At face value, Free Iwatobi Swim Club is little more than a fangirl’s fantasy, what with the gratuitous fanservice and thinly veiled subtext. But if you look beyond the flashy exterior, Free is a heartwarming coming of age story about the bonds of friendship between five young men who love swimming.
Free! (known internationally as Free!- Iwatobi Swim Club) is a 12-episode anime series based on the light novel High Speed! written by Koji Oji and illustrated by Futoshi Nishiya. While the series originally consisted of a single volume, in 2014, Koji Oji published a second follow-up volume.
The series follows the trials and tribulations of the Iwatobi High Swim Club, which consists of long-time friends Haru, Makoto, Nagisa, and newcomer Rei as they prepare for an upcoming swimming competition. When an old friend returns to Japan after spending a few years studying abroad in Australia, the team finds their tenuous peace disrupted.
Plot & Story
The story itself isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. A high school sports team strives to win some competition/tournament, but, unlike the more traditional sports anime out there, Free has a much more slice-of-life feel to it, trading in high energy sports scenes common in shows like Haikyuu and Kuroko no Basket, for much more intimate character moments between the members of the Iwatobi swim team.
Of course, there is plenty of swimming to placate the diehard sports fans, but much more time is spent delving into the individual motivations of Haru, Makoto, Nagisa, Rei, and of course Rin. We get to see the intimate details of their relationships with one another and how those individual character dynamics affect their effectiveness as a team. Haru, Makoto, Nagisa, and Rin were childhood friends, they have established relationships, so their interactions tend to be much more emotionally charged than their interactions with Rei or Gou. I don’t say this to undermine the importance of Rei to the Iwatobi team. He’s an integral member of the team and a kind of an in-show proxy for the audience, but Season one of Free is largely Haru, Makoto, Nagisa, and Rin’s story. It’s about their struggle to rebuild the broken bonds of the past, while forging ahead and building new ones in the present. So while I liked Rei, I just didn’t have the same emotional connection to him as I did with the other characters. Hopefully, that will change in season 2, fingers crossed!
Art & Music
So, the art… *ahem* The, um, character designs were quite pleasing to the eye… Okay, who am I kidding, this show has some of the most beautifully crafted torsos I have ever seen. I was literally drooling every time Haru or one of the other boys donned their swimwear and hit the water (you can see every muscle) and then I had to mentally slap myself because ogling half-naked anime teens just feels… illegal. But, despite some minor moral dilemmas, I have to admit that they did a fantastic job with the character designs. These are swimmers and their bodies need to be lean but toned, anything else and it would ruin the aesthetic. As if to complement the breathtaking character designs, the background art is equally stunning. Richly detailed locales that really draw you in, sweeping shots of the city help add a grandness to the story, so that you feel like you aren’t just watching the events unfold, you are a part of them!
What really blew me away was the water. This is a swimming anime and water plays a huge role in the overall narrative, so it has to be done just right and Free did just that. Rather than capturing the feel of water like Hayao Miyazaki does in his animated films, the animators in Free tried to capture the movement of water, giving the overall depiction of it a much more natural and realistic look.
As for the music, I hate the opening theme ‘Rage On’ by Oldcodex. It’s loud, it’s intrusive, and it just doesn’t really fit in with the slow slice-of-life feel of the show. On the flip side, the ending theme, ‘Splash Free’ by Style Five (made up of the Japanese VAs) was a much more enjoyable track. It’s upbeat, catchy as hell, and just a lot of fun! The rest of the background tracks were light and airy reflecting the laid-back style of the show.
Themes & Trivia
Viral Video: Prior to its release, Kyoto Animation released a 30-second commercial for the series that created quite a splash in the online community. The commercial featured the main cast in all their half naked glory splashing around and having a grand old time, all accompanied by a pop/techno beat… It made no sense whatsoever, but the power of fanservice was more than enough to get people talking about the at the time unknown ‘Swimming Anime.’
Something for the ladies: So, Free gets a lot of flack for all of the fanservice, but, I guess those folks are forgetting about all the wonderful boob and panty shots we’ve had to sit through over the years. Is it so wrong to have a little male eye candy every now and again? The main characters spend most of the series in tight fitting swimwear with beads of water slowly sliding down their perfectly animated muscular torsos.
You sure this isn’t BL? Usually, shippers have to work really hard to find justification for their smutty fanfiction, but with Free, the subtext is kind of in your face. There are lingering looks, intense emotionally charged confrontations, there’s even a frickin’ KABEDON and don’t get me started on the beautifully animated ‘non-confession’ scene in Episode 9… There’s even a whole TV Tropes page dedicated to all the subtext and it’s organized by pairing for convenience!!
Gender Bent Naming: All of the main male leads have girly names, to the point that Haru (full name Haruka) is mistaken for a girl on a number of occasions. Conversely, the team’s female manager Goh has a rather masculine name, preferring that people use the more feminine Gou instead.
Now with more angst: Every single interaction between the members of the Iwatobi swim club and Rin. No, seriously, every time Rin shows up within close proximity to our ‘heroes’, the music gets really tense and the camera angles become more pronounced, not to mention the emotionally charged dialogue… clearly, there are some unresolved issues that need to be worked out.
Of course, I can’t talk about Free without mentioning the not so subtle BL subtext… Let me clarify, most sports anime series have some level of subtext; a friendship that is a little too intense to be completely platonic, a character whose gaze lingers just a little too long on the face of his ‘best friend’, maybe a dynamic duo that fight like cats and dogs, but you know deep down they lo-, I mean respect each other… you know what I’m talking about. It’s the basis of 95% of the yaoi fanfiction on AO3. Well, Free has all of that and then some, and as someone who enjoys BL media, I found the whole thing extremely frustrating. I like a good ship tease as much as the next fangirl, but, MY GOD, Free dangles that crap right in front of you like a prized ham only to pull it away at the last minute and mock you for even daring to try and take a bite.
Nowhere is this more evident than with the relationship between Haru and Makoto (and to an extent Haru and Rin). There are these moments when Makoto’s gaze will linger on Haru, and it’s not the normal buddy buddy look. I’m talking full blown ‘I wanna f*** you’ bedroom eyes. Now if this was just a one-off thing, I’d dismiss it as little more than the beautiful delusions of my inner BL fangirl, but it happens every single time he looks at Haru. It’s like a blind man seeing the sun for the first time. It’s like Makoto is a chubby kid and Haru is an especially mouthwatering piece of chocolate cake… But, does the show acknowledge any of this? No. Abso-fuckin-lutely not! This show is just one big tease!
Now With 100% More Subtext
- Fluid, clean animation, special mentions to the water and the abs!!
- A character-driven story with great development and growth from the main leads
- Fun, easygoing storytelling style
- The subtext; you either go full BL or you don’t, don’t tease us with it!
- Some of the confrontations were a bit too intense for my taste
- Some of the jokes were overused (ie. Rei and the Penguin Speedos)
So, the final verdict: Free Iwatobi Swim Club had its moments. The series is full of all the usual sports anime tropes, and yeah, there is plenty of eye candy for the ladies, but, beyond all of the flashy gimmicks, Free is a charming coming of age story that effortlessly blends elements of comedy, slice-of-life, and drama. I admit that when I first sat down to watch season one of Free, I wasn’t expecting anything especially mindblowing, and I’d be lying if I said my opinion of the show changed all that much after watching the twelve-episode season, but, for what it’s worth, the show doesn’t deserve all the hate. So, whether you’re a fan of sports anime or not, Free offers something everyone can enjoy.
Free Iwatobi Swim Club