A vocally straight friend and I were discussing Kill La Kill and he made mention of the teacher's weird and hilarious fan service scene. He found it gratuitous, I didn't. It reminded me of how he had mentioned Free! And it's own gratuitous male fan service. This is all the motivation I needed to watch Free! Iwatobi Swim Club.
Free! Iwatobi Swim Club is known in most circles as the swimming anime and all others as "look at that body". Notable for it's high fan service aimed at females and a guy who is often shipped with water. It should also be noted for having actual interesting characters and a half way decent plot.
The plot follows a group of boys with girly names and their re founding of the high school swimming club after meeting up with their friend turned rival. They train for tournaments,have team building adventures and get characterization on motivations. The Free in the title refers to both Freestyle swimming and the characters desire to be free from the past. Most of the boys has something holding them back from becoming a successful and fulfilling their dreams. It adds a nice layer of depth to an other wise standard sports plot and made each episode worth watching. Every episode the we learn more about the characters and why stick with this whole mess even if they don't have to.
The show moves along at a nice clip while giving the characters time to reflect and let things soak in(pun intended).It seems like the first competition did come up somewhat fast but once I made it to the end of the show,it came at just the right time. The series is also pretty funny for not being a pure comedy series. Haruka and Rei are the comically serious while Makoto gets to over react. They are also not above poking fun at themselves with jabs at Haruka's love of water and the gratuitous amount of male physique on display.
Our main cast has five boys:First is Haruka Nanase,the boy who loves water. He sort of comes off as just plain weird; sometimes often talking about the water as if it were a person, and seems to only eat mackerel. He is also an amazing swimmer (only freestyle though) and the glue holding the swim team together. He starts of wanting to be ordinary but every encounter with childhood rival Rin has him questioning what he actually wants and how he can get that. Figuring him out can be somewhat difficult just due to him rarely speaking. It's left to pieces of flashbacks and how other characters act around him. He has a dolphin motif that nicely contrasts Rin's shark motif.
His best friend/mother figure is Makoto Tachibana, the new swim team's captain. Makoto is sort of the Wilson to Haruka's House. He's always watching out for him and trying to keep him safe. When he does become captain of the swim club he evolves into the team mom constantly looking out for the boys and putting aside his own fears for the team. He's not as troubled as Haruka outside of a fear of water but is still the emotional center of the team. He has a Killer Whale,a symbol of leadership, as his motif which fits his personality to a tee.
Nagisa Hazuki is the most enthusiastic of the boys and has a hero worship relationship with Haruka. He is all boundless enthusiasm and excitement. He doesn't learn any real lessons outside of teamwork which he's pretty well versed in from the beginning . His bouncy personality is cute and he helps to keep everyone going. His goofy/flighty nature does well to hide his strong love for the team and when things go wrong he is trying his best to set things right. He is also the only person who will tease the boys about their girly names often adding -chan to their names. His animal motif is the penguin and more specifically the Rock hopper penguin as it's the teams mascot drawn by Haruka.
The last member of the new team is Rei Ryugazaki,who shares Haruka's role as the comically serious and is a lover of beauty. He is the last member to join and also gets one of the better jokes in the series which I really don't want to spoil. His obsession with beauty is fairly low key once he joins the team and most of his arc is focused on him becoming part of the team and culminates in a crowing moment of heart warming. He constantly struggles with the fact that he doesn't have the history the others have and he eventually learns what must be done so he can be "free" to join the team.
Rin Matsuoka is the rival and main antagonist of the series. Most of the series for him is spent taunting Haruka and the team. It's all a facade to mask his own crippling failure as a solo swimmer. Like Haruka they are trying to come to terms with their reasons for swimming and by extension living. He channels his rage into beating Haruka and is baffled when he doesn't feel satisfied by beating him. He is a joy to watch struggle through his issues and finally take his life in his hands and move on. I do wish that they would explore more with of his relationship with his family as there is a bit of a goldmine there from guilt over "ruining" his father's dream and his poor relationship with his sister
The supporting cast are nothing special but do provide a good laugh or two. Rin's sister,Kou, is used as a bit of an audience surrogate in regards to the fanserivce going on. Also I swear that Rin's kohai looks like a middle school age Yu Narukami without the panache. All of them are at least memorable but not particularity well developed.
The animation is gorgeous with bright colors and a clean look. The character design does leave a little to be desired as it's pretty much stock bishonen stereotypes. Being bishonen they do look very handsome so that helps. Apparently their bodies are also accurate to what a swimmers build would look like. I personally wouldn't know as I'm no expert on muscles outside of well that looks nice. The ending animation is bizarre and oddly compelling telling a weird little tale about Haruka in the desert looking for water with a random club scene thrown in. I couldn't tear my self away from it and was sort of disappointed the last episode lacked it. The music all around is not bad with the OP and ED being kind of catchy if generic. Also the rest of the OST does answer my question: What if Shoji Meguro tried to compose while massively drunk. The answer:not bad.
So in the end is Free! worth your time if you're not a lover of the male body? I'd say yes. If you can look past that there is a interesting plot with some fun characters. If you are a lover of the male body then hey your getting a pretty good show with some eye candy to boot. Till next time, Stay Positive.