Review: Free! Eternal Summer

(Editor’s note: I know this image is from the movie. But, hey, it features all the characters mentioned here, so… it works.)

With a smash hit (or should I say, “splash” hit) on their hands, everyone expected Kyoto Animation to continue with a second season of their show Free!, and indeed, this second season did come the following summer, 2014.

It was fun to jump back into this series, and I was curious to see where the show’s staff would be taking it next. Free! does have source material, the book called High Speed!, but that took place in the characters’ elementary school days, leaving the show’s writers with a lot of wiggle room to decide to do whatever they wanted.

And so, they moved forward to the next year in high school.

An Introduction

A new school year begins for all of our favorite swimming anime boys.

For Haru, Makoto, and Rin, this is now their final year of high school. If they want to make things count, now is the time to do it, as scouts from colleges all over Japan (and the world) are watching them. If you want to keep being a swimmer after high school, they’re the ones you’ll want to impress.

After getting over his own angst in the first season, Rin has reconciled with his old friends (Haru, Makoto, and Nagisa) and even made a few new friends in Rei and Ai. By sheer luck, he’s also found himself captain of Samezuka’s swim team, and he even has a nice plan set up with a college back in Australia. Indeed, life’s looking good for him.

On the Iwatobi side, though, there’s some troubles. Makoto doesn’t exactly know what he wants to do post-high school, although he has some ideas… but Haru? He doesn’t have any clue at all. Haru just wants to “swim free”, like he always has… but that’s not a job. Haru has one year of high school left to spend with his friends and to also figure out what he wants to do with life, and time is quickly ticking away…

That’s not all though. To add to Rin’s perfect life, he’s even reconnected with an even older elementary school friend: a muscular chum named Sousuke who is Rin’s equal (or more) in every way when it comes to swimming. Rin gets to spend his last year of high school surrounded by all his friends and with everything in order, but… something seems off about Sousuke…

The Plot and Characters

When it came to this new season of the show, people were probably just looking for “Free!, but more”. The show’s writers could’ve given us just that – a retread of the first season – and we’d probably be satisfied (although perhaps a bit underwhelmed), but instead, they went much further.

The issue of figuring out what you want to do after high school is something a lot of teenagers deal with every year. Although there’s been some shows that dedicate themselves to this issue, most of them simply lightly brush the subject or simply play it off as a joke or character trait. Here in Free! Eternal Summer, we dive right into this issue and with more time and gravity than other anime tend to.

And Haru is the perfect character to tackle this with. The first season saw him set in his ways of only swimming freestyle, doing only what he needs to do to keep his precious swim club running and enjoy it with his friends… but ultimately, he’s of a one-track mind and is relatively immature. At some point, he’s due for a rude awakening that he’s going to need to adjust to the world around him, and this is a nice setup for that. He’s conflicted, he’s unsure, and this really isn’t an issue he wants to even think about. Why can’t life be as simple as it has been? Even with his friends around him to help him out, they more become a source of stress rather than one of relief. This entire journey is executed extremely well, leading up to an amazing pre-climax episode 12. It is here that Haru is finally able to come to a decision; I’ll say that it left me a bit confused and maybe a bit underwhelmed, but it’s not mishandled either.

Beyond this more serious conflict, however, this 2nd season is still the same sports anime at its core.

Makoto, Haru, Nagisa, and Rei are still best friends and members of Iwatobi’s swim club. They take their friendship seriously and take their swimming twice as seriously. Their big goal this time: the Nationals competition. With all the introductions and getting-to-know-each-other moments all taken care of, we’re given the opportunities to do more deep dives into each of these characters. Nagisa, Rei, and Makoto each get a focus episode, and it’s honestly great. These characters are more fleshed out, and their interactions and lighter moments are as great as they’ve ever been. There’s still a lot of fun with this group.

On the other side, though, Rin and the Samezuka group as a whole got fleshed out as well. While I’ve had a lot of praise for Haru’s conflict and the Iwatobi side as a whole so far, there is one part that has bothered me consistently this entire season. (And, as much of a surprise it may be, it’s not Ai.)

Ai, this time around, isn’t quite as intolerable. A big part of the reason why is because Rin is past his angsty teenage phase and is actually a lot more mature now. He’s rekindled his friendship with the Iwatobi group, and while he still acts as their fierce competitor, it’s in good fun now and not really a toxic situation. This still isn’t done out-of-character for Rin either, where we’ll still see moments of him being angry and emotional, but we no longer need Ai to be the metaphorical punching bag for him now, and thus Ai can blossom into his own as a character.

As his own character though, Ai still isn’t particularly great, if I’m honest. He puts Rin up on a pedestal still, and his personality is basically “I’m going to grow up to be just like you, Rin” – which, to be fair, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it just feels a bit too innocent for my tastes, especially given that this is pretty much his only personality trait.

But no, my bigger problem is with the new character introduced this time, Sousuke. Sousuke is Rin’s elementary school friend before he met Haru and Makoto; Sousuke wasn’t so much as even mentioned before his sudden appearance this season, but yet he comes in and starts to act as an artifical divider between Rin and Haru. This seemed strange to me, and felt unnecessary and also highly unwarranted (Sousuke, you haven’t seen Rin in years, you don’t really have any right or reason to be protective of him). I feel the writers primarily wanted to write Sousuke as this season’s new big rival/antagonist, but they kind of back off it after the first few episodes.

(And to be fair, as far as new previously-unmentioned-childhood-friend characters appearing goes, Sousuke’s sudden appearance honestly isn’t too bad… Just wait until next season…)

Instead, Sousuke turns into another source of drama for this season, with his own (admittedly somewhat important) conflict. However, he blows his issue into something much larger by attempting to simply cover it up and not talk about it, when talking about it would’ve been the best idea all along. All in all, Sousuke’s problems and how they were written into this show seemed a bit half-baked and not done to the best of its ability. It comes off to me as “well, we have to do something with him now that he’s here”, but to be fair, a large majority of the show’s time is focused on Haru so they didn’t give Sousuke’s conflict the time it needed. It kind of stinks because it would’ve been a really good thing to focus on, just as much as the deciding-what-to-do-after-school issue, but it was shortchanged and then blown up into this coverup-attempt issue instead.

Another character is added on to the Samezuka side as well: Momotaro Mikoshiba. I didn’t really have a natural way to bring up his older brother Seijuro in the first season, but the connection between the two isn’t super important. Momo is primarily a comic relief character, and is generally a joy to have on screen. Sometimes he can be a bit much though.

Well, at the end of the day, what does this second season provide us? Well, more fun antics and a heck of a lot of swimming, that’s unchanged from the first time, but there’s also a much heavier heaping of drama and conflicts than the first season ever had. It’s honestly a good pivot for the second season to have, and despite my issues with Sousuke, it’s all handled pretty darn well. It can be hard as a sequel to tread the line between “sticking with what’s familiar” and “trying something different/new”, but I think this second season was pretty effective.

The Atmosphere

Much like the second season’s writing takes the first season and adds more stuff on top to good effect, the visuals do as well.

KyoAni, like any other studio or person, is always working on refining its work and improving – It’s easier to compare and tell since Kyoto Animation uses essentially the same style between most of its shows for at least a decade now – and you can definitely see some improvements between the first and second seasons. The improvements aren’t like earth-shattering or anything like that; the differences are more subtle, but still makes for a nicer looking experience.

Shading and lighting is handled a bit better, the characters have a bit more contrast and presence now, and the background work is handled a lot better this time around as well. The level of detail is even higher this time around, and it pays off with an absolutely great-looking anime. Episode 12 stands out as a very special mention, but I think episode 12 is just a very memorable episode overall.

While I described the first season as “playing it safe”, (and I can’t necessarily disagree with that assessment here either) I think that given the higher level of detail and simply this becoming the visual style to expect with this anime, it’s not really a complaint worth lobbing here. It would be cool to see the visuals push the envelope a bit more this second time around, but seeing the writing has already done that (for this show’s standards), that’s honestly enough for me. This season, since there’s a lot more serious moments and such, we’re treated to the darker color palettes a lot more often that the first season.

The music continues to be as awesome as it was in the first season. There are some great vocal rap tracks that play, such as the one when Sousuke confronts Haru for the first (and honestly only) time, but I feel they play them a little too short. I wish I got more of a chance to enjoy the great tracks, but I guess I can’t complain about any staying past its welcome, now can I? Either way, I would love to enjoy this soundtrack on its own… just haven’t gotten around to doing so.

Oldcodex comes back for the opening song, this time called “Dried Up Youthful Flame” (that’s a bit of a mouthful). The opening song is nice, but I still find “Rage On” (the first season’s opening theme) more enjoyable. The opening animation is a bit more fluid than the first season’s, and is also rather good and especially fitting for a 2nd season. The ending “Future Fish” is really enjoyable (again sung by the main 5’s voice actors), primarily because of the animated sequences that go along with the ending song. The characters dress up as various professions (such as Rin as a police officer and Nagisa as an astronaut) and are shown in various situations interacting with each other. It’s a lot of fun, and the song itself is pretty good too!

Just like the first season, the final episode has this ballad-sounding song used for the ending. Unlike the first season, though, I enjoyed this one a decent amount too. Alongside it was a slideshow of what the characters did after the ending, showing Makoto in college and the Iwatobi Swim Club getting new members. It makes for a nice final wrap-up of the season (and series, prior to the later movies and 3rd season coming along). At the very end is a small post-credits scene that calls back to that old commercial from 2013, which I found fascinating. Did KyoAni know how much attention it got in the West, or did they call back to it for some other reason? Either way, all this together left the season with a good and satisfying ending.

The voice acting continues to be great as well. The choice for Sousuke was really good, Yoshimasa Hosoya does a great job. I honestly haven’t heard the English dub for the 2nd season at all (since I no longer have access to Funimation’s dub library (thanks Sony)), but given how all over the place the voices were last time, I’m not expecting much better this time either. I recommend watching the series with subs.

Final Remarks / TL;DR

Sequels always play the line between “sticking to what’s familiar” and “doing something new/unexpected” – going too far one way or the other can be underwhelming or alienating. Luckily, Free! Eternal Summer succeeds in combining both well by keeping the same formula but adding some extra elements of drama in a realistic and expected fashion. While there are some hiccups along the way, this second season proves to be just as great a time as the first.

When it comes to recommendations of a 2nd season of a show, it’s pretty obvious: if you’ve seen the first season, you’ll like the second. If you didn’t like the first season, you won’t like the second. Even though this second season adds a bit more drama and tension, it’s nowhere near enough to capture those who passed on this show the first time around.

Rating: Great
Recommendation: Watch It
+++ continues with the first season’s strengths, deeper dives into each character (especially Haru), visuals get an upgrade
— Sousuke’s addition seemed not planned out, Ai is better but still a one-trick pony, ending of main conflict left a bit to be desired

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