I’m just about 50-50 on whether to continue covering Free!, though to be honest if it were a decision based on the merits of the show itself I’d be leaning against it. After three episodes I’m less interested than I was in Chuunibyou, more than Tamako Market – obviously Hyouka is in an entirely different galaxy – and that’s about where I subjectively rank the series at the moment. But watching it has been an illuminating experience in certain ways.
The first thing I’ll say is this: it turns out that I have just as much of a problem with self-consciously cute series about guys as I do when they’re about girls. About the closest mainstream show I can compare Free! to in this area is Kimi to Boku, which was a series that hovered just above the blogging cutoff for two seasons and occasionally spiked to significantly greater heights (in spite of the above). Kimi to Boku ended up having just enough offbeat quirkiness and one breakthrough character that kept it enjoyable – Free! is showing signs of the first, but as of yet not the second.
The other thing that stands out for me is that yes, they really did it. Kyoto Animation is to be admired for their self-confidence if nothing else – they have supreme faith in the formula they’ve perfected, and they remain slick as a baby seal when it comes to executing it. Right up to the end I was skeptical whether they’d go all-in and Free! would be a perfect example of the KyoAni template except with guys, but that’s exactly what it is. This is K-On! right down to the exclamation point in the title, and while it seems absurd to try that with the characters we have here, in the end it doesn’t come off as ridiculous as you might think.
This is an issue for me, of course, in that I don’t especially find K-On! or its countless clones a compelling watch, and sooner or later Free! is going to have to offer something more than the curiosity factor and the polish to keep my around. It’s undeniably a brilliant marketing direction for a studio that’s proved their marketing brilliance over and over – what a way to expand your demographic reach. And they do seem to be a trying a little harder than with Tamako Market – if nothing else Free! is open in the way it sells the sex appeal of its male characters (lucky Rei gets to strut about in a speedo) to the point where it almost reaches meta-humor, most obviously through Kou’s non-stop “Kyah!” reactions over them (I suspect she’s going through the medical dictionary, and will name every muscle by the final episode). Given how many series have sold themselves on the sex appeal of their underage females, there’s surely some poetic justice in seeing it happen with guys – and from KyoAni no less, a blow struck at the heart of the legions of fans who think the studio exists to cater exclusively to their own interests. I like the fact that Free! makes no bones about its purpose here – it may not be high art, but it’s honest.
But again, so far talking about the episodes is for me more interesting than the episodes themselves. This was probably the best of the three, with some fairly amusing moments surrounding Ryuugazaki Rei, the new member who finally gets his formal debutante ball this week. He’s another chiseled-from-stone hunk, a member of the track team obsessed with analysis and technique, and of course he’s the one the tireless Nagisa ( who still hasn’t made the leap from annoying to endearing for me) has had his sights on as member #4 for a while. The plot is spurred into motion by the introduction of a classic anime club scenario – they need to raise money (in this instance to join a swim club with an indoor pool) and in order to do so need “accomplishments” according to Ama-chan-sensei. When Gou sets up a joint practice with Samezuka the urgency level in finding a fourth member is ramped up, and we all know who it’s going to be so there isn’t a whole lot of time wasted in getting to the point.
There’s surprisingly little drama between Rin and Haruka at the practice – Rin is barely on-screen in fact – with most of the focus on Rei. For all his focus on form and technique, what he’s failed to inform the others is that he doesn’t know how to swim – which results in his promising starting-block form turning into a rather undignified belly-flop. A pole vaulter by trade, it seems Rei is increasingly finding his attempts at beautiful form at that sport are getting him nowhere. Rei’s argument that swimming isn’t beautiful is ironic given that it’s only the swimming animation that’s truly exceptional in Free! so far, so it fits nicely that it’s seeing Haru’s form in the water that finally converts Rei to wanting to swim himself. And of course he chooses Haru-chan-san (sorry, but the Furuyas’ Dad was using that honorific in Ginga e Kickoff a year ago) to teach him.
There does seem to be some potential for Rei, who’s got a little more comic spark to his personality than the rest of the cast so far – his tortured dignity led to some pretty funny undignified moments this week. If he can rise above the level of being comic relief that would be even better, as Free! desperately needs a breakout character, but comic relief is better than nothing for now. The plot is about as stock as it could be at this point so I don’t think there’s a whole lot of point in investing hopes in that (again, KyoAni is very confident in their formula) and while the animation is as good as you’d expect from KyoAni, apart from the swim sequences it isn’t at the transcendent level that would have made Hyouka worth watching even if it hadn’t been so well-written and interesting narratively. It’s all pretty plain yogurt so far apart from the one obvious tweak to the formula, and the historical record isn’t encouraging on the question of whether that’s likely to change. Plain yogurt and novelty is an intriguing combination, but it remains to be seen how much appeal it has over the long haul.