Hey everyone, Fenrir here with a snippet of some “Food for Thought” on a rather “hot” topic of debate, and that happens to be KyoAni’s new anime: Free! Otherwise known as that one “swimming anime”, Free! certainly delivers on providing quality animation with a very strong slice-of-life feel. But it also splashes into some debate: some fans are upset that KyoAni has gone in this direction to pander to a demographic that they’re not associated with (i.e. fangirls).
But is Free! really a threat to the anime industry and its commitment to pandering to a largely male demographic? Well, let’s take a look at the first episode and find out.
Before we begin, let’s go over a thing. By definition, fan service is “gratuitous titillation” — basically it’s supposed to pleasure you. Whether it’s a long and drawn out fight scene with all the cool action affects and explosions, to sexual elements — fan service gives the fans what they want when they pick up any sort of media. We usually associate anime fan service specifically with erotic scenes — they can also be gags (Guy shoved into girls breasts) that are funny but also deliver that specific erotic undertone that people react to.
So with that in mind – we’ve already got a thing with swimming, and the thought of guys in skin-tight swim trunks — it’s an image that is erotic, yet I find that Free! does not hype it up as much as one would expect when given the chance. In fact, for those of you worried about KyoAni deviating from anything but its usual “cute” and think that Free! is a racy, pandering anime then I think you’ll be sorely disappointed.
Free! revolves around the lives of five guys in a high school swim team. The four main guys–Haruka, Makoto, Nagisa, and Rin–were once part of the same swim club and together won a relay race before parting ways. Now older and reunited, the once-friendly team turns to bitter rivalry as Rin–who is part of a rival high school known for producing star swimmers–challenges Haruka, who has been his life-long rival. In retaliation Haruka, Makoto, Nagisa, and a new rookie, Rei, team together to beat Rin and form the Iwatobi Swim Club.
The first episode establishes the backstory and growing tension between the original team. Haruka is talented but — in a strange moment of actual depth for this particular anime — is aware that his talents will be considered “nothing” as soon as he grows up. He believes in an age-old adage told to him by his deceased grandmother: At 10 you are a prodigy, 15 a genius, 20 ordinary — and is counting down to when his talent for swimming will count for squat. But with the arrival of Rin on the scene scoffing at their original friendship (And with the determination to prove he’s the better swimmer because that’s what rivals do), Haruka seems to be inspired to take up swimming once more.
In between these actual plot-moving points, there’s scenes of guys doing cute things and an ongoing stripping gag that’s not even a strip-tease persay but guys whipping off their shirts at lightning speed. It’s more comic relief than an actually erotic experience, mind you. Annnd that’s all there is to it.
So. Free! is essentially just another slice-of-life, sports anime; it’s literally just high school guys doing things. And in KyoAni style each guy seems to fall into a distinct character trope: we have a confident guy, an overconfident guy who also happens to be the main rival, cute guy, down-to-earth-guy, that guy with glasses, etc. And then there are the gags: our indifferent but extremely talented main character lights up (Complete with eye sparkles) when he hears the word “pool”, the main guys also have incredibly girly names, and it seems like its normal for really passionate swimmers to wear their swimsuits underneath everything.
But subtract the gags that are interpreted either as fangirl fodder, running jokes, or maybe even both — is Free! just KyoAni pandering to a female audience?
Well, for something considered only for fangirl fodder, it certainly has some top-notch animation — especially in (sort-of) accurately depicting swimming relays. I usually side-eye sports anime, waiting for the “super move” that is otherwise physically impossible. But KyoAni outdid themselves with spot-on movement, from the way that they dive to the turns needed to propel during a swimming relay run. Yes, oh no, there are scenes that could be interpreted as gratuitous butt-shots — but the team seems to be holding off on the kind of sports anime camp that I’d expect. Haruka sadly does not have a trademarked style of free-styling.
Much like how KyoAni didn’t skimp on nicely animating a bunch of girls in a rock band, the swimming is rather fabulous — but much like KyoAni’s K-ON crew don’t walk into Free! expecting a look into the dark and harried depths of the human soul. The cast does things that are ridiculous (IE. Continuous stripping) for the gag factor, as well as generally play upon a dynamic that can be considered “cute”, I suppose. Honestly, I am impressed with the art, but the story and the characters — not so much; it won’t change your life, that’s for sure. And as a friend of mine said: It was pretty, and I watched it, but I didn’t expect much out of it.
And that’s the thing about Free! — it’s fun to watch, but I daresay it’s the farthest thing from a “threat” to any future KyoAni productions. I’m sure KyoAni will continue to produce series that the majority of its fanbase will appreciate–with girls doing cute things, of course. But, for now, Free! seems to be a fun experiment for KyoAni to delve into, and while I find that this first episode is “cute”–it is up their ally in creating anime that’s just well… cute.
So is Free! simply fan service? All that male stripping can be such a drag you know and it sure does smear the reputation of anime as an art form. Just kidding. Honestly, all strip-gags aside, I think it’s a way for KyoAni to show off that they can animate a complicated action (swimming) and make it look cool–while also adding their usual flair for all that is “cute”. It may seem awkward on rippling, muscled dudes — but I doubt that there would be much complaint if these same gags were employed by an all female cast.
Anyroad that’s all for this bit of “Food for Thought” — tune in next time for a look at fandom and beyond~