Free! Series Anime Review
Oh, Haru, I know you’re as happy as them inside.
Before the Summer of 2013, a commercial made by Kyoto Animation featuring four swimmingly dashing boys was released. It featured fluid water animation and crisp clean colours. While the commercials were usually to showcase their animation techniques, the reception from the public for the four boys was so vigorous, that an anime was made. That anime is Free!
Featuring four boys in high school, Free! is an anime about swimming and the past they shared. The show’s plot about competition, rivalry and friendship could classify it as a shounen, but we all know it’s really a shoujo with a shounen flavour to it. With lingering looks on the boy’s toned bodies and not-so-subtle homoerotic shots of the boys, the fanservice in this anime was through the roof. The anime also didn’t take itself too seriously, with gag jokes and parodies on both the harem and reverse harem genres.
So, why did Kyoto animation, a company notoriously famous for cutesy girls, decide to make an anime about cutesy boys?
Perhaps we should take a step back even further in time to chart the rise of the reverse harem genres. UtaPri, Hakuoki, and Hiiro no Kakera were released in the recent seasons before the summer of 2013. They are all reverse harems, featuring one girl and many guys, and they all had second seasons. If you look closely at their first seasons, all of them had rather static animations, with talking heads most of the time. They also didn’t have too surprising or original a plot to speak of, nor were the characters particularly unique, but bundled in a package with either “singers”, “fantasy”, or “samurai” as a theme, they were more than adequate. That they were able to carry on for a second season speaks to the rise of the female fan as a viable demographic who are willing to spend on their favourite characters.
The rise of the female fan and their influence isn’t only limited to shoujo shows. Many shounen anime now apply a shoujo aesthetic to their men, while keeping the storyline of a shounen. Kuroko no Basket, Katekyo Hitman Reborn, Magi, are some to name a few. The most easily identifiable cues are their long, lean forms, and fantastic flowing hair. Most important of all are the pointy chins that can cut a diamond.
And I think it’s fly when boys stop by for the summer, for the summer.
The appeal of a reverse harem is much like a harem one – there is at least one character for the viewer to like. Not only that, but there are also homoerotic undertones to a harem, some subtly, some blatent, but a lot of it in the viewer’s mind. But what happens when there aren’t any obvious shots like in Free? Well, we become logical and ask yourselves: What happens when the heroine chooses one of the characters? The leftovers will, of course, gravitate to each other, since in that world created by the anime, there really is no one that exists outside of who is depicted on screen. With so much crossover in the viewership between the shoujo and shonen-ai genre, proven with the popularity of series like Vampire Knight, Free! takes the slog away for us. Free! is rife with close contact shots, which makes those of us with love for the shonen-ai genre go hurrah!
So, what happens if the heroine annoys a viewer to the ninth level of Hell and you just wish she would die in a pit of fire? Enter Free!, whose concept is a reverse harem without an overt female heroine. One could argue Gou/Kou is a female heroine, but the boys aren’t romantically pursuing her and mostly just ignore her. In fact, from her fangirling over everyone’s muscles, she is very much the anime manifestation of a girl watching the show and a parody of her at the same time. She looks but doesn’t touch. She knows the boys but isn’t involved with them. She admires their physique but doesn’t single anyone out for romance. There is no confession behind the school like in most shoujo. She is the male and female otaku in moe girl form.
She doesn’t take part in the plot, she doesn’t get into a relationship with anyone, and thus she becomes the heroine who is hard to get annoyed with, and you actually identify with her as she fan girls. She becomes funny to laugh at because inwardly you wonder if that’s how you look like as you oggle your favourite character, whether you’re a female or male. Is this how I look like to my friends? Is this how I look like when I talk about anime to my family? Oops.
You could even argue that the real heroine in this show is Haru since all the guys are effectively pursuing him in one way or another. Hell, this would even work if Haru were the hero and everyone else were girls. If this show had Haru as the boy, and all the others as girls, Makoto would be the older sister next door. Nagisa would be the bouncy girl. Rin would be the childhood friend with the chip on her shoulder, come to exact revenge. Rei would be the new girl who is determined and shakes things up. Coincidentally, they all have girly names. Tropes as old as time.
The man octopus.
But really, it’s hard to hate an anime when it doesn’t take itself seriously, with impromptu fashion shows and music going thumpa-thumpz when a human shark walks on screen. Not to mention the ending dance party that makes you want to jump into an oasis with them as well. We all know most of the people watching the show aren’t there to be engaged by the story or learn more about the world of competitive swimming, but the show is surprisingly informative.
From Haru’s multiple similar swimming wear to Rei sinking like a rock to the feelings of failure during a swim and hitting a wall in training, the show is realistic in its depiction of what most sportspeople have felt at one point in their careers. Rin is surprisingly accurate in how some sportspeople act out when they hit a wall, which is a path of self-destruction and then quitting. Unfortunately, there is only one gold medal and many, many “losers”. As much as I disliked how he treated Haru and his friends, as much as I can’t stand the way he talks about his father’s dream and fulfilling it, I can’t help but see some of myself in him which might be why I dislike him so much and like Rei a lot. Rei is the external force needed to pull the team out of the pattern which they came so dangerously close to repeating. Of course, no one in real life would sacrifice a competition for a friend, which makes that story plot firmly an anime surprise. But for an anime, it does what it’s supposed to do superbly – which is animation.
Most shoujo and shonen-ai, have extremely bad animation. We’re lucky to get two action scenes a season, and most of the episodes are just talking heads with cutaways to the end result of an action. Free! animates its shirt-peeling, swimming, and fighting scenes as well as any anime targeted for boys.
It’s no wonder that Kyoto Animation decided to enter this market. There just isn’t any competition for it. The closest competitor I can think of in terms of fluid animation in a shoujo or shonen-ai is probably the second season of Kuroshitsuji, where certain scenes had jaw-dropping animation for its time. And no one was semi-naked there. Appealing muscles are harder to draw in motion compared to a fabric which gives a bit more leeway for errors. Free! upped the ante with a consistent level of art and animation throughout the season. There was at least one gorgeous action shot per episode. (And now I sound like I’m talking about porn. Oh well.)
I highly, highly doubt that Kyoto Animation released the commercial without planning an anime for it. What might have been unknown was how many DVDs and Blu-rays to print or the exact budget for it, and Free! has smashed records anyway with bookstores going out of stock. It isn’t a surprise to see the goodbye picture be of the group saying they would see us next summer. However, I’m willing to bet that next summer, when we see them again, there will be a third school involved in the rivalry, as is the norm for a shounen anime. You know, introducing more enemies to beat. And also to add more variety to the boys in the show, just like Brothers Conflict, which has been beating Free! in Blu-ray, DVD, singles and album sales. It would also follow the formula for a shoujo, which has the third school having an almost “love” rival for Haru’s attention. This hybrid of shounen and shoujo isn’t going away anytime soon.
The more the merrier, I say! (And maybe a successful CPR next season, please?)