With Free! looking to be one of the big series of the season, even if a huge portion of its fanbase likes it in an ironic sort of a way, I thought I’d write this after quite enjoying the first episode of the semi-viral ‘Swimming anime’ to highlight just why I thought Free! wasn't going to come to pass. Well, thought it highly unlikely. Though at the same time, why it was also a little more likely than some others aware of the series of KyoAni commercials were making it out to be.
The now-(in)famous commercial that led to Free! was in fact the ninth in a series. And the other eight haven’t gone viral, nor become a new series. Indeed, there are other little shorts that I think I’d rather have seen made into a full series – especially the one about a huge robot woman in a traditional kimono who saves the day with the big metal arms on her back and then rockets off into the sky, which was even more brilliant in its absurdity than an openly homoerotic series about cute boys in very little clothing. But most are not animations that would lead to something bigger. That’s simply not what they are.
There are broadly speaking some obvious boundaries between three different thematic backgrounds here. The first mini-animations are basically eyecatches, pleasant adverts for the studio itself – kids plant flowers or skydive to form the Kyoto Animation logo. They, along with the little dance routine celebrating imagination and escapism that is the third in the series underline the KyoAni of K-On! and Haruhi – there’s a focus on cuteness, prettiness and that very nice-to-look at facial style that most of the studio’s leading series has, though it’s slightly disconcerting how the little kids basically look exactly the same as those oh-so-cute high school girls.
After that, the commercials become a place for animators to experiment, to create shorts in styles they otherwise wouldn’t get to try out. Little pencil sketch kids come to life, dive through the air and end up sitting on logos. A woman who looks like a fashion sketch imagines inanimate objects are coming to life and tries to interact with them – all drawn in a very slender way with colours that remind me of pastels, and the aesthetic comes over as very Western…despite the catgirls.
Finally, the last phase is little snippets of an imagined world – the shorts that could potentially be developed into something longer. Sure, one cute one about cat pilots reminiscent of Porco Rosso and a pretty girl going into a store in a lovely overgrown building is linked to KyoAni’s online shop, but the last four animations could definitely become series of their own. As I said, the one with the robot woman in traditional Japanese clothes and what seems to be a 1940s setting would be my favourite, but the guys doing magic and the cat pilots are also very interesting.
And then with the strange thumping song and the perfect muscled bodies comes A New Challenge, a snippet of a swimming anime. I suppose part of why it’s compelling is that it hints at competition and rivalry, that semi-obsessive sense of competition between young boys that made Hikaru no Go so good. But ultimately it seems to have hit a note because it’s absurd, even more absurd than robot women in kimono saving kids from a collapsing building. Not inherently, but in large part because it’s funny imagining anime fans watching the commercial. It’s funny to picture teenagers insecure in their sexuality looking at the taut bodies and unashamedly suggestive expressions and being discomfited. It feels a little inappropriate and yet amusing. It’s pure camp. And you don’t quite know whether it’s meant seriously or not.