Monday, 27 October 2014

フリー!エターナルサマー / Free! Eternal Summer

As predicted, there was a second season of Free!. Very probably there will be more, too. And I must say, I didn’t mind. This second season did a lot of things wrong, but a lot of things right as well.

The problem with Kyoto Anime follow-ups is that they often stagnate. The characters are established and liked by the fandom, so we get the likes of K-On!! Where cute girls do cute things. And this continues until the fans get bored and reject the show, which sours any early success.

This series looks badly like it is going in that direction. For the first half, not a lot of swimming happens, and there’s a whole lot of regurgitation. There’s another struggle to find new members (none arrive, at least for the main bulk of this season), worries about what the boys are eating, and a cultural festival where they have to run a foot race in their swim clothes. There are rather dull episodes about each of the characters, usually revolving around a misinterpretation where the others think something serious is going on, which turns out to be nothing. The best of these is when Makoto seems to come to realise that he’s not going to be able to keep up with the prodigies around him but would be better off thinking of becoming a teacher – being naturally good with kids and caring enough to check on their well-being outside his classes.

But what the series does well is to break out of this closed circle and look elsewhere for more interesting stories. The most obvious place to do this is with Rin’s swimming club. Rin himself is developed a lot here, and becomes far more likeable as his story is fleshed out, he begins acting less selfishly and actually does some very kind things for others. We also get new characters, lone wolf Sousuke, brooding and stirring up competition yet having a tragic fate (of course), and chirpy, naive comedy loudmouth Momotarou. Aiichirou also gets a lot more development, falling behind badly but working extremely hard to catch up and being vindicated – as well as being the straight man in a fun manzai comedy-like relationship with Momotarou.

There are really two emotional threads running through the season, which work quite well. One, presumably relating to the title, is the grim inevitability of happy times ending. The older characters are going to graduate, new relay teams are going to have to be formed, and kohais are going to have to accept that their sempais are going to leave their lives, or at least their daily lives. The second, closely related to this, is the coming-of-age of the characters and the need for them to find their true paths. Haru in particular is just uninterested in his future, or taking any responsibility, feeling that career paths inhibit his ability to be free. The high point of the season, perhaps of both seasons thus far, is Rin spontaneously taking him to Australia to show him the competitive swimming scene there, opening his eyes to the wider world. It’s a very sweet gesture and works well. Even with some rather awkward attempts to make Rin sound fluent in English.

Of course, the series is still aimed squarely at the fangirls, and in all honesty, the homoeroticism gets strained here. As I suggested in my review of the third season of Inazuma Eleven, these aren’t a bunch of young kids who might all be very confused about their sexuality and ignore it. 

They’re young men, and there’s a certain point where the obviously unusual intimacy between these guys simply wouldn’t go unspoken – even in Japan. The way these boys act, people would be making a whole lot of comments. The closest the series gets to addressing the possibility of homosexuality is when Rin gets angry that the hotel he’s booked for himself and Haru has a double bed. As a result, I found it all very contrived and unconvincing, especially since I continue to not actually ship any of the muscly men together at all (though Nagisa and Ai finally got some scenes interacting with one another, hoorah! If they didn’t have such weird bodies, I’d totes ship it). And I ship characters very easily, from just about everyone who isn’t hideous in Inazuma Eleven to the vast majority of the pretty girls in Saki. I just don’t see the men in Free! as cute in any way. (Flashback versions are another story of course!)

I don’t know that there’s much more that can happen in Free!. It may be better to leave it open as to how well Haru does in the adult world, and who the new swim team recruits might be. But if there’s a movie, or another series, or even just some OVA, I’ll probably tune in. And I’m all for more series like this, treating boys just the same way that anime has long treated girls. But preferably slightly less...bara. Please. 

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