I was drawn to this sports anime, as I had not seen one with swimming as its core. For this show, “Free!” is both a noun and an adjective, but first, some background for the plot.
Some years earlier, our four friends used to swim for the Iwatobi Swim Club and participated in the Medley Relay, which they won readily. However, one of their entourage was moving to Australia and this would be the last of it. Flash forward to the future. Three of them attend the same school and learn that the swim club they spent their youth at is being torn down. They go to look at it and bump into their old friend, who has enrolled in a different school, one that is a swimming powerhouse (Samezuka Academy), while these guys go to a school that no longer has a swim club. This is a show about revival and what it means to be free.
Our original four friends were:
Lower row, two in from left, Nagisa Hazuki. Does the breaststroke (although they call it the crawl)
Upper row, two in from left, Makoto Tachibana. Does the backstroke.
Upper row, three in from left, Haruka Nanase. Does freestyle.
Upper row four in from left, Rin Matsuoka. Does the butterfly and was the one who went to Australia.
When they are told by Rin that he is swimming again, Nagisa decides they should do the same. They restart the club, but they lack four things:
A coach (which they find in Goro Sasabe, upper left blondie. He used to coach them at the old swim club)
A manager (Gōh Matsuoka, two in from the upper right. She attends Iwatobi and Rin is her brother)
A teacher advisor (Miho Amakata, lower left first row. She is their home room teacher and is trying to cover part of her past)
And a fourth student to make the club.
They set their sights on Rei Ryūgazaki (red glasses, lower row center). He is a pole vaulter, so he has the strength to swim, but not the desire. He is very analytical, but has a hard time putting it to practical use. But they eventually convince him to join.
(The other two folks at the far right are Aiichiro Nitori, gray hair and Rin’s roommate, and Seijuro Mikoshiba, captain of the Samezuka swim team).
This show really works the symbology issue. We look at ‘free’ to mean freestyle, the only stroke that Haruka will do, but also ‘free’ to mean ‘freedom’. They wax on about how being in the water makes you free, but these people are all trapped by the past and are not free to move ahead with what they want to do. Each holds a secret that tethers them to a previous time that can no longer be accessed and that you have to move ahead, as that is what is best.
I enjoyed this show (despite the symbolism. I am not used to symbolism in anime) not only because it was about swimming, but the interactions between everyone. Rei was extremely funny, as all his knowledge does not prepare him for swimming and he feels he can ‘smart it out’ with a bit more logistics. Work the brain less and the muscles more.
My two beefs? They both have to do with Rin. First, he has piranha teeth. I don’t mean in those instances when he is angry, I mean he has them all the time. Did he get them filed down in Australia? (I know a good dentist there: P Sherman, 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney). It’s just distracting. Second is his treatment of Nitori. He should be a mentor to him and, instead, he is more of a pain in the butt to whatever goals Nitori has. One thing I hate about sports anime is the mistreatment of the newbies by the veterans. So, why would those people want to hook back up with this guy, anyway? He is being a major jerk.
At the end, the story is more about what it means to be a friend, a real friend, and that friends are your freedom.
Now, let’s talk about fan service. My fan service list was done from strictly a heterosexual male point of view, so I cannot rate female fan service. These guys are in Speedos and low-slung swim suits and shirtless and muscular all the time. Goh loses her mind, being around so much tantalizing beef cake, but, for me, it does nothing, so I can’t really rate how hunkalicious the fan service might be for the ladies. We do get to see shots of girls in bikinis, but that is done more as a sop for the guys.
I saw this on Anime Season, and they have three little short movies, about five minutes or so. If you watch it this way, I would suggest watching all of them after you see Episode 4, so you have a tether and it makes better sense than watching them at the beginning (when it makes no real sense), or at the end (when it is a bit too late to enjoy it).
One thing I will give this show is an attempt to try and explain The Zone. This is that moment in sports, when you are at your mental and emotional peak. It’s hard to put into words how you feel and what you see, but this show does a fine job in trying to translate that. The use of sports is done quite well, as there is no real need to see the whole thing when they race. If you watch just one sports anime this year, you don’t watch enough anime at all. I would give this one high marks to check out.
On a scale of 1 to 10:
Artwork 8 (Better-than-standard job)
Plot 7 (Rather standard, but done well)
Pacing 8 (Keeps up a steady pace)
Effectiveness 8 (Even with a telegraphed ending)
Conclusion 7 (It reaches a ‘coupler’, but doesn’t really end)
Fan Service 2 (A similar show would be “Okamisan”)
Overall 8 (Comes together well)
And remember, it’s first run until you’ve seen it. For the team.