First Impressions – Free!

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Let the insanity begin – Free! at last.

 OP: “Rage on” by OLDCODEX

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I can’t imagine the content of the first episode of Free! would surprise too many viewers, but there’s still an awful lot to talk about.  I think a few things were pretty much a given: this is a Kyoto Animation show, so you figured it would look great – and it does.  The creators have been blunt about the focus on manservice, so you figured there’d be plenty – and there is.  You know by the babble since the first “commercial” aired that the viewer reaction would be fascinating – and it is.  But the big question was always this: is the show itself going to be interesting?  So far, I’m not ready to answer that question.

Technically Animation DO, Free! is actually a KyoAni series through and through, and that means the key staff is all part of their tight-knit family – though director Utsumi Hiroko is sitting in the big chair for the first time.  Character designer Nishiya Futoshi filled that role on Hyouka, and the look of the characters is highly reminiscent even by KyoAni standards – though truth be told, Free! can’t match Hyouka in terms of the lush and detailed overall look (few shows can).  The story itself comes from a novel by Ouji Kouji (to be published by KyoAni’s book wing later this year) which actually featured the main characters as grade-schoolers, which is how we see them in flashback as part of this premiere.

These guys are definitely not grade-schoolers, though – even token shota Nagisa Hazuki (Yonaga Tsubasa) has pecs till next week when the shirt comes off.  And make no mistake, shirts come off a lot –  Utsumi wasn’t kidding when she listed “torsos” as a major theme of this series.  Nasgia and fellow leads  Nanase Haruka (Shimazaki Nobunaga), Tachibana Makoto (Suzuki Tatsuhisa) and Matsuoka Rin (Mamoru Miyano) spend a good part of the episode stripped to the waist and beyond.  That’s only natural for a swimming show, but Free! – so far anyway – is pretty unapologetic about its main purpose in life.

There’s a weird disconnect with these characters though, at least for me.  Imagine if the cast of Kimi to Boku were athletes instead of… whatever they were.  And then imagine they took steroids, getting the physical manifestations without the ‘roid rage.  What you have is a bunch of impossibly buff hunks acting like middle-school girls – a strange combination of beefcake and male moe, not helped by a bunch of actors in their 30’s or damn close trying to sound like youngsters (the 40 year-old joins next week).  My problem with Kimi to Boku – which grew on me to the point where I kind of liked it for its unpretentious innocence – was that the guys didn’t act in a way that was particularly male.  I was hoping that as the rare school-life show about 4 (eventually 5, just like Free! will be) boys instead of 4 girls would explore the male side of the school experience (something like Danshi Kokousei no Nichijou eventually did), but the behavior of the characters was mostly indistinguishable from their hundreds of female counterparts.  So far, the same seems to be true of Free! – and given the track record of the studio behind it, that seems unlikely to change.

That said, there’s nothing especially unpleasant about Free!.  It looks like a KyoAni show, with the requisite high-quality animation – the OP especially is a work of art, fluid and stylish.  The characters aren’t particularly annoying so far (Nagisa is borderline).  But I can’t say I find the premise especially compelling yet.  The four leads were all cohorts in a swimming club, where they won a relay and buried the trophy as a time capsule.  Rin – the brash ringleader of the group – moved to Australia, Nasgisa went to another middle school, and Haru and Makoto went to a high school with no swimming club (or pool, apparently).  Haruka (all the boys have girls names, which is a further blow against subtlety) is the main focus of the premiere – his resolute “I only swim freestyle”, his weird quirks like wearing his swimsuit in the tub, and his rivalry with Rin, who returns to Japan apparently having become a complete A-hole while down under.  Our fifth hero, for the megane-oriented fans, doesn’t appear yet.

There’s nothing wrong with a show that’s transparently a service series for fujoshi, if that’s what Free! turns out to be – otaku have had hundreds of them, so they have no call to complain now.  The series won’t be of much interest to me if that ends up being the case, and it certainly seems to be based on scenes like Haru grilling fish in a swimsuit and an apron and the WTF ED, which is a strange combination of niche manservice settings that seems to have been designed directly for Comiket.  There could be more here – maybe one or more of the characters will emerge as really interesting (or like KtB, it’ll be the 5th lead who brings a new spark of life to the series) or the story or comedic aspects will find another gear, and Free! will reveal some hidden depths that weren’t apparent in the premiere.  But for now this series is strictly swimming – albeit quite capably – in the shallow end.

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ED: “SPLASH FREE” by STYLE FIVE – (Nobunaga Shimazaki, Tatsuhisa Suzuki, Mamoru Miyano, Tsubasa Yonaga, Daisuke Hirakawa)

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50 comments

  1. K

    AHAHAHA. Thanks for the review senpai. xD I'm rather glad to have my hands washed of this one; not that it was bad by any means, but I'm not sure I could write anything like this about it.

  2. G

    It gives off a slight BL vibe (like steroid beefcake) thats a little unpleasant. Like the series is eye candy for gay men or something. Hell there isn't a single female in the OP.

  3. Did it never occur to you that it might be eye candy for women? How many shows (hundreds, certainly) do we have with no guys in the OP or ED?

  4. i

    I hate moe-slice of life for how boring it is but I can't stop laughing at how OUT there Free! is. No hands held back Fujoshi bait and that makes it hilarious for an anti-moe.

  5. h

    @ishruns

    Eh, audience pandering is still audience pandering whether it's to otaku or fujoshi. If the market was flooded with fujoshi bait shows to the extent that moe slice of life shows are currently, would you still feel the same way?

    It really comes down to if the show will actually be good thanks to its plot and/or character development which we just don't know yet.

    I do agree with Enzo though that these highschool "boys" didn't really act like boys and more-so like their typical heroines of shows previous, so right now I'm not that optimistic. Maybe my childhood was weird but I sure as hell never skinny dipped with ONLY guys

  6. i

    But the market is not flooded with Fujoshi bait, its flooded and drowning people in filthy Otaku bait. That has to be taken into context and makes the show at the least more important and better than those virgin boy orientated market clones.

    Simply put its a welcome change and I'll take it as that and not as a very detailed and touching plot. You can't have just pepper, you need some salt as well.

  7. W

    I'm loving all of your puns, Enzo! This made for a delightful read, haha.

    Hopefully the story will actually matter, but at least the visuals are nice! No question about it…these guys are eye-candy. >___<

  8. l

    So we have Manly-Man-On! (Gifuu Donou) and now Girly-Guy-On! (Free!). One extreme or the other, it seems. What does a regular sap like myself watch if he wants something in the middle? Tamayura?

  9. i

    Gin no Saiji, Tamayura is firmly in the moe wastelands.

  10. i

    I just want to watch it each week so I can go to AnimeSuki and troll all the Otaku who are secretly torturing themselves to watch it, as beyond reason Kyoani fans. I've had enough of all the moe/harem/K-ON clones but generally dislike reverse harem shows for shambolic female leads, so no dumb females and this brilliant animation makes it worth the watch. I even laugh at every single bit of manservice because I can see the Fujoshi writhing in pleasure, literally my circle is big screening this, and the Otaku squirming as their Fortress of Moe is invaded by the enemy. It was worth it.

    I'll be watching as longa as it doesn't become full out yaoi.

  11. i

    Also I really hope you keep blogging this Enzo, I really want to know your thoughts on it.

  12. E

    Look! Kyoani is Kyoani. Hahaha. It's either all-male or all-female. Can't they make a normal show?

  13. i
  14. p

    > "There's nothing wrong with a show that's transparently a service series for fujoshi, if that's what Feee! turns out to be – otaku have had hundreds of them, so they have no call to complain now."

    Thank you so much for this. The hypocrisy coming from certain anime fans (even in the comments section of this exact review) complaining about this show being "fujoshi bait" (or variations of that phrase) is appalling.

    This show has, quite predictably, brought out all the homophobes and misogynists out of the woodwork (many of them are not surprisingly both homophobes *and* misogynists). It is both fascinating and depressing to see the ways in which these people have reacted to anything related to this show.

    First of all, the homophobia and the general fear of the male body (not necessarily the same thing, though often interrelated): so many of the people commenting on this show seem offended or threatened or scared by visions of a naked/half-naked male body. They are very vocal about how the sight of these naked/half-naked guys is disgusting to them.

    It's an amusing reaction, really, because the people (rather, the guys) who make these arguments tend to be the ones who are okay with (and even enthusiastic about) the fan service equivalent of naked female bodies being paraded on screen. If seeing blatant objectification of naked male bodies offends these guys, imagine how much more women have to put up with in terms of the endlessly larger number of objectified depictions of women in anime!

    It is also amusing to see the reaction of these reactionaries for a different reason, namely, that the people who are most vocal about their homophobia likely have an element of homosexual desire within themselves as well. (See, for instance, the various right-wing male Christian leaders in America who were caught with their pants down in sexual relationships with other men, despite being very publicly against homosexuals.)

    Then there's the misogyny. You might wonder: how can there be misogyny in the reaction of certain male viewers in a show like this? Well, the misogyny comes in the way certain guys have reacted to the whole *idea* of this show. Like I mentioned earlier, they are appalled at the fact that there is a show aimed almost exclusively at pleasing and servicing women. Again, these people don't complain — or, at least, are not as vocal in their complaints — when there are way more shows aimed almost exclusively at pleasing and servicing men.

    Observing and analyzing viewer reactions for shows like Free! would make for interesting sociological insights, me thinks.

    As for the content of the show itself, I really have nothing to say, simply because there is nothing to say. It's so far looking like a shallow slice-of-life show, though I am also hoping just like you that the show will show its depth soon.

  15. i

    I applaud you for the analysis. I've had enough of shallow moe bait and now I'm going for some gay bait, as a guy, because its funny. Really the best show of spring so far because of just how gay it is. Still I'm just not going to watch Yaoi, so as long as it sticks to this hilarious BL I'm (can't use 'in', or 'gonna stick with it' or 'going all the way') 'some kind of nonsexual innuendo' watching it.

    If there was a show meant to be followed on RC, this has to be it. BTW I love my own male body, especially after showering when I finish a workout. I look ripped, especially when half naked in jeans.

  16. K

    This is why I like this show; it's exactly what male anime fans roll in all the time compared to the small pool girls (and anyone else interested really) have to wade in. I personally don't want to cover it because I'm asexual and I'm afraid I'll take it way too literally to give the fanservice part of the equation justice (which is why I'm handing it over to my sister, a proud fujoshi), but I'm happy it exists for this reason. That being said, it is rather sad to see the negative backlash. Goes to show how much progress is yet to be made.

  17. p

    By "gay" do you mean "bad" or "homoerotic"?

    I ask this because "gay" is so often misused by certain people in society as a bigoted synonym for anything they consider bad (as in "this show is so gay" when what these people should say if they don't want to be bigoted is "this show is so bad" or "this show is so appalling" and so on).

  18. A

    One thing I've always thought about this show is how much it's brought out the hypocrisy, misogyny, privilege and homophobia of the toxic otaku hivemind.

    But I doubt I'd have expressed that so eloquently. Well said!

    I quite liked the first episode, and hopefully in the second episode it will develop the storyline more.

  19. I don't endorse the objectification of either gender in anime, as it's hardly the most noble use of the medium. But the way Free! has laid bare the hypocrisy of otaku who think the anime industry exists for their benefit is a good thing, even if Free does turn out to be a male version of those shows. Fujoshi have endured legions of female service series – with considerably more grace than otaku are showing now – and I don't remember any complaints that those series must be for lesbians because there were no guys in the OP (or often, in the series itself). And the fact that Free comes from the holy bastion of moe, KyoAni, only makes the poetic justice that much more enjoyable.

  20. Z

    It's not surprising at all. In some sections of the otaku universe there seems to be very real irrational hate for almost any non-female character in a given series. Which is honestly bizarre and disturbing. Those people need help.

    In an ideal world 'fanservice' would mean the producers actually do the audience a favor, not by trying to appeal to base desires, but rather by providing thoughtful, interesting and engaging content.

  21. S

    I can't put my finger on it, but the music is what keeps me watching. Somehow it makes the whole experience… a lot more watchable than I expected. I am colorfully surprised!

    Although, MUTANTS. NO NIPPLES. *I kid I kid*

  22. g

    Yea, thats pretty much what I thought too.
    Im surprised the music for this series is being largely ignored since, imo, its the main responsible for the light-hearted, friendly mood the episode had for the most part.

    The bgm was just plain fun and dynamic, fitting incredibly well.
    I already want the OST.

  23. R

    Bwahahahaha… Oh God, Enzo, reading your review is way more fun than watching the episode!

    Question 1: Why can't KyoAni do another Hyouka?
    Question 2: Are we watching 4 young men or…women? Seriously, I am a bit confused.

    Well, these are obviously stupid questions. Actually, I was thinking of checking it out before it aired because I was curious. It's also because I wanted to find out what kind of a character that Miyano Mamoru is playing. I was interested in Rin when he was a middle schooler but found his character change in three years too awkward and forced — as if all of sudden we needed a rivalry for the sake of having one. I guess I am stupid to try to think here… Well, I am staying for at least a couple more episodes.

  24. m

    I am surprised at question 2 since the episode spent 80% showing that these characters are definitely male – very well developed males I might add.

    Also, as a proud fujoshi, my head is still reeling from the whisky strength fanservice. Guess when Kyoani aims to do something, they go all the way.

  25. R

    Sorry — I didn't mean to offend or look down on the show. I just felt that the characters — while having manly bodies — acted like girls.

  26. i

    And as if those ditz in K-ON or A-channel actually act like girls?

  27. R

    I can't answer your question — I haven't watched either one of them.

    Let me say it this way… If I covered up the screen leaving only the subtitles on, I felt that the characters were like girls interacting with girls, but I haven't thought of labeling them as ditzes yet although wearing their swimming trunks 24/7 is pretty far-fetched.

    By the way, I don't like characters — especially female characters — being stereotyped as ditzes and ditzes only throughout an entire show.

  28. R

    So far I'm indifferent to this series.

  29. J

    I have the exact same thoughts on this show after the first episode as I had when I saw the first commercial:

    "I may be a straight male, but DAMN these guys are HOT."

    I'm quite pleased with it so far, despite being not terribly different thematically and structurally from the usual KyoAni fare.

  30. f

    I think this show is on crack (or at least, Haruka is). Who wears their swimming trunks under their pants 24/7? I agree with Enzo in that there's not much depth to this show (yet), but at least it's incredibly entertaining in a really eccentric way (the teacher, the ED). Not to mention the torso thing. I think I'm going to love it no matter what happens to the plot.

    I do wish KyoAni did more Hyouka-esque things though.

  31. S

    While the swim trunks was kinda weird, I had a student who would wear his baseball uniform under his uniform from fall to spring. It kept him warmer and he didn't have to change much other than pants. Freaked me out the first month when he started stripping after last period ended.

    But those swim trunks are EXTREMELY low cut. If we wore something like that when we went swimming, I'm pretty sure our junk would fall out.

  32. t

    Nah, those trunks should be safe, they aren't going anywhere – just check out competitive swimmer or even diver pics. Those suits are built to stay in place. =)

  33. N

    "What you have is a bunch of impossibly buff hunks acting like middle-school girls".

    I actually find this kind of funny, because they act a lot like the boys in my highschool class. Part of the reason why I don't understand the "they might aswell be female" complaints. Although you could probably argue that neither of my classmates were ever that buff haha.

  34. M

    I really didn't see any guy acting like that when I was in highschool.But what Enzo said there makes me wonder…If this is how some girls imagine their ideal men to be like then one could argue that they hate how most guys actually are.To that end,we might as well say that they like girls in the bodies of guys.

    And I completely agree that Danshi Kokousei no Nichijou was one of the best(the only I saw actually) at portraying the male side of the school experience and I don't think the viewers of that were too numerous on the female side.

  35. E

    Yeah, high school boys totally called his friends -chan, chasing each other naked in the pool while giggling, and splash water unto each other. Yay.

  36. If you want to see a really good series portraying the idealised female view of high-school boys (with nowhere near as much fanservice as this one), OoFuri is about the best one out there. Utterly preposterous, but quite entertaining and fun nonetheless. Free! would have quite a ways to go to be considered on that level.

  37. N

    @Eternia

    Ehh, the -chan thing doesn't really exist here so I'm not sure how to comment on that, but I've seen the latter part of your comment happen in RL pretty often. I'm quite suprised that people think fooling off in the water is something boys aren't supposed and should not do…

  38. I think horseplay in the pool is the last thing people are thinking of when they say these boys aren't really acting like boys.

  39. K

    I am not sure if I think they act like "girls" despite the name but they definitely act more like tropes than real characters. I am hoping that will change as they develop their characters.

    I see a lot of people seem to not like Nagisa and Makoto because they come off as "moe" but honestly of the group right now I like them the most because they have pleasant personalities. Rin of course is coming off as the mean one but even Haruka is a bit too distant for me. I am interested in the Rin/Haruka rivalry/friendship as that I something that I admit I have a weakness for. Well friendship stories in general get me.

    As for their bodies, yeah they are absolutely ridiculous looking but it is not even close to bad as what women have to endure. when I see guys saying this is the worst fanservice, they must be kidding. But in the end I agree with your point I am not for objectifying in any way.

  40. B

    Is this the "swimming anime" from Tumblr ?

  41. d

    One thing to point out is their body types are that of swimmers, wide yet svelte, and not steroid users in the conventional sense. If they were competitive swimmers, then perhaps so, as steroids can be used for recuperative reasons rather than muscle building ones.

    That said, still on the fence with this show. Will decide after the next ep.

  42. H

    I thought they were ok for swimmers, but swimmers tend to not be quite as defined as that, nor quite as triangular, but I put that up to general anime unrealistic body types.

  43. d

    Agreed. Most media use definition as shorthand for some sort of physical prowess. Imagine an anime with powerlifters or Olympic lifters. We'd see the expected departure. Of course, license is characterization.

  44. b

    Thanks for the thoughtful review & analysis!

  45. J

    This will be my 1st experience with a show focused on "manservice". I have absolutely no prejudice when it comes to anime and always look at things from and objective standpoint. Although I will admit that going into the 1st episode now has me feeling a bit uneasy lol

  46. J

    Ok just got through the 1st episode and I have to say that it has me intruiged. However GE, I would like to point out that the physical manifestations of using anabolic steroids are much more pronounced than that. Their bodies were drawn appropriately, nowhere near as disproportionate as the breasts on some female characters.

    I will agree that Nagisa is pretty annoying though.

  47. Sorry, but all CAPS posts make my eyes hurt.

  48. K

    "What you have is a bunch of impossibly buff hunks acting like middle-school girls"

    I don't see the cast acting like middle-school girls… Maybe they're not just manly as they do not talk about about girls, pron, video games or sports. The first episode dwells too much about the past and the main cast being too emo makes the series look bad. TBH I have nothing against the anime, I just watch it because it has the "sporty" vibe (I like sports anime) and aside from great eye candy I can hold on to this anime…

  49. i

    Rants should always be in CAPS. Doesn't sound right in lowercase. But I can't stand all these comments from idiots who came into the series thinking its going to be any thing besides fujoshi bait and are complaining and saying its not good when its about as obvious as a brick in the face that manservice was the only point of the show. Writhe in pain as Kyoani converts.

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