It’s March 2013, and Kyoto Animation has dropped a new 30-second advertisement. Unlike the regular shorts that showcase the studio’s animation and feature petite girls, it focuses on four swimsuit-clad boys cavorting by the pool. In just 48 hours, this short, dubbed the “Swimming Anime” spreads throughout the anime community like wildfire, with its own fanfiction, AMVs, and even a petition by Crunchyroll to have an anime released. Lo and behold, only a few short months later, Kyoto Animation releases a full-length series featuring those same swimmers titled Free! – Iwatobi Swim Club.
I didn’t experience it for myself until a few years later, when the sequel series Eternal Summer was airing. Once I caved to the show’s immense popularity and watched it in its entirety, I too came to understand what the hype was about. As a teenager, I was enamored with these beautiful boys and the melodrama surrounding them. It became my comfort anime, as I found it to be a fun and relaxing watch during those bad days. Re-watching the anime as an adult, however, made me realize that the show that brought me such comfort over the years has quite a few things amiss.
Free! is about Nanase Haruka, a cool and quiet sixteen-year-old boy who loves swimming so much he bathes in his swimsuit and takes his clothes off the moment he sees a body of water large enough to swim in. After falling out with his friend and rival Matsuoka Rin in middle school, Haruka quit competitive swimming while Rin left to study abroad in Australia. As Haru and his best friend Tachibana Makoto enter their second year of high school, they encounter a familiar face: Hazuki Nagisa, a teammate from their elementary school swim team. After learning that Rin is back in Japan, the two meet again and renew their rivalry. Haruka and his friends must bring back their high school’s swim team so they can compete once more.
One of the biggest gripes I have now with Free! is the amount of fanservice the show throws at you. While the perfectly sculpted muscles of the main male cast is what led to the show’s boom in popularity, it has also caused harm for the show.
The plethora of muscles and the way they are framed has been a turn off for many potential audience members. The camera practically drools as it pans across the butts and abs of the characters as they emerge from the pool, accentuated by beads of water and sparkles. It’s not exactly subtle. For people who aren’t into that, it’s hard to convince that there’s more to the show than abs and pretty boys.
It’s nice to see sports anime such as Run With the Wind get praised for their storytelling and characters, but I wish that Free! could be seen in that light as well. As the story follows them from middle school into university, there’s tons of character growth and competition, and Free! deserves to be taken just as seriously as any other sports series instead of being labelled as nothing but fanservice.
It’s not just about the lost viewers, though. In the last few years, character design in sports anime have been moving toward the high school characters that look like actual high schoolers, complete with the awkwardness of adolescence and growth spurts, rather than Olympic-level athletes. For example, Tsurune, a more recent anime also from Kyoto Animation focusing on Japanese archery, has character designs that are much more youthful and accurate to the average teenage body.
As an adult, I can’t help but laugh at the characters’ exaggerated bodies, but at the same time it feels wrong to see high schoolers hyper-sexualized. There’s a scene in the first season where the boys go swimsuit shopping, striking poses that show off their bodies as they try on new suits. It’s meant to be a comedic scene, as their muscle-obsessed, female manager Gou enjoys the display, but the camera also invites the viewer to ogle these minors and their bodies too.
Besides the attractive swimmers, there’s also the homoerotic undertones. On multiple occasions, Free! teases its audience with possible romantic or sexual encounters between its characters, including interrupted CPR, or an arc where they think Rei is acting strange because of a relationship with an old teammate from when he did track. One by one, the show works its way through classic romantic moments: sparkly-eyed kabedon, promises made under a cherry blossom tree, a hotel room with just one bed, so on and so forth. All of these have falsely pandered to the audience for three seasons and counting.
Throughout the show, the characters’ sexual orientations remain ambiguous. In one episode, the rest of the team assumes Rei must have a girlfriend occupying his time, but when they see him talking with a boy, wonder if he has a boyfriend instead. The episode ends without definitively stating Rei’s preferences either way, since it was all a big misunderstanding. In another instance, Rin visits his homestay parents in Australia, and they ask whether he has a girlfriend yet. He doesn’t reply either way, but instead awkwardly stammers out a non-answer. His homestay parents joke that they’ll take that as a no and chalk it up to him being a late bloomer, and move on with the conversation without considering that Rin might not be interested in girls at all.
It’s clear that the audience is being teased with the lack of a definitive answer, but when representation in media is so important, it’s frustrating to see the multitude of queer subtext left up to the watcher’s interpretation. There’s already an overabundance of media featuring straight characters. Having queer-coded characters that are never explicitly stated to be queer not only exploits the audience, but seems like a mockery of the LGBTQ+ community. Among the many LGBTQ+ tropes in fiction, an overwhelming amount of it is tragic, leaving few options for queer viewers seeking out positive escapism. Representation that depicts queer-coded characters in a positive light, and where it’s not the main point of struggle, is still lacking throughout media. Free! could counter that trend, and it’s a crying shame it hasn’t met that expectation so far.
Despite its flaws, Free! remains close to my heart as a show full of relatable and raw emotions. There’s been times where I’ve shed tears along with the characters on screen, and also deeply sympathized with their hardships. The characters grow and develop to the point that I ended up changing my mind from my first impressions of them, such as Rin.
He is first depicted in the first episode through flashbacks as a friendly, happy-go-lucky kid, but after he returns from Australia, he acts arrogant and like he wants nothing to do with the Iwatobi swim team except to prove that he’s better than them. That attitude of his riled me up whenever I saw him on screen. His tendency to push away the people around him and not accept any help made me scoff, as they’re precisely the qualities that I hate to find in other people.
However, when I saw that Rin had a tough time adjusting to his new life in Australia, my feelings about him shifted. He struggled with the language and cultural barriers, like how his jokes don’t land the same way as he introduces himself to his new classmates, and his English wasn’t good enough to communicate effectively with his peers. Most of all, he missed his friends. Despite this, he stayed passionate about swimming and determined to reach his goal to compete in the Olympics.
As someone who has had to move schools a lot and has been back and forth between various countries, Rin’s story resonated deeply with me. It’s difficult to adjust to and comprehend the nuances of different cultures, and overcoming the shock can be arduous. Moving away from your home and starting afresh is tough, especially when you’re leaving the people you know behind and giving up that comfort. I could respect Rin’s determination to better himself as a swimmer, but also understood the loneliness he felt.
Free!’s charm lies in the mundanity of the hurdles the characters face, such as choosing a career path or growing apart from friends. I believe that everyone can find a bit of themselves in this show. For example, many viewers could likely relate to the storyline where Nagisa runs away from home because his parents want him to quit swimming and focus on his falling grades.
While I never experienced it firsthand, I’ve heard horror stories about other Asian households where parents took away their kid’s drawing materials and video games in order to force them to focus on academics. As a result, the children give up their passions in order to follow what their parents believe to be a more lucrative career path, such as a doctor or engineer, and end up drowning themselves in their studies. There’s also the much more favourable outcome of kids showing their conviction to pursue what they love, as in Nagisa’s case. With the help of the team, Nagisa is able to keep his distance until he’s ready to confront his parents, and form a plan of action.
Through the Iwatobi swim team, audience members experience the thrill of following their passion, the importance of self-care, and the camaraderie of team sports. It’s goofy and heartwarming, often at the same time, with great running gags and close bonds between the characters. With such a lovable cast, it’s hard not to get emotionally invested.
As an ongoing series, Free! has a lot of room to grow. With the third season being set in college, the issue of sexualizing minors has already been knocked out, and I’d argue that season 2 onwards the fanservice takes a backseat in favour of the plot and character development. We’ve already had shows like Stars Align and Yuri!!! On ICE pave the way forward and present shining examples of representation in anime, without it being the forerunner. It may have its fair share of problems, but sometimes, the best medicine for life’s challenges is a group of teenage boys and their swimming club. Despite its oversaturation of muscles and arguable queerbaiting, at its core it remains a captivating coming-of-age tale of friendship and frolic.