Free! – Iwatobi Swim Club Season 1 Review
Also known as: Free!
Format: 12 episodes
Allegiance: Kyoto Animation/Animation Do
Director: Hiroko Utsumi
Intelligence Report by: David Taranto
Back in elementary school, Haruka, Makoto, Rin, and the younger Nagisa swam together in a relay and brought a championship home to their local swim club. Afterward, however, Rin moved to Australia to pursue his swimming at a prestigious school, his sights set on one day swimming in the Olympics. Haruka, who loved the water, stopped swimming, effectively dissolving the relay team; before too much longer, the swim club closed its doors altogether. Now, three years later, Nagisa is reunited with Haruka and Makoto at Iwatobi High School with the hope of swimming with his old teammates again. But can it truly be the same without Rin?
Field Report by: David Taranto
It’s almost impossible to be unaware of Free! It’s gained itself a reputation for being the latest Gravitation, the current fangirl-pandering eyecandy-bait du jour. Over-the-top, and so shallow it couldn’t even hold enough water for Haru to deem worthy of stripping down to his omnipresent swimsuit to splash in.
I swear, these people have never watched anime before in their lives.
Free! is fun. It’s light. It’s brisk. It’s ripped. But it’s also incredibly competent. It is a show that is self-aware without being self-deprecating. It is a show that, in the end, impresses more than titillates.
A show about scantily-clad females doesn’t need much of a plot to rake in the viewers. The same holds true for scantily-clad males. Hell, they don’t even need to be scantily-clad if their faces and shapes are pretty enough! There’s any number of reverse-harem or BL anime out there that are completely interchangeable—usually two or three per season! So what does Free! have that sets it apart? Try well-thought-out plot and character development, excellent character designs, theme, pacing, agency, and causality—all elements that almost any anime strives to incorporate.
The plot of Free! is simple: form the swim club, recruit for the swim club, strengthen the swim club, compete as a swim club. It’s a formula that works for (and is used by) any sports anime. While this serves as the main path for Free!, the series also takes leisurely strolls away from it, meandering several times off and on and back off again. There are things you expect to happen—they’ll come together and overcome this difficulty to win at prefecturals and qualify for regionals! Then they’ll go there and it’ll be tough somehow, but they’ll come away victorious! Yay team!
Not quite. In fact, on one occasion it strayed so far from the path for the sake of theme that I was concerned the show had completely unraveled, but then in came competent writing to rightfully wrangle the consequences of what had happened into the plot.
If this show is anything, it is competently written—something I wish I could say more often. Characters have their stereotypes, yes, but here they’re applied in a more complete way and play off each other flawlessly. Characters in Free! feel more whole because (almost) everyone has motivations born from backstories that are always in play and don’t just show up when they’re convenient. If a character has an modus operandi in one episode, they’ll have it all the time. Nagisa, in particular, carries this well throughout the entire show. He’s very much a “fox”-type character—he has objectives that he hides behind his aloof exterior and is always aware of how other people act and react. One scene in particular that impressed me came later in the series, when he comforted a teammate who had not won his race. Nagisa offered him an explanation—your goggles were half-off, so of course it was harder for you!—the same kind of explanation the character made for his own performance…five or six episodes prior.
There’s an attention to detail that even goes beyond consistent writing. A swimming relay consists of four styles: backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly, and freestyle. Each of these requires a different part of your body to swim them well, causing swimmers to both look and move differently. Kyoto Animation has a reputation for high production values, and they did not disappoint with Free! A lot of study went into making all of the swimming scenes happen, and the same went into the physical builds of the swimmers of each style—not to mention the cross-sport applicability of different movement and muscle build specializations and how that ties in to the plot.
Is it funny? Yes. Is there eye candy here? Sure. Does it have to be there? Not most of the time. There’s a scene here and there that is clearly intended to titillate viewers who like such things (even then, a fair chunk of those is in the opening and ending sequences, but very few anime don’t pander to some group in their theme animations), but beyond that, this series is no different than watching a swim meet, a swim practice, or the Olympics on television. Swimming is a legitimate sport—it’s not all one living swimsuit issue. And the same holds true for most of Free!
The ending is something I’d not like to spoil, but I will say that I’ve seen other series try to pull off something similar in order to lend a fresh and thematic punch, and Free! does so far more successfully. If you’re worried that such a “fluffy” show can’t stick the landing (pardon the mixed metaphors), you shouldn’t be. Free! is way more than the sum of its man-parts, and with a second season right around the corner, they’ll definitely be seeing me next water-time.