recycled K-ON! trope. Kou, the group’s manager, is not used nearly enough, considering how much potential she has. If she actually had some character arc, even for a single episode, we could have learned something about her as a person... We could have learned why she cares so much about the swim club, and hey, we could have learned why she never swims a single stroke despite being an official member. Seriously, I get that she’s non-athletic and is too female to compete alongside her team mates, but they visit a beach for crying out loud! She brings a swimsuit, and then just hangs around with the teacher! Why?!
As I said before, it’s a decent, pleasant show, and while I didn’t find the plot particularly engaging, I still enjoyed watching it. The chemistry of the characters more than made up for their lack of depth. I’m monolingual, but the japanese dub sounded really good, and I had no problems at all with the actual dialogue. I didn’t find all of the humor effective, but it had enough good jokes to not be boring at any point. In a lot of ways, it’s a happy little distraction, just like K-ON!. Normally, I’d give this kind of show a 7/10, but there’s one more aspect of this show that I forgot to mention. And that aspect is...
The artwork and animation. Dear God in heaven, this is one of the top ten best looking animes I’ve ever seen. Kyoto Animation may not be known for having stellar stories... Haruhi, Clannad and Chuunbiyoh being the exceptions... but it always brings great animation to the table, and from that perspective alone, this is the best looking show they’ve ever released. The backgrounds and character designs are outstanding, the attention to detail is mind blowing, the characters are capable of a full range of graceful, fluid motion, and the water... Oh my God.
From what I understand, the animation demo that this show was originally based on was released so Kyoto Animation could boast about how well it could animate water. But in the words of Kid Rock, it ain’t bragging if you back it up. If you’re not taking a simplistic approach, water can be one of the most notoriously difficult things to animate. There are some CGI movies where they have to treat every drop of it like a blue grain of sand just to realistically portray the movement of a wave. While there are a few notable exceptions, like the stellar art design of The Little Mermaid, most examples of animated water range from ‘adequate animation that you’re not supposed to pay any attention to’ to ‘horribly awkward CGI texture that you can’t help paying attention to.’ I’m looking at you, Gantz.
But I have never seen animated water that looks as good as it does in Free. They used a seamless blend of 2D and 3D techniques to make the water look not only natural, but alive. Every reflection, every ripple, every bubble and every distortion is captured with the power of a force of nature, and yet with the subtlety of a facial expression. And that’s saying nothing about the water as a character. Yes, I just called the water a character, and maybe even my favorite one in the show. I find the relationship between Makoto and the water to be fascinating, and I actually want to see the show again somewhere down the road just to see if I understand it a little better!
All in all, Free! Iwatobi Swim club may not have very good writing behind it, but what it does have is a charismatic energy that will grab you right from episode one and not let you go until long after it’s finished. The amount of love and enthusiasm that went into this show is like night and day when compared to some of Kyoto Animation’s more phoned in projects, and if that’s not enough, it’s a visual feast for the eyes of both yaoi fans and normal people alike. It hasn’t been licensed for an English release just yet, but with free fansubs available in all the usual places, I can definitely recommend this for streaming. It’s a solid 8/10, and the water’s great, so leave all doubts in your locker and dive right in!
Ok, first, a straight, young guy talking here. I've watched this anime in about two days, about 6 episodes per day. That's how captivating this anime was for me. It's probably the highest number of episodes of an anime I've ever watched in such a short time, but anyways, let's get to the actual review:
I am aware of all the hating coming from one side of the anime community, I mean, I hate fanservice myself. But firstly: I usually am capable of ignoring it if the story/action/characters of the anime are good; and secondly: interestingly enough I didn't have much of a problem with the
fanservice in this show, i.e. girl- or gay-oriented fanservice. Being able to simply laugh at the gayish scenes made this anime kind of more enjoyable to me. In fact, that's probably the best proof that I'm heterosexual (not that there is any problem with being gay or of any other sexual orientation, never).
Regarding the story, until about the first 4 or 5 episodes I thought it was ok, simple, but still good, amusing and catching, while including a lot of clichés or tropes, but that's ok. The cool thing is that it is still done very professionally and high quality-like. Using a cliché isn't bad in itself, but there are ways of doing it well and ways of doing it wrong, this show does it splendidly, IMO. The scenes are kind of predictable and unpredictable at the same time: you guess what is going to happen, still you are amazed at how good it is performed. But entering the second half of the series... it still goes perfectly in the line of what has happened before, it just gets way more gripping and intense. [SPOILER ALERT] Seeing the protagonists entering in professional competitions and understanding the feelings of the characters (which, again, is done so well) really awakens that sports-spirit inside you. [SPOILER ALERT END] The relationships among the characters also brings back that old topic of "valuing true friendship" (again, another cliché), which, IMO, is one of the most important matters in general, be it in an anime, movie, reallife-story... But let's get to the character development.
Without including the time of when the characters are kids or small teenies, the actual story lasts for MoL 2-3 seasons/ half a year. If you distribute this among 12 episodes, it's pretty obvious that you can't afford too much character development. Still, I really enjoyed the personalities of each of the main characters (including the girls and EXCLUDING Nitori), as they were all quite different, yet complementing each other. [SPOILER ALERT] It's no secret that I specially liked the development between Haru and Rin, and also the backstory of Rin's father (the tragedy during the tsunami). [SPOILER ALERT END] Repeating this for the one thousandth time, they were no unique or revolutionizing types of character, but they were very enjoyable (and that's the most important thing to me).
In terms of Art and Sound I can only say that both are outstanding. The animations are at the peak of what the anime industry could deliver during the time of the release and specially "the diving in the water" and, of course, the bodies of the characters are just beautiful (I am aware that this might sound gayish, but damn do I wish to have their bodies xD). Both the opening and the ending fit the anime very well and during the 12 episodes I almost always listened to them (if I didn't it was for the simple reason that I couldn't wait to see what would happen next). The OST is probably the only reason why the "sound" section didn't make it to a "10". It's in no way bad, but it just didn't have any special track for me to remember. Be it an epic, a sad or a serious song, they all are good, but no track in the OST actually made me want to search it up on YT.
In conclusion: To me, there were only a few minor things that annoyed me at some points, though nothing which the rest of the show couldn't make me forget. For the rest, I can confidently say that I'm happy I got to watch this anime as it made me laugh a lot while still following an interesting, emotional and exciting storyline, and coming to remember the vital importance of things like sports and friendship.
So, lets get this out of the way, it says the genre is sports, but its really just fanservice. Its like listing Queens Blade under simply action. Sure there are battles, but its really about the tits. And sure, Free has swimming, but its really all about Kyoto Animation spending a hundred million Yen simply to show legions of fangirls how perfectly they can animate really sexy guys swimming through really sexy water and hugging each other in totally platonic yet still extremely sexy ways. So, KyoAni, congratulations on succeeding greatly in your effort. The art was fucking amazing, the story moved along just fine,
the music was upbeat and summer-y, and the characters were just complex enough to have some heart behind their fucking hot-ass pecs. KyoAni may not ever hold the prize for 'best anime ever' but it will certainly hold the record for 'anime that made the most girls simultaneously explode their ovaries'.
"For the team..." - from the director of Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, K-On, Clannad and Lucky Star comes a show about swimming. And you know, I like it. The story follows 5 swimmers, four from middle school to the present (Nanase, Hazuki, Tachibana, Rin), the other a track and field club member who eventually gets won overbfrom Hazuki (Rei) and Rin's little sister, who is also the coach/support for Nanase, Hazuki, Tachibana and Rei. Without spoilers, Rin... Moves on in life without Nanase, Hazuki or Tachibana and this is of course fully explained, and I like how the story shows the guys experiences from both
sides. Nanase is our main character, so we see the experience from his side and how he misses swimming with Rin and sometimes doesn't see the point if he can't swim with his former teammate, and from Rin's side we see how he gets disc...ouraged, and wishes he... could swim with his former teammate... Oh. To be honest the story is fairly weak, but what makes it bearable is the ending, it's really heartwarming and for anyone who's read my Love Live review, you'll understand why four life long friends coming together after a long stint of not seeing each other is heartwarming to moi.
The other characters are pretty much there just for support and to flesh out the story, though of course the ending again makes them redeeming. They are all likable at least, but you can tell the story and character is focused on this rivalry between Nanase and Rin.
Must admit, there are pros of course. As well as the ending I keep going on about, and this will be personal, I love swimming IRL. So the premise for the show drew me in, but it's disheartening to know it's kind of just another string to the main ploy of the show, Nanase and Rin. The other is the art - we're talking Clannad or above. It's quite beautiful, BUT - it's really wierd. Because you can't speak of Free! without the male fan service - well, I mean it's for females to enjoy, but all the guys are male... OK, OK. LOTS OF RIPPED HIGH SCHOOL LADS, AND A GIDDY FEMALE TEEN. It just seems jarring to the almost serious relationship between Nanase and Rin. What really took me out of it, and I kid you not, Rin turned his head slowly as his hair was being windswept and cherry blossoms blew in front of his face...
OK, quick rap up. Pros:-
(IMO) premise (as in swimming)
Relationship between characters (mainly ending)
Jarring plot threads
Lack of real need for support characters
And this anime comes with a recommendation to stream, if it seems interesting to you, but not to feel bad if you can't watch it all the way through. 6/10.
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