Free! Iwatobi Swim club (Review)

About two weeks ago, I went into Gaia’s AMC forum to post a poll, asking the community what 2013 anime I should watch next. I expected Silver Spoon or Gatchaman Crowds to win, and they received 7 and 10 votes, respectively placing in second and third place. The winner, with 24 votes, was Free! Iwatobi Swimming Club, the notorious #SwimmingAnime that came into existence thanks to a viral animation sample, and an almost revolutionary ‘give us this show’ petition.

So, with almost half of that poll’s 60 voters daring me to dive head first into manservice oblivion, what was I supposed to do? Was I supposed to turn my head, and avoid making eye contact with that glistening banana-hammock of a show? Or was I supposed to test my mettle as a critic against one of the most manhood threatening shows to be aired last year? Well, let’s think about that. I love Princess Tutu and Ouran High School Host Club, and I was a motherf(yay)ing brony for two years. So bring it on, you rabid hords of Fujoshi! I watched your #Swimminganime, and now, I’m going to review the crap out of it!

The story of Free! begins with four ten year old boys. They consist of Haruka, a quiet boy who only feels at home in the water; Makoto, a laid back best friend character who’s afraid of the ocean; Nagisa, an excitable little moppet who should, by all conceivable logic, be voiced in English by Greg Ayres; And Rin, an outgoing boy whose connection to his friends can only be trumped by his much much larger ambitions. They were brought together by their love of swimming, although they quickly adopt an inside joke that ‘fate threw them together for having girly names.’ In any case, after their first big relay tournament triumph, Rin leaves the group to go to a middle school in Australia to train so he can become an olympic swimmer. Nagisa also winds up going to a different school, and the fellowship is disbanded.

That is, until the first year of high school, when Haruka, Makoto, and Nagisa are finally reunited, and Nagisa convinces them to start the long-defunct Iwatobi Swim club back up again! Because, as we all know, “High school club” has been it’s own ubiquitous genre ever since Haruhi Suzumiya started grabbing up all the money in the world. With Rin’s little sister as their manager, a shy teacher for their faculty adviser, and a brand new team mate in the meticulous beauty-obsessed Rei, and the sudden reappearance of Rin as their new rival from another school, their swim club has only just begun to tread water!

Before we go any further, I should probably address the pink elephant in the room… People refuse to watch this show because it looks gay. Now, I don’t feel like turning this review into a gay rights rant, nor do I want to make any statements about whether or not I consider homosexuality(or lack thereof) an indicator of quality. Maybe there are some good yaoi shows out there… I don’t know. The ones I’ve seen so far sucked. So instead, I’m only going to address whether or not Free is, in a literal sense, gay. Like Hakkenden was.

About a year ago, I was dared by a friend to rent and watch Magic Mike. At the end of it, I said the exact same thing that I said in regards to Free. “Wait a second… That wasn’t that gay at all.” Yes, both shows feature plenty of scantily clad men to thrill and chill the straight women and gay men of the audience, but both stories take place in a setting where wearing next to nothing makes perfect sense in context… Stripping in one, swimming in the other. I can understand some guys not wanting to watch a show about male strippers, but if the sight of guys taking their shirts off to swim makes you uncomfortable, then buddy, you’ve got issues.

And the show isn’t even a yaoi. There’s barely any romantic content in the first place, save for one side character’s crush on Kou, but when you really pay attention, Free! is nothing more than a gender swap of Kyoto Animation’s many female-centric slife-of-life shows. Yes, the guys use cutesy honorifics and nicknames, and they seem to have an uncommonly close relationship, but nobody throws around the word “Gay” while watching Lucky Star, K-ON! or Tamako Market… Well, maybe in the pejorative sense… But in any case, while there may be some shounen-ai elements floating around in this pool, they’re subtle, and too subtextual to really effect the story in any way.

And speaking of the story… Okay, a few paragraphs ago, I briefly compared this show to Magic Mike, but unfortunately, the comparison shall go no further. Magic Mike was an awesome movie, and Free! is just kind of… Okay. I hate to be mean to it, because the characters are likeable, and I *was* constantly clicking the next episode button, so it was able to hold my attention pretty well… Free! is Kyoto Animation’s first ever sports based anime, which automatically means it has more plot than half of the work they’ve put out thus far, but even with that to boast about, Free! is still just a little too passive for it’s own good. They go to a few swimming competitions, but the stakes of these events are never more than just “We wanna swim together and get a higher budget for our club.” The only time this story has any gravity to it is when our heroes are stuck in the ocean during a storm, and they never seen to desire anything other than “Let’s be friends and strengthen our bond.” That makes for a very pleasant tone, but it doesn’t make for a very engaging series.

The only thing in this story that really develops is the relationship between the five leading males. Their growth as individuals is negligible, aside from Rin, although I can’t really complain, because they’re all really likeable characters. Their occasional coach is only ever used when he’s convenient, and their faculty adviser makes little to no effort to distinguish herself as anything other than a recycled K-ON! trope. Kou, the group’s manager, is not used nearly enough, considering how much potential she has. If she actually had some character arc, even for a single episode, we could have learned something about her as a person… We could have learned why she cares so much about the swim club, and hey, we could have learned why she never swims a single stroke despite being an official member. Seriously, I get that she’s non-athletic and is too female to compete alongside her team mates, but they visit a beach for crying out loud! She brings a swimsuit, and then just hangs around with the teacher! Why?!

As I said before, it’s a decent, pleasant show, and while I didn’t find the plot particularly engaging, I still enjoyed watching it. The chemistry of the characters more than made up for their lack of depth. I’m monolingual, but the japanese dub sounded really good, and I had no problems at all with the actual dialogue. I didn’t find all of the humor effective, but it had enough good jokes to not be boring at any point. In a lot of ways, it’s a happy little distraction, just like K-ON!. Normally, I’d give this kind of show a 7/10, but there’s one more aspect of this show that I forgot to mention. And that aspect is…

The artwork and animation. Dear God in heaven, this is one of the top ten best looking animes I’ve ever seen. Kyoto Animation may not be known for having stellar stories… Haruhi, Clannad and Chuunbiyoh being the exceptions… but it always brings great animation to the table, and from that perspective alone, this is the best looking show they’ve ever released. The backgrounds and character designs are outstanding, the attention to detail is mind blowing, the characters are capable of a full range of graceful, fluid motion, and the water… Oh my God.

From what I understand, the animation demo that this show was originally based on was released so Kyoto Animation could boast about how well it could animate water. But in the words of Kid Rock, it ain’t bragging if you back it up. If you’re not taking a simplistic approach, water can be one of the most notoriously difficult things to animate. There are some CGI movies where they have to treat every drop of it like a blue grain of sand just to realistically portray the movement of a wave. While there are a few notable exceptions, like the stellar art design of The Little Mermaid, most examples of animated water range from ‘adequate animation that you’re not supposed to pay any attention to’ to ‘horribly awkward CGI texture that you can’t help paying attention to.’ I’m looking at you, Gantz.

But I have never seen animated water that looks as good as it does in Free. They used a seamless blend of 2D and 3D techniques to make the water look not only natural, but alive. Every reflection, every ripple, every bubble and every distortion is captured with the power of a force of nature, and yet with the subtlety of a facial expression. And that’s saying nothing about the water as a character. Yes, I just called the water a character, and maybe even my favorite one in the show. I find the relationship between Makoto and the water to be fascinating, and I actually want to see the show again somewhere down the road just to see if I understand it a little better!

All in all, Free! Iwatobi Swim club may not have very good writing behind it, but what it does have is a charismatic energy that will grab you right from episode one and not let you go until long after it’s finished. The amount of love and enthusiasm that went into this show is like night and day when compared to some of Kyoto Animation’s more phoned in projects, and if that’s not enough, it’s a visual feast for the eyes of both yaoi fans and normal people alike. It hasn’t been licensed for an English release just yet, but with free fansubs available in all the usual places, I can definitely recommend this for streaming. It’s a solid 8/10, and the water’s great, so leave all doubts in your locker and dive right in!

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