ANIME & MANGA - Article
09:56 - 20th November 2013, by NEO Staff

Free! Iwatobi Swim Club

Free! follows a small group of teenagers and their hapless teacher as they strive to rebuild their school's swimming club, while also building new friendships and rekindling old ones. So why is it one of the most controversial shows currently airing?

Wet Behind the Ears
Haruka Nanase is a real water baby. He loves the wet stuff, perhaps a little too much - he wears his swim trunks under his regular clothes and will strip at a moment's notice for as little as a paddle. He's also a bit of an outsider - quiet... moody, even, and prone to do his own thing regardless of others around him. Only classmate Makoto Tachibana has much time for him, the pair having known each other since they were in a prize-winning swim team in their primary school days. But after their old club closed, teammate Rin Matsuoka left Japan for a swimming academy in Australia, and Nagisa Kazuki, already younger than the others, was left behind as Haruka and Makoto graduated to high school.

Fast-forward a couple of years, and Haruka, once the most devoted of swimmers, refuses to swim competitively, and nobody has heard from Rin in years. When Nagisa finally joins Iwatobi High School, he's eager to meet up with his old friends, but is crushed when he learns there's no swim club. The awkward reunion is made worse when they learn that Rin has returned but snubbed everyone - even his sister, Kou, who he ignores by living in the dorms at rival school Samezuka Academy.

It soon becomes clear that something has driven a wedge between the boys, something that happened years ago, which caused Haruka's nonchalance and Rin's emotional detachment from friends and family. Seeing that the only chance at getting the group back together is reigniting their passion for swimming, Nagisa convinces Haruka and Makoto to compete once more.

Gaining teacher approval, restoring Iwatobi's disused pool and increasing the club's membership are only the first steps, though - getting back into shape, re-learning teamwork, and climbing tournament ladders all lay ahead. A clash between Rin and his new team presents the greatest challenge though, a match that promises to tear open emotional wounds, as the series explores whether abandoned friendships can ever truly be rekindled.

Reverse Harem
Free! is loosely based on the light novel High Speed!, by Koji Oji. The first-time author submitted the book for consideration in Kyoto Animation's award program in 2011, and while that year saw no overall winner (the studio's judges are notoriously demanding), Oji's story placed in the 'Honourable Mention' bracket. An animated promo followed almost two years later - a 30-second clip of the then-nameless cast parading around a pool - before the full series was announced, directed by Hiroko Utsumi. A veteran animator and storyboard artist at Kyoto Animation, with credits including Haruhi Suzumiya and K-On!, Free! marks Utsumi's directorial debut. The series is a joy to watch, with beautifully captured races bursting with speed and motion.

However, the online reaction to Free! has been mixed and, frankly, hilarious. As a studio, KyoAni is largely known for moe-type shows, or series with a predominantly female cast aimed at male viewers. Free! inverts that dynamic. Utsumi's eye for the male form, paired with a cast that spends their time alternating between being near-naked, stripping off, and winding up dripping wet, results in a show that's doing something rare for anime - it's sexualising the men, while the women remain mostly clothed. Even the usually shy Kou can't help ogling the boys or commenting on their muscles, especially when she's spoiled for choice by so many buff guys. Cue many, many comments from the traditionally male audience criticising the show for presenting an "unrealistic body image" and "characters who are just there to be pretty" - gents, we think your privilege is showing!

Yet beyond the delicious schadenfraude of seeing an audience more used to objectifying women being on the receiving end for once, the arguments don't hold up. Futoshi Nishiya's character designs are perfectly on spec with professional swimmers' builds, and the characters themselves are anything but flat -in fact, bolstered by a wry, humorous script from Sgt Frog's Masahiro Yokotani, the story that unfolds of the Iwatobi club's dreams and the broken friendship between Haruka and Rin is surprisingly touching and deeply moving in places.

Anyone interested in a gorgeously animated sports series, filled with engaging characters and a dollop of alternative eyecandy, can find Free! on Crunchyroll.

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