Free is an anime from mid 2013. It was produced By Kyoto Animation. That’s right, the studio behind K-on, Hyouka, Kobayashi-san Chi no Maid Dragon, Nichijou & Air among others. It’s one I’ve heard about but never seen. So, let’s dive in and have a look.
We open with some footage of children at a swim club. They seem to be enjoying themselves and everything is all nice and wholesome. We cut to several years later and our main protagonist, Haruka, soaking in the bath. His old friend, Makoto, comes to pick him up for school and seems completely unfazed by him sitting in the tub with his swim trunks on. How often does Makoto see Haruka in the tub? In any case, they go to school and things change for them when they’re reunited with Nagisa who wants to start a swimming club. Things get more interesting when they’re reunited with the final boy from the flashback, Rin, who’s back from studying in Australia and seems to have grown distant.
The biggest issue with the story is that it has a lot of moments that they make way more dramatic than they need to be. A big one is that Rin wants to swim with his old friends but instead of just asking he decides that he needs to swim against them in tournaments. Seriously, why? He could literally go visit them, since he knows where they live, and just ask to swim. He could even offer to suck their dicks if they’ll allow it but I don’t think he’d need to since they very clearly want to be friends with him still. Besides, he has shark teeth and that would probably go badly. There’s also a scene where Rei makes way too big of a fuss over his three new friends having history with Rin.
Look, I get that it’s more on the comedic side and you can’t really put in anything too serious as a source of tension, but at the very least don’t get all semi-melodramatic over very minor things.
I will credit the series for having a good sense of humour. Nagisa deciding that Rei should be in the club solely because he also has a feminine name is funny. The whole segment with the group at an abandoned house is funny. So is the bit at the festival. The strong humour makes for an entertaining watch, at the very least. I will also say that the series does a good job at subverting expectations in quite a few instances. Although its final “surprise” is really obvious and they still treat it as a surprise for some inexplicable reason.
Like a lot of school comedies, the characters aren’t that complex. Makoto is the mature, responsible one. Haruka is the quiet one who doesn’t express himself well. Nagisa is the cheerful and affectionate one. Rei is the smart one. Rin is the driven, tsundere one. I will reiterate that a more comedically driven series like this doesn’t really need strong characters. It just needs characters that mesh well with comedy. However, the more melodramatic elements do need a bit better characterisation to work. The characters also spend way too much time talking about Rin’s drama. It’s like Nagisa, Makoto & Haruka all decided that Rin is theirs and his drama should really impact their lives.
Largely, the artwork is pretty nice. Kyoto Ani can clearly draw the human form pretty nicely. The characters look pretty good. Makoto actually reminds me a lot of Stahl from Fire Emblem Awakening. Which is fine because the Fire Emblem games have some great character designs. The water effects are really nice. The animation is smooth. I’m sure someone will point out that the forms the characters use for swimming are off but if that is the case I didn’t notice. Probably because I have never watched competitive swimming.
There are two things that are odd about the art. The first is Rin’s shark teeth. Every other character looks perfectly normal and here’s this dude with super pointed, jagged teeth. What, did he use a Ferengi tooth sharpener just to get that effect?
The other is the imagery in the ending theme. First off, why are all the guys wearing harem girl outfits? Secondly, no seriously, why are they all wearing harem girl outfits?
The acting is pretty well done. Suzuki Tatsuhisa, Miyano Mamoru, Shimazaki Nobunaga, Yonaga Tsubasa, & Hirakawa Daisuke all have strong performances. The supporting characters are well acted as well.
The music is largely well done. The in episode tracks do their job pretty well. The ending theme tune is quite catchy and well composed. I don’t particularly like the opening theme tune. It’s not bad but it’s also not something I would want to listen to.
There is a lot. All five major guys in this series come across as really gay. Whether it’s Rin’s obsession with Haruka, Rei describing Haruka as beautiful, Haruka becoming super despondent any time Rin is upset, Nagisa chasing after Rei or the incredibly homo-erotic splash fight in the ending theme. The only characters who come across as straight are Gou, who drools over all the muscular boys, & Coach Sasabe, who has a large stack of swimsuit magazines.
Areas of Improvement:
- Stow the melodrama. I get that you need some kind of tension for the sports element, but this series does go overboard.
- Just reveal the last “surprise.” Honestly, there would be nothing wrong with this scene if they didn’t keep this element in the shadows or otherwise obscured as though they were surprising the audience when the characters have basically said exactly what they’re going to do already.
- Some more diverse dialogue topics. Like I said, these characters discuss their childhood connection and Rin’s drama way too much. Maybe let them have some more zany, comedic conversations and less of that.
Free has its issues. It has elements that don’t work all that well. That being said, it s a very entertaining, watchable series. Both because of the more absurd comedic moments and because of the fun, ho-yay fueled dynamics. It definitely has an endearing quality to it. So, I’ll give the series a 7/10.