Short answer: Yes, but you have to get through the manservice first.
Free! definitely has its reputation within the anime community. The entire project was formed after a commercial from the animation studio, Kyoto Animation, went viral due to the extremely attractive boys used in the clip.
The commercial gained massive popularity in both Japan and the West, causing KyoAni to capitalise and create an anime surrounding the ‘swimming boys’. Thus, the birth of Free!, the female-orientated fanservice anime we’d all been waiting for.
FREE! – IWATOBI SWIM CLUB
“Haruka Nanase has a love for water and a passion for swimming. In elementary school, he competed in and won a relay race with his three friends Rin Matsuoka, Nagisa Hazuki, and Makoto Tachibana. After claiming victory at the tournament, the four friends went their separate ways. Years later, they reunite as high school students; however, Rin couldn’t care less about returning to the way things used to be. Not only does he attend a different school, but the sole thing important to him is proving that he is a better swimmer than Haruka.
After the bitter reunion, Haruka, Nagisa, and Makoto decide to form the Iwatobi High School Swim Club, but they will need a fourth member if they hope to take part in the upcoming tournament. Enter Rei Ryuugazaki, a former member of the track team whom Nagisa recruits. As the time to compete draws near, the four develop a close bond while training intensely to come out on top and settle things between Haruka and Rin once and for all.” (From MyAnimeList)
Now, for the reputation Free! has, I feel like I should talk about the reason a lot of people have written it off. With any show with a lot of pretty boys, these shows will often attract a fandom that is fond of shipping, leading to fanfiction, art and the sorts cropping up. Which is fine. However, in Free!’s case, it appeared to alienate a large portion of the anime community who got the impression that Free! is a yaoi anime. Which could not be further from the truth.
I mean, okay. Let’s not kid ourselves. Kyoto Animation were aware of their audience, and definitely played up the manservice at times. However, there was no actual romance between any of the boys…or in fact, anyone at all. Free! is essentially another one of KyoAni’s ‘Cute Girls Doing Cute Things’ anime, except with the roles reversed. The show is, at it’s heart, just a feel great show about a guys that just-so-happen to look great too.
The downside of Free! is probably its sports anime label. Whilst the plot definitely has a focus on swimming as a sport, it lacks the same pull that other sports anime aimed at a similar demographic (such as Haikyuu!! or Kuroko no Basuke) have. Whilst it is easy to root for the Iwatobi Swim Club, the interest definitely falls on the boys rather than an interest in the sport itself. I suppose this is due to Free! being not only an original idea by Kyoto Animation, but also their first venture into sports anime. However, had Free! been marketed simply for what it is – which is a slice of life, rather than a sports anime, I feel like there definitely would’ve been less room for disappointment.
However, whilst Free! was fine, but not great in its first season, season 2 (Free! – Eternal Summer) really proved that there was more to the story than just some pretty faces. In this series, our protagonists are faced with every teenagers very worst fear – what are they going to do once they leave high school? I’m sure we can all remember what it was like when we were asked this question, because God knows it instilled enough fear in me. Eternal Summer, in my opinion, provides one of the most realistic portrayals of both ‘the fear of the unknown’ (also known as adulthood). The characters express a very realistic range of emotions that are sure to connect with a wide audience, whilst still keeping within the same light-hearted tone that the first series had. Never would I have expected to be bawling at the ‘pretty boy swimming anime’, and yet…
Whilst Free!’s first season is a worthwhile watch, if not just for a comfy show (and to catch the hype train that’s still chugging after 5 years!), Eternal Summer is a must-watch for both slice of life and school anime fans, and can be enjoyed by a much wider audience. You’ll just have to enjoy those rippling (pun intended) pectorals along the way.
Free! – 6/10
Free! – Eternal Summer – 8/10
What do you guys think of Free!? Can you sit through the manservice? Are you going to take your marks with the Iwatobi Swim Club? Let me know!
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Until next time!