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