More famously known as 'The Swimming Anime', Free! Iwatobi swim club is a 2013 show produced by Kyoto animation that has a rather interesting history behind it. I remember being introduced to it via looking through this years summer releases and wasn't aware of the actual origins or so-called 'controversy' surrounding it until I had a little nosy around the internet after watching the first few episodes.
Note: If you don't care that much about the origins of the show and just want to skip to the actual review, just skip to the animation score. This may ramble on a bit.
Originally starting off as a thirty second commercial for Kyoani to show off their animation skills, Free! began just as an animation promo for an anime that wasn't intended to exist in the first place. However, when the promo was released, people online went crazy and for different reasons. Obviously, as one look at the promo will tell you, the promo was more geared towards the hoards of female otakus and fangirls and they, of course, loved it and begged Kyoani to make this a real show. I'm not fully sure but I hear the requests were particularly endorsed through Tumblr.
But that's not the interesting part. The interesting part was the surprisingly nasty reaction of a select number of male Kyoani fans, who immediately belittled the female fanbase this had and insisted that Kyoani would never lower themselves to actually make a fanservice show for women as everyone knows that women don't take anime seriously like they do and how Kyoani's high production of anime wouldn't lower themselves to make 'gay stuff' (I haven't made this up and I don't intend to offend anyone, these are actual quotes).
Well, a few months later, Kyoani revealed that an anime was in the works. And these certain male fans went insane. They posted continuously about how Kyoani had betrayed them and how could they do this to them and cursed the female fanbase repeatedly, etc. Despite this, however, the Tumblr fanbase was thriving and the result was this twelve episode anime.
I have to say, when I went into this show not knowing about any of this, I wasn't fully sure what to expect. I mean, it just sounded like a normal sports anime. But after learning this and finishing the show, I honestly have to say... I thoroughly enjoyed this anime. And my enjoyment does not play into this fairly stupid misogyny battle at all, but rather the actual show itself, and I'll talk more about this in the story and characters section. But, for now, let's get the animation and sound out of the way.
The boys are pretty. The boys are incredibly pretty. I suppose, in hindsight, that makes a lot of sense considering the audience this anime is going for. The character designs are distinct and very attractive, the actual animation is fluid and energetic and the colours look wonderful and vibrant. The backgrounds are also well-detailed and everything about it feels alive and bouncy. No one is static in the background, everything is moving and each little hand-gesture or hair movement is fully animated and well-executed.
Also, special mention goes to the animation of the water scenes. Obviously, considering this shows premise, the characters are seen underwater fairly often (after tearing their shirts off dramatically, of course) and I don't know what they did here but more anime need to do it. The way the water is animated and the characters movements while swimming or floating just look stunning. You literally feel like you're under the water yourself while watching. I remember seeing someone stating that some of these scenes were achieved by rotoscoping and if that is the case, it's the best I've ever seen. If nothing else, the show is a joy to watch on visual appeal alone.
The opening is a good, catchy rock ballad that's fun to listen to, even more so when you know that the singer is the seiyuu of one of the characters, Makoto. And speaking of catchy, the ending theme forces its way into your head and roots itself there. By the time I'd got onto the third episode, it was one of the most played songs on my iPod. It's ridiculously addictive. Aside from that, the soundtrack is fitting and compliments the show well, with a few standout piano tracks among the mix as well as a surprisingly haunting music box melody.
In terms of the voice acting, all the seiyuu give solid performances and bring the cartoony nature of their characters to life, particularly during the comedy sections. Special mention goes to the great Marmoru Miyano for his performance as Rin in the last few episodes. He does a wonderful job with the character in general but he really brings it home in those last few episodes. All the other seiyuu also act their parts wonderfully.
While there is a plot to this story and it isn't episodic, most of the show focuses on the characters and their relationships, specifically our five main boys. The actual plot itself is fairly small. It's mostly just about watching how the characters interact and only near the end of the show does it actually build to something.
The biggest draw for this show, in my books, was the tone it set. Throughout most of the first half, the show maintains this tongue-in-cheek, fun and insanely campy feel to it, in the same vein of Ouran High School Host Club. While the story is fairly small, it never becomes boring or tedious and I think this is largely due to the likeability of the characters, which I'll write more about in a minute. The comedy is consistently funny and, while it fully takes advantage of its genre and pokes fun at itself, it never becomes cynical or mean-spirited. It knows what kind of show it wants to be and just bathes in the fun of it.
Then the drama comes in around the second half and honestly, you actually do get wrapped up in it. While it never becomes dark, per say, there are some genuinely dramatic moments throughout the second half. And the reason it invests you so is because of the tone set in the previous half. The first half was campy, cheesy fun and the drama itself is also very cheesy. And it's also, surprisingly, incredibly heart-warming, which again reminds me a lot of Ouran. While the dramatic moments should feel overdone, you surprisingly find yourself invested and I think, again, this is down to the characters.
And eventually the drama and comedy build up to a beautifully corny, smiles-all-round, power-of- friendship, happy ending which you can't help but smile like an over-emotional idiot after watching.
As for the manservice aspect of the show, I'd honestly say it's not as bad as people say. Yes, they rip their shirts off all the damn time and seem to not know that swimming trunks exist and always opt for the circulation-killingly tight swim shorts but that's really all we get (with the exception of episode four. While funny, it was also pretty awkward and is the only episode where I'd say the manservice was beginning to push it.). Most of the actual fanservice actually comes from the character interactions and homoerotic subtext, which is undeniably there (scratch that, it's there in spades), but it's played just tongue-in-cheek enough to be considered bromance.
The characters in Free! really make the show memorable. While most of them start as rather cliché, they're by no means unwelcome. However, the big shocker for me was when they actually developed past those archetypes. Take our main character, Haruka. A boy who loves water and swimming to the point of obsession, at first he appears to just be a stoic, one-note character. But when the dramatic elements of the show kick in, he actually develops past that and forms much more of a character mindset, making him almost a totally different and much more enjoyable character by the end of the show.
The same could be said of our other main character, Rin. While he starts off as fairly unlikeable and proceeds to get worse throughout the show, the last few episodes show reality crashing down upon him, forcing him to confront what's actually important, leading to an incredibly satisfying redemption and again, shaping him into a totally different person than he was when the show began.
Our other three mains mostly stay the same throughout the show but that doesn't mean they're bad in any way. Makoto, Haru's best friend, is ridiculously likeable and, whether you see them as close friends or something more, there's no denying that Nagisa and Rei make a great comedic duo.
The other side characters (with the exception of Rin's consistently adorable sister, Gou) are mostly there for flavour and surprisingly enough, the only character I couldn't find myself warming to was Rin's team-mate, Nitori. Yes, I know many people found him cute and that's great but there's only so much 'OMG RIN-SENPAI' and 'Senpai finally noticed me!' I can take before I start groaning. Though I will admit the ending they gave him was fairly sweet.
Free! is unbelievably endearing, camper than a row of tents and just a lot of fun. While I can see how it may not appeal to some people as it's not suited to everyone (and that's totally fine), if you're worried about not liking this because of the manservice, I'd say that if you could find the humour in the manservice comedy of Ouran, you should have no problems here. The story is cheesy yet incredibly heart-warming, the characters, while not terribly complex, are adorable and, while it's probably not the best anime to come out this year in terms of quality, it's honestly been a while since I actually enjoyed an anime this much.
So, if you're in the mood for some good, camp and silly fun with some dramatic moments, Free! will serve you more than well. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to visit my local pool.