I can’t really say I saw anything here that changed my opinion about Free! one way or the other. There were no surprises for me in this episode, which isn’t in itself a bad thing. But given that my reaction to the premiere was somewhat muted, I guess it’s fair to say I was hoping for a surprise or two. I still feel that Free! is more interesting as a phenomenon than for its story, and that the audience reaction – and what it says about the state of anime fandom – is more important and more compelling than the series itself. But it’s not too late for that to change, especially with a new character on the horizon.
Basically, Free! is painting in primary colors at the moment – there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of nuance either to the story or characters. Also, I confess I have a certain bias against shows where the characters smile too much – it rubs me the wrong way – and there’s a bit of that effect here, especially with Makoto. But if I were to point up one character who poses a problem for me so far, it would be his fellow-smiler Nagisa. He really points up the delicate balance necessary for a character like this. In broad terms he plays a very similar role to Chizuru from Kimi to Boku – the token shota, the blonde-haired genki boy. But where Chizuru was the best character in that show, Nagisa is pretty grating for me. Why? Some of it no doubt boils down to Miyu Irino being a better seiyuu than Yonaga Tsubasa – but there’s more to it than that. I think it comes down to Chizuru epitomizing a sort of sincere silliness that KtB developed and which gave it a kind of quirky charm, which both Nagisa and Free! so far mostly lack.
That leads in to what I think is my biggest issue with Free! so far, which is that the show has a kind of contrived quality to it – nothing feels really natural with the exception of the shots of the characters swimming, which are the only time the show transcends itself and becomes truly memorable (like Haruka, the series seems more comfortable in the water than on land). Everything seems to be following a predictable template and the characters falling into predictable niches – the only thing that’s really unusual is the unapologetic focus on male fanservice, and TBH if this weren’t Kyoto Animation I’m pretty sure even that wouldn’t be considered such a big deal. As we got to know
Gou Kou (Watanabe Akeno) better this week, she at least provides a kind of ironic self-awareness in that she seems to be filling the role of an audience insert character. That’s hardly news, but the fact is we’re used to seeing bland guys fill that role, and here we have a bland girl who openly goes “Kyah!” over the pecs and abs and triceps (especially the latter, especially Haruka’s) so proudly on display. Those were the only moments in the episode that really made me laugh.
Other characters added to the mix are “Ama-chan-sensei” Amakata Miho (Yukino Satsuki) – who like Kou was in the premiere briefly, and as expected becomes the expected Swim Club’s advisor. She’s pretty much the stock hot and ditzy teacher so far, though she has some sort of secret past that involves “working for a swimsuit company”. There’s also the boys’ former coach at the swim club, Sasabe – now delivering pizzas, in addition to a nugget about Haruka and Rin – and a member of the swim club at Rin’s school, Mikoshiba Seijuurou (giving us the surreal spectacle of Tsuda Kenjirou playing a teenager). But the most important of the new faces was one we saw only for a few seconds, Ryuugazaki Rei (Hirakawa Daisuke), as he’s denying Nagisa’s entreaties to join the Swim Club because he’s committed to the track club. He’s destined to become the fifth main cast member, and hopefully he proves to be an interesting one.
About the story itself, there’s really not much to say at this point. Pizza-coach’s revelation that Haruka quit swimming competitively because he beat Rin in a race when the latter was home from Australia for New Years – which upset him terribly – was a bit of an anti-climax. The Swim Club stuff was pretty routine, right up to Gou becoming the 4th member. It all feels very much like a standard KyoAni script right now, with one obvious adjustment. That tweak is obviously important, but it’s not sufficient it itself to make Free! an artistically successful series – and as someone who isn’t a huge fan of that script to begin with, I’m not finding anything really compelling about the series as a whole so far. In a way Free! feels like one big marketing experiment right now – can this well-worn formula, in the hands of the studio that’s unquestionably the master of it, be applied successfully to a series aimed at a very different audience? That’s certainly an interesting question – but as long as it remains more interesting than the story and characters, Free! has a real problem on its hands.