Believe it was something quirky doing the rounds organically or believe it was all a cynical viral marketing ploy, but the fact remains the same – KyoAni’s short promotional film about some boys showing off toned bodies as they swam did the rounds of the Internet anime fandom, Japanese and international, and a broad audience became somewhat ironically enamoured of it. Those who didn’t care for the rippling muscles found the absurdity of the premise and the distance from the moe-moe girls of previous KyoAni efforts very entertaining and soon there was quite the buzz about the possibility of a full ‘swimming anime’.
And of course, it came to pass, and ended up quite the hit. Fujoshi took to it for obvious reasons, churning out their pornographic fan-comics incredibly quickly, while straight male fans continued to watch because something so camp and silly made them laugh. Of course, there were some detractors, mainly people who didn’t see any irony and found the whole thing boring and girls with a slightly holier-than-thou attitude of having been into homoerotic anime long before one was a hit on this scale, so they couldn’t possibly deign to watch it, but Free! was marketed very well and got bigger and bigger.
I liked Free!, but I don’t think I was quite doing it right. I would certainly tick many of the boxes in any fudanshi test, but I didn’t watch Free! for the shipping – none of the pairings appealed to me, the muscles I found most unsightly (even cute shota Nagisa had a chiselled chest) and if I were forced to chose a ‘ship’ I would probably go for Nagisa and random-other-team-uke Aiichiro, which is definitely doing it wrong. They never even interact. I didn’t want to see these half-naked guys making out. And nor did I want to laugh at the stupidity here. I mean, it was stupid, and that’s what’s enjoyable about a lot of sports anime (just look at Prince of Tennis and Inazuma 11), but if that was all there was to it, I would only get to about episode 3 before growing to dislike it. Personally, I am actually a sucker for the classic embittered-rival-grows-passionate-about-surpassing-the-main-character storyline, which I associate most with Hikaru no Go but is everywhere from Code Geass to the movie Amadeus. I didn’t like Rin, but I was very interested in his interactions with natural genius Haruka.
Not a lot happens in Free! – the boys decide to revive their school’s swimming club, struggle to recruit the fourth member who will allow them to compete, train hard and then go to the Nationals for the relay. Meanwhile, they have to struggle with the politics surrounding the presence of their rival Rin, who had been the final member of their dream team back when they were adorable shotas. Of course, athletic performance is directly linked to frame of mind, and when the boys are together they begin to see the most absurd symbolic elements like their spirit animals swimming ahead of them. But it is enough drama to sustain 13 episodes, and it’s no surprise that the final screen hints at more to come – after all, KyoAni are known for wringing every last drop out of a successful property…just look at K-On!.
Everything about Free! is obvious and superficial. The comedy is broad but occasionally inspired, from Nagisa’s penguin fixation to Rei simply sinking when he tries any stroke but the butterfly. The writing is obviously aware that fandom will pair off the guys and pushes certain ‘ships’, like ReixNagisa, which is probably the most annoying thing about the show. Emotions are broad and guys will grab each other and start swinging fists and rolling in the dirt together when they have a deeply-felt point to make. Kohais care deeply for their sempais and will come close to tears when they see them in a bad mood. It’s cute and dumb, but it’s meant to be, and it thrives on that.
I can’t say Free! is a great piece of anime writing, or that I’d watch it again. But it kept me amused and interested throughout, and I will tune in for more. Just don’t expect me to coo at the hot boys or to laugh at the stupidity. That’s not why I like Free! – I like it for its bare bones, not its gimmicks.