Japanese Title: Free!
Related: Free! Eternal Summer (sequel – included in review)
High Speed! Free! Starting Days (movie prequel to childhood)
Similar: Kuroko’s Basketball
Prince of Stride: Alternative
Watched in: Japanese & English
Length: 12 episodes (season 1), 13 episodes (season 2)
- Super fun and enjoyable.
- Chemistry between main characters.
- Elegant art style suited to the water.
- Music gets you pumped to swim.
- Season 2 largely repeats season 1 drama.
- Some cheesy confrontations.
With the sports genre being least familiar to me, I thought it time to dive in new territory, though I probably should have picked something other than Free! Iwatobi Swim Club to start with. I wasn’t the target audience for those glistening bodies, tight shorts, and the protagonist undressing every episode. Well, I’m already halfway across the pool, love the water, so may as well reach the end.
Free follows a group of friends and their passion for swimming. In middle school, swimming was life, swimming enveloped every waking moment, but then high school crashed into their bubble of happiness. One of the gang, Rin, moved to Australia to make it as an Olympian. They drifted apart. Jump to the final years of high school, the mature and sensible one of the group Makoto wants to refresh the passion for swimming with his friends Nagisa (a guy) and Haru (full name: Haruka, also a guy, hates his girly name – they all get made fun of for having girly names). Haru swims for the pleasure of it, needs water like air, to the point where soaking in a fish tank at the pool shop isn’t beyond his dignity. With the loss of the swim team, he’s retreated into his bathtub – wearing his swim trunks, no less – a quiet guy without a passion in the world.
Then Rin storms back into their lives (subtle with those shark teeth, guys), attending a nearby school known for excellence in aquatics. Except…he has changed. He finds their past childish and doesn’t have time for nonsense like “friendship.” His return motivates the others into reopening the school’s swim club.
The childhood memory catalyst works well here. How many times have you seen the ‘childhood friend’ trope only to find nothing indicates they were ever childhood friends? Free sells its impact through the camaraderie between characters. I never doubted they were friends.
The boys enlist the help of their wisdom-quoting literature teacher, a funny character with an embarrassing past involving ‘swim wear’ from her previous Tokyo job, and Rin’s younger sister Kou (real name: Gou, but that’s for boys – having a name commonly used by the opposite gender is a recurring theme). Manager of a swim club is her dream job, surrounded by glistening boys. She creams her knickers at the sight of Haru and “all those hard muscular arms and pecs” – a hilarious fangirl stand-in character. In fact, all characters had me laughing in Free. They are fun to be around, and after the dreary, uninteresting anime I watched previous, this was a refreshing change.
Needing a fourth swimmer to qualify as a team, Nagisa uses his boundless enthusiasm to recruit current track & field athlete Rei – “He also has a girl’s name, so he’s destined for the team!” Though I would identify the most with Haru, Rei is my favourite character. I love his methodology and logic; he hates swimming because he sees it as going backwards in evolution to when we were fish in the ocean. “It’s illogical!”
Free has no drought of comedy. As for conflict, their struggles have an emotional core grounded in reality. Each has something to learn, individual motivations in the goals they strive for, but do so as friends to the end (hopefully).
Swimming doesn’t have the luxury of the physical head-to-head clash found in the likes of boxing or tennis. Free leans heavily on character mindsets to weigh the races with drama, often represented through beautiful metaphors – the wall seeming an ocean away, seeping blackness on the edge of vision, or the feeling of freedom, swimmer alone in the water. These techniques make the sport engaging, though it wouldn’t keep one breathless for a long-running anime. Thankfully, Free doesn’t aim to cross the Pacific. On land, the conflict is a sip overdramatic, yet still enjoyable; if Free hadn’t sold itself as a ‘fun first’ anime, this could have been a problem.
Where Free does waver is in its second season. They introduce a new rival, but from his backstory to his dramatic beats, he’s a near copy of Rin with less emotional impact. Season two isn’t bad, just more of the same and not as funny. Only the final three episodes advance the characters in a meaningful way.
For my first traditional sports anime, (technically second, but track & field series Suzuka hardly had any sport) Free! Iwatobi Swim Club was a great start. I expected a fan-service ecchi fest, but no, none of the ‘attractiveness’ comes at the expense of other areas. Free is an excellent example of how to do an ‘attractive’ anime without resorting to the dregs of the fan service barrel. I’m surprised by how much I enjoyed this. Will definitely watch again and am excited to experience more sports anime.
Art – High
Great animation when swimming. Even outside the water, there is plenty instead of usual static pans – hair always moves. These artists know how to create elegant art suited to the water. Also, Sydney, Australia looks perfect – glad they did it justice.
Sound – High
The ED with Haru as the Prince of Persia searching for water in the Arabian Desert, Nagisa dressed like a harem girl, Rin as some water baron, is both a creative metaphor and humorous. Listening to the metal OP, you wouldn’t believe this was a swimming anime. The music in general is good. I preferred the dub for the less feminine voices on several characters (some sound prepubescent in Japanese), which makes the girly name jokes funnier through contrast; however, the Australian accents are better in Japanese. So surprised!
Story – Medium
A group of friends seek to revitalise the swim club and bring back the passion for swimming. Free has enough drama to fill the plot, but characters and comedy keep one going to the end.
Overall Quality – High
Recommendation: Worth it for the first season, at least. Stay on for the second if you want to spend more time with the characters. Free! Iwatobi Swim Club is an all-round fun anime anyone can enjoy.
Awards: (hover mouse over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)