Review: Free! – Iwatobi Swim Club

Years ago, KyoAni created a commercial to promote itself, featuring the characters we’d eventually end up seeing in Free! The Western anime community (especially Tumblr) came across the commercial, and lacking any context, began creating their own names and personalities for these characters, with the name “the swimming anime”.

It’s a fascinating (and slightly cringey) footnote in the pages of Western anime fandom history, but this was a real thing with its own Wikipedia article even. The article was then renamed Free! when the show started, and today, only a single sentence to the old craze is mentioned anymore. In the years since, the craze has passed, but back when this show began, I was excited to see what the hub-bub about this swimming anime was all about.

In reality, Free! was born from the light novel High Speed!, which was recognized and then published by Kyoto Animation in 2013. High Speed! focused on some of the main characters in their elementary school days, while Free!, instead, aged them up to the time period Kyoto Animation does best: high school.

An Introduction

Years and years ago, there was a children’s swimming club in the heart of Iwatobi, and four boys became best friends there: Makoto, Haruka, Nagisa, and Rin. The group were nearly inseparable, they always hung out together and even starting swimming relays together in 5th grade.

But after 5th grade, something changed.

Rin moved away, out to Australia to bring his swimming up to the next level. Nagisa had to go his own separate way too… and so that just left Makoto and Haru. The two of them continued swimming in Iwatobi, but without their other two friends there, it just wasn’t the same. And they too stopped showing up to the swim club.

Jump forward a couple years, and Haru and Makoto are now high school juniors at Iwatobi High School. Swimming is a thing of the past from them, but all of a sudden, the past rushes back to meet them as they run back into Nagisa! Memories flood back, they all reminisce, but they’re still a trio; they’re missing someone… Rin. As it so happens, though, they do run back into Rin while revisiting their old swimming club.

But something’s different about him. He’s temperamental, angry, and he’s cast away these memories rather than holding onto them like everyone else has. He returned from Australia, but he didn’t bother to tell his old three best friends? Why is Rin so different? Rin started going to a rival high school, one that prides itself on its great swimming program.

And so, Haru, Makoto, and Nagisa decide: the best way to see their friend again, and try to get to the bottom of this, is to start up their own new swimming club, right here at Iwatobi High. But a club needs four members…

The Plot and Characters

It’s fascinating to look upon Free’s 1st season from a viewpoint years later while watching the 3rd season, in comparison to coming into it almost entirely blind excepting the crazed misinformed imagination of Tumblr.

In essence, Free is about two things: friendships and swimming together. This is probably what you’d expect from a sports anime, but as someone who’s completely an outsider to this entire genre of anime excepting this show (and Yuri on Ice), it’s honestly a bit amusing. These characters value swimming in a relay together so darn much that it’s honestly a bit concerning. There’s been a number of times while watching all 3 seasons of this show where I audibly say “aren’t they taking this a little bit too seriously?” I’m honestly not a swimmer myself, nor have I taken part in any athletics since high school, but still… I’d imagine that’s simply a trapping of sports anime though.

If you let that point not bother you, though, there’s a lot more to enjoy.

In essence, this is the story of Haru, Makoto, and Nagisa trying to put together their new swimming club at Iwatobi High School. As, of course, the show needs to go on, they’re ultimately successful, first by finding a fourth “member” in a club manager: Gou, Rin’s muscle-loving sister; and secondly, by finding a fourth swimmer in Rei, who takes math a bit too seriously.

These five are honestly pretty fun. There isn’t too much considerable depth to them (Haru loves water, Makoto is the big kind oaf, Nagisa is charismatic, Rei wants everything to be “beautiful”, and Gou is filled with enthusiasm, especially about muscles), but they bounce off each other in a way that is really enjoyable to watch. A lot of the show is honestly them messing around, hanging out, and having fun – but at the same time, everything they do does relate back to swimming.

There’s always a goal for them to aim for: find that fourth member, get Rei up to speed, get good enough for the sectionals meet, and so on. While there’s always this playful attitude and the characters always find time to mess with each other, they’re not sitting around and doing nothing. They get stuff done, and with decently good pacing too, so you don’t have to worry about watching episodes go by and nothing of import happens.

We get to spend some time with Rin himself as well, as he attends the prestigious Samezuka Academy and angstily makes his way up the ranks in Samezuka’s swim team.

Rin obviously takes on the role of the antagonist, or “rival” in the show’s terms. He’s aggressive, hyper-fixated on his goal of beating (the naturally-talented) Haru, and cold – any semblance of friendship he had with his elementary school buddies is gone. Thus, we primarily see him in these states of angst, anger, and raw unchanneled emotion rather than the lighter fun moments on the Iwatobi side.

The angst and competitive drive make Rin a formidable and well-done rival for this show, but deep down, he’s less of a bad guy and more just a teenager who bottles up his emotions rather than letting them out. The writers execute this pretty well, showing us moments where Rin reflects back on his memories and thoughts, or where he explodes at people (and not always as anger), or where he pushes away any help given to him by people who care about him. It’s a character I enjoy when done well, and I’m glad they did well here.

Beyond Rin, though, we are also introduced to Ai, my least favorite character in the show. Ai is kind of Rin’s yes-man, following him around and trying to do anything and everything that he thinks makes Rin happy. And of course, Ai doesn’t mind Rin pushing him away every single time without fail. Ai seems pointless (and frankly kind of annoying) to me, with his only role being simply the metaphorical punching bag for Rin to get all angsty and yell-y at. Fortunately, beyond this, Ai doesn’t do much else.

All in all, though, the story writing is good. The entire plot is generally character-driven, as the characters roll from one goal to the next. You see the Iwatobi kids focus so much on setting up their swim club, that by the time they’re in the pool and the real action begins, you’re connected to them and are rooting for them at their meets. It’s all paced well (although perhaps it starts off a bit slow), and everything seems generally natural and in alignment with the show’s world that you can kind of lull yourself into simply following the waves the show brings you on, enjoying it all the while.

The entire show is also covered in a coat of innocence and charm that makes it all the more cheerful and sweet. There are certainly some faux-philosophical moments of “swimming is everything, you’re not living if you’re not swimming in a relay”, but at the end of the day, it’s about some dudes hanging out and doing something they enjoy. It’s a good, wholesome time, and if it doesn’t lighten up your day at least a little bit, I don’t know what would.

The Atmosphere

As should be totally unsurprising by now, I am a huge fan of Kyoto Animation. I’ve reviewed a lot of shows they’ve animated recently, and although the influx of KyoAni-animated shows wasn’t intentional, I’m also not going to pretend it wasn’t inevitable.

Kyoto Animation is usually associated with quality, and this show isn’t really an exception. Characters are all drawn in that distinctive KyoAni-style, and they all look good, if not great. Animation is good where it counts, such as the intense swimming scenes and the dramatic character moments. A heated exchange between two characters in episode 11 still stands out to me, and the way they’re able to capture the tension and emotion in the swimming tournaments still surprise me.

However, the show is definitely playing it safe. I enjoy shows that are more experimental or out-of-the-ordinary with their camera work or art, and Free is not one of those. They use a lot of the standard shots and visual techniques common in anime. I wouldn’t treat this as a negative for the show, but if you’re looking for a KyoAni work that sets the bar in visual direction and cinematography, this isn’t the one to go with. Beyond that, there really isn’t much to complain visuals-wise though. I could get super nit-picky with things like how I dislike some of the eye designs or the lack of detail with background character movement, but again, these would be nothing more than nit-picks. All in all, Free is a pretty well-put-together show.

The colors are all bright and colorful, matching the lighter tone of the show, although it’s then all contrasted well when we usually see Rin in nighttime shots, with darker colors and the blackness of the night sky bleeding in.

One thing that I find interesting is that never does Free actually show you any actual times. If you ask what Haru’s average time is for the 100m freestyle, you wouldn’t know by watching the anime. When looking at scoreboards, or even when characters discuss how good they’re doing, time – in the form of an actual number – is never used. It honestly amuses me in a weird way.

The show’s music is a treat to enjoy. It’s a combination of strings with electronic sounds – with certain tracks relying more upon one or the other – and they all have this trendy, sleek, and uplifting summer vibe to them. (If you think it’s all chill all the time, though, there’s also some truly great darker tunes in here too, where rougher electronic sounds and electric guitars get called in). The music really helps give Free part of its identity, and, frankly, the show wouldn’t be the same without the music that has been used here. I can recognize the show’s music pretty easily, and I certainly wouldn’t be opposed to having the OST to listen to on its own. I’ll admit that I’m an electronic music fan, so this definitely does appeal to me more than it may others though.

The opening theme, “Rage on” by Oldcodex, is honestly great. I look forward to the rougher, throat-ier parts of the vocals every time I hear the opening theme. It took me some time to get used to, I’ll admit, in my very first time watching the show, and I will also say that such an intense theme does sometimes seem a bit at odds with the more upbeat feel the show tends to go for, especially in earlier episodes. The opening animation is also great, though, even if it’s a little heavy on basic jump cuts.

The ending theme is Splash Free, sung by the main five voice actors of the show. It’s a mellow song but fits in well with the tone of the show. The ending theme is honestly pretty creative, switching between the characters dancing in a club and them in some alternate universe where Rin is some Saharan ruler with all the water and Haru and the others are poor, water-less merchants. I love shows that actually put effort into their ending themes, and as far as effort goes, an A+ grade doesn’t even cut it. A different ending theme, called Ever Blue, is used in the final episode, sung by the same voice actors. It’s more of a ballad sound, and while it’s fitting for the final episode, I’m glad it wasn’t used for the rest of the series.

The show’s Japanese voice acting is pretty darn good, I must say. Daisuke Hirakawa does a wonderful job as Rei, and I also really enjoy Tsubasa Yonaga’s performance as Nagisa. All the lead actors do pretty well; the weakest, I’d say, would be Makoto’s, but even so, it still sounds good. There is a portion of having adjusted to these voices since I’ve heard them with these characters for years now, but regardless, I commend their work.

As a result, the English voice actors have a lot to live up to. And unfortunately, even if I didn’t know the Japanese voices, I don’t think the English side sounds very good. Haru, Makoto, and Nagisa all have this higher-pitched, middle-school-ish voice rather than sounding like actual teenagers. Nagisa’s voice is easily the worst offender, it honestly sounds like they did the whole Alvin and the Chipmunks thing to the voice actor’s performance… the result is not great. Rin and Gou sound pretty good, while Rei’s voice is surprisingly deep given how high-pitched the other guys’ voices are. All in all, the voice acting sounds a bit all over the place. I should note, though, that the script they’re using is actually pretty good.

Final Remarks / TL;DR

Free! – Iwatobi Swim Club is the first anime in what will end up being a highly successful franchise for Kyoto Animation. Multiple seasons and a handful of films later, the first season is a fun time that will get you sucked in and wanting to see more after you’re done. The show is a bit too serious about its swimming, but it’s a sports anime, what do you expect? The friendships and music are also great here too.

If you’re a sports anime fan, you’ve probably already seen this. If you’re not, though, I would think this would be a decent starting off point for the genre. It’s probably a bit more slice-of-life, laid-back, and polished to hell and back than your typical sports show, but if seeing people improve at the sport they love is something you enjoy, you’ve found yourself a new home. At the very least, give this show a shot and see how it goes.

Rating: Good
Recommendation: Give It a Shot
+++ great characters, great music, character-driven story
— English dub (especially Nagisa), Ai is pointless, a bit too serious about swimming perhaps?

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