Monday, August 4, 2014

review: Free! Iwatobi Swim Club

It's summer. It's hot. In my opinion, it's way too hot (I hate global warming).
Thankfully the second season of the perfect anime to cool down is here: Free! Eternal Summer.
I really liked the first season and now the second season is there, it got me again. Badly. I even re-watched the first. Twice. I hope that with this review I can get some of that obsession out of my system, so I'm sorry if it's a little long and raving.
Spoiler warning: it's not really spoilers, but there's some screenshots from the second season, up to about episode 4 or 5.

Rating: 5/5 (with my current obsession, maybe a 4/5 in my normal state)
one light novel
anime: 2 seasons with 12 episodes each, season 2 ongoing at the moment
Mature content: only in your head
Genre: sports, slice of life

Haru and Makoto are best friends since childhood. In high school they meet with Nagisa, who used to be on a swimming team with them and decide to form a swim club at their school. They are supported by Gou, the younger sister of another former friend from their old swim club, Rin. Rin has recently returned from abroad but it seems like he's not a friend anymore. His character has changed a lot from when they were kids and the first season looks at why this has happened. Plus there's the struggle to make the newly-formed Iwatobi Swim Club into a a swimming team to be reckoned with.
I find it quite hard to describe the plot because outwardly there's not an awful lot happening. The plot is more of a coming of age story, a character development for both Haru and Rin.

Rin and Haru getting into a fight

I can, however, say more about the characters.
Haru loves water. A lot. He reminds me a little of that girl in the movie "Mermaids", played by Christina Ricci. Anything to do with water is serious business to Haru. He consideres water to be its own entity, so much that he goes to consult with it when he has problems or when prompted to tell his friends about a romantic encounter, he talks about seeing a waterfall. While he doesn't swim to win competitions or be the fastest, he does get jealous when he gets the feeling there's someone the water loves as much as him. I think being in water makes him feel at peace and "free". His natural connection with water makes everyone admire him when he's swimming, but he's not very good with people. He's an introvert and mostly only gets pushed into social interaction by his best friend Makoto (usually with the promise of a pool being involved). He doesn't show a lot of emotion and he sometimes seems to have difficulties to know what is appropriate to say or do, he's nearly Asperger-ish. He's very quiet and usually only talks when he feels he has something important to say. I guess to most people he'd seem weird and anti-social. Nevertheless he can form strong bonds with people important to him, like Makoto or Rin.

Makoto is gentle and kind. Even though he's friendly and often smiling, he keeps his worries to himself; I guess he tries not to bother anyone. Haru is probably one of the few people he sometimes confides in. He's a very caring older brother to his two siblings and he takes care of Haru, too (which got him the fandom nickname of "Mamakoto"). He's tall with broad shoulders and though he's definitely a looker, he seems shy about showing off his body (apparently the only one of the swimmers to feel that way). He's also easily frightened and suffers from thalassophobia (fear of the ocean) - maybe that's why he's swimming. His helpful nature makes him a good team captain, but sometimes there's a hint in his expression telling you that you do not want to make him get really angry. But maybe that's just my impression, he's been nothing but a sweetheart in the series. But I hope we get a little more character development from Makoto in the second season.

Haru playing games at Makotos

Rin's a "romantic swimming maniac" (a quote from his childhood friend Sousuke), he's very emotional, he laughs freely and he cries openly. He's the opposite of Haru: he's outgoing and he likes being around people. Rin is very disciplined and demands much of himself, his confidence is legitimate concerning his athletic abilities, but mentally he's not as strong as he likes to make people believe. He's handsome (he has that casual sexiness...) and can be quite charming if he wants to - or an annoying jerk. The change in his personality after coming back from Australia is so blatant that it worries his friends and family: he's gloomy, rude and he pushes people away, even his sister Gou. His relationship with his little sister is usually very good, even though they don't see each other often since he's at a boarding school. He's very protective of her and it's obvious they love each other very much (as siblings). His pointy teeth are a little weird though... In my opinion Rin has the most character development in the first season. I think he doesn't only love to swim relays because of following his fathers footsteps - I think being with his friends empowers him and gives him strength. He's a great swimmer, but he might actually be even better in a team. If that wasn't enough "Geschwafel" about Rin, for an amazing character study go here (it's way better than what I wrote, totally worth the time it takes to read, I promise).

Rin being sexy

I understand and like those three characters but I have a bit of a problem with the remaining two members of the Iwatoba Swim Club.
Nagisa is a very outgoing, happy-go-lucky personality. He seems very childish and unlike the others isn't prone to overthinking things - I mean that in a good way, his enthusiasm is very important for the team. But he can also be quite cunning, manipulating and maybe even a little sadistic at times. I think with Makoto and Haru being best friends and able to understand each other without words, he feels a little like the third wheel. That's why he's putting so much energy into finding new members and focuses so much on Rei after he joined. Rei and Nagisa often act like an old couple.
Rei - as the one wearing glasses (megane) - is a bookworm. If it's to be found in a book Rei will know it and if he doesn't, he'll find out. His obsession with comprehending the theory behind things contradicts a little with his more irrational obsession for anything beautiful. What made him join the swimming team in the end was his admiration for the beauty of Harus swimming. He wants to understand what's going on and feels left out as the only one who doesn't know about their past with Rin. Even though he could be seen as simply a substitute for Rin, he doesn't seem to feel that way. Maybe, like Rin, he's quite the romantic behind all that analytical knowledge. And I think that's why he's able to do what he does in the end...

I want to mention one more character, even though she's not exactly one of the main protagonists: Gou. First of all because I think she's a great character - which is rare, especially in reverse harem animes (yeah, I know, Free! isn't exactly one, but there IS only one girl among guys) - and because I think she plays an important role in forwarding the plot. Afterall, it is her who "arranges" the first meeting between Rin and his former friends. It's also Gou who's the fourth member needed to form the Swim Club at their school in the first place (before Rei came along). A lot of people only see her as the "fangirl representation" but I think that's not quite right. She's no fujoshi, she's a muscle fetishist; while she certainly enjoys the view of half-naked men, there's something more professional about it rather than just horniness. It's also not the reason she got involved with the swim club. She wanted to bring back the old Rin, to "heal" her brother and make him believe in his dream again, and she quite rightly guessed that Haru and his friends are the key to that. (I have a big brother, too, so I can really identify with that part of Gou. I think their sibling relationship is portrayed very beautifully.) But she doesn't only utilize the boys for her own purposes, she's actually a really good manager for them, too. She does her research to help improve their swimming, she makes up training plans, thinks up (wacky) ideas to recruit more members, she motivates and supports them. When she's not ogling at their muscles, she seems to be perfectly at ease with being the only girl surrounded by (half-naked bishōnen) guys. She doesn't make a big deal about it, but she's also not a tomboy either. I think her character comes across as very natural and normal. She's not stupid and not clumsy as females in anime often are and she's not reduced to being cute or sexy, and that's really refreshing. I wish we could see a little more of her.

Gou and her "swimmer harem"

Free! is based on a light novel by Kōji Ōji called "High Speed!". The plot of the novel is about the time when Haru, Makoto, Rin and Nagisa were kids up until they swam in a relay together and Rin left the country. In the anime parts of the novel are told in flash back scenes.

While Free! is nothing fancy, no exciting novelty, it is in my opinion a very good anime series. It is so well done in every aspect, its brilliance is very discreet.

First of all it defies gender-focused genres. Yes, there's fanservice and yaoi innuendos - clearly aimed at a female audience. But there's also subjects that are more typical of the shōnen genre, there's sports, rivalry, friendship/bromance, improving yourself, overcoming obstacles. There is no romance in there at all (except for what the fangirls' minds put in). Sometimes maybe the guys are a bit too openly talking about their feelings for a shōnen anime, but I actually think that's a good thing; we need more differentiated gender roles for boys, too.
So I think Free! is actually well-suited for both female and male audiences. It's a shame that many male viewers seem to shy away from it because of its "gay" reputation. Well yeah, there's a bunch of good-looking guys constantly taking off their clothes to do stuff together. They're also half naked most of the time. But what did you expect - it's an anime about swimming! If you can watch Phelps swim in the Olympics without questioning your sexuality then you can watch Free!, too. Besides, it might do boys good to see a normal female character like Gou in anime, too.

Rin hugging Haru

And that's something that's not so shōnen-typical: the female characters. They're not silly, have normal bodies and and most of the time are fully dressed. I really, really appreciate that.
The female characters aren't playing a very big role though, so it's a bit like getting the reverse harem anime without the annoying stupid female lead.

Another thing I like about Free! is that it's quite realistic. We all know what this would look like of the protagonists were girls... But, the swimming gear and the body types of the guys are rather realistic (with the exception of their Olympic-swimmer muscles during their untrained beginnings). Unlike Bleach they don't have sudden last-minute power ups and don't always win and unlike Kuroko no Basket one match/contest doesn't take 10 episodes to finish.

The animation is also well done from what I can tell. I'm not a big swimmer (I just like to soak in hot water), so I don't understand the details, but the way the swimming scenes are animated is simply beautiful. From what I've read around the internet it seems to be rather accurate, too. The motions look fluid and the water looks amazing. It really makes me want to jump in and swim, too.


I also like the humour. There are several running gags like Haru taking of his clothes to jump into the water every time he sees a pool of water bigger than a bucket. There's the "professional swimsuit past" of their advising teacher. There's Gous muscle fetish. The boys are also colour-coded and all have their "totem animal". Maybe you could also consider the gay innuendos a kind of running gag.

It's not about what you think it is about...

Free! is generally light-hearted, but it has its angsty moments, too, especially concerning Rin (again I want to refer you to the character study of Rin I have mentioned further up). The two sides are very well balanced, another aspect of this animes brilliance.
For me one of the worst tearjerkers was when Rin screwed up a race and was so devastated that he couldn't even manage to get out of the pool. Makoto always reaches out to help Haru out of the pool, so you wait for someone to help Rin - but there's no one. He tries again... and fails again. One of the most heartbreaking anime scenes I can think of.

angsty Rin

Well, I can't deny that Free! implies homoerotic tendencies even though technically it's completely innocent and G-rated. All the yaoi only happens in the viewers mind. The tension between Rin and Haru, for example, is intense. It could simply be an awesome bromance/rivalry. Or it could be of a more sexual nature, depending on how you look at it (and how you want it to be).
As a fangirl you'd expect them to jump each other any moment - but they don't. Which in a way is frustrating, but on the other hand even more interesting. It's like the Wet Saree Scenes in Bollywood movies: on the surface harmless family entertainment, but if you watch it with the right mind, it's incredibly sensual.

We all know how fandom works and how the internet works. Every two guys who come closer to each other than a meter will be paired up. And so of course it was obvious that the internet would be flooded with yaoi fan art, fan fiction and all the like. And the makers of Free! are playing with this, dropping innuendos here and there. It's very well done and it's hilarious and quite often makes me go "Oh no, they didn't...".

I do watch and read shōnen ai and also yaoi, so "boys love" is fine with me, however I'm usually not a fan of the couples the internet creates from every friendship in other animes. I think that bromances should be appreciated for what they are and that their sexualisation might lead to a diminishing respect for true friendship. But with Free!... I just can't help but ship Haru and Rin, really. (Harus and Makotos friendship/bromance is awesome enough as it is.) It's really something that I do very rarely.

Bromance or romance?

Free! Iwatobi Swim Club (the first season) only has twelve episodes and I'd have expected to think that it's not enough. But somehow, even though I feel like I can't get enough of this anime, they manage to finish it in a way that feels good. The last episode is great, it wraps up everything nicely.

So in my opinion Free! is a great anime, the art is beautiful, the characters likeable, the storytelling well paced with light-heartedness and angst well ballanced.
As you can see I loved the first season of Free! Iwatobi Swin Club and I already love the second season, Free! Eternal Summer. I'm really looking forward to see where this is going.

Official Website
Free! on wikipedia
MyAnimeOnline: Free! and Free! Eternal Summer
Free! on TVTropes
You can find a translation of the light novel into English here.
50% Off -  Free! parody (Caution: strong language)

Haru taking to swimming like a dolphin to water

Did writing this blog post help me to get rid of my current obsession? Nope, it actually made it worse. Oh well.

1 comment:

Elenir said...

So, season 2 episode 6 has been out and I loved it!
Makoto decided to race against Haru in the prelims and everyone wondered why. He lost, shedding a hidden tear, but then acting like it was nothing. Later he mentioned to Nagisa that he might have done it because he was jealous of Rin.

Makoto takes care of Haru, he understands him like no one else does, often saying out loud what's on Harus mind or translating his thoughts to others. At the same time, Haru looks out for Makoto, too, to the extend of even telling friends to shut up if he thinks it's necessary. Makotos got Harus back. But he can never be a rival like Rin is. Harus relationship with Rin is intense and very special, too, but completely different. Rin is close to being Harus equal in water and this is something that Makoto can not be. He tried in this episode and failed.
When he acted like it was nothing when he lost - was that honest, did he realize that while their relationship is different, it's just as valuable? Or did he put up his mask in order to not worry Haru? If it's the latter, I think we might see a face-off between him and Rin soon.