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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Just Watch FREE!


So yeah, I watched that Free! anime this rainy weekend.

I admit it wasn't without hesitation. I've seen the previews and the promo images, and all those shirtless dudes screamed, to put it nicely, ‘anime for girls’. It wasn't until my good friend over at the Guilty x Loveless blog told me there was a decent sports anime in there somewhere that I decided to load up Episode 1 on my computer and see what the fuss was all about...

The anime that launched a thousand ships

In case you've been living under the proverbial rock, Free! is a sports anime by Kyoto Animation (they of the K-On! and Lucky Star, known for their soft and cute character designs) about a group of boys who form a high school swim club.

First teased by KyoAni via a 30-second preview video last March, Free! is noteworthy in the fact that, within 48 hours after the video was posted, it spawned tons of fan art, shipping fanfics, Tumblr roleplay blogs and cosplay based on the preview video alone, and months before the anime actually aired.

And who could blame them? Free! broke the current "moe" zeitgeist by unabashedly featuring good-looking guys in swimwear, and all the possibilities it entails. It rocked the boat so hard even I couldn't help but give KyoAni the slow clap for making such a bold move. Gratuitous fanservice is no longer the sole province of the bikini-clad schoolgirl.

The age of "manservice" has begun.

A clever idea

Speaking of which, I was warned about the amount of manservice beforehand, but I wasn't prepared for how much of it there was.

Free! was obviously made with the Female Gaze in mind; the lingering shots of a character’s abs and pecs (framed in the perspective of the male characters, no less!) and the main characters spending most of the time in swimsuits than in actual clothes (main character Haruka has a penchant for stripping down to his speedos at the mere sight of water), are signs that this anime caters to viewers of a decidedly female nature. Never has the ideal male physique been this worship-fully presented.

I'm fine with it, to be honest, and for good reason: KyoAni found a way to show fanservice that actually makes sense.

It’s surreal in a way. I never question why the camera focuses on Akane’s butt in Vividred Operation for no reason, or why everyone in Najica Blitz Tactics is on ‘auto-pantyshot’, but with Free! I was made aware of the silliness of it all. But unlike the gratuitousness of girls wearing bikinis at school, Free! actually subverts the way fanservice is commonly presented via an elegantly simple solution: make it so that wearing as little clothing as possible made perfect sense. And where else can you do that but in an anime about swimming?

So it's not so much fanservice as simply swimming bros doing swimming things, with some extra bits for the ladies to enjoy. And if that leads to more anime that girls can enjoy too, more power to them!

More than just swimming

As I slowly acclimatized myself to the steady barrage of beefcake that made me feel bad about my body image (I could use an ab crunch or two. Or twenty.), the sports anime I came here to watch slowly eased into view, and I have to admit I like what I'm seeing.

Even though right now it feels more slice-of-life than sports anime (that is, until the tournament they're training for comes up), Free! evokes that happy feeling of working together with your bros towards a common goal in ways most sports anime do not. It doesn't delve into absurd power levels like Prince of Tennis or Eyeshield 21, nor does it hinge on child prodigies like Major. Here, the swim team of Haruka, Makoto, Nagisa and Rei is portrayed not so much as swimming wunderkind but as guys who just love swimming. It makes for interesting drama and makes their challenges more relatable. And there's a lot to relate to here.

I'm personally partial to Rei Ryugazaki (the glasses-wearing one), the former track team member who joined the swimming club despite not knowing how to swim (which results in some absolutely hilarious scenes of him sinking despite his best efforts). I'm a sucker for characters who 'start at the ground floor', so to speak. Rei sees the disparity in skill between him and the rest of the guys, and yet he still wants to work just as hard to be as good as them. And work hard he does. When he finally shows off his butterfly stroke in episode 4, you can't help but cheer for his accomplishment!

You can't fake that sort of feel, and it's that feel I'll keep coming back for in future episodes!

Conclusion

Reading and hearing all the insanely bad stuff about this anime, I was ready to dismiss it based purely on conjecture. But six episodes in, and I've surprised myself in saying that Free! is actually pretty good.

Looking past the beefcake and the innuendo, I found it to be a fun sports-slash-slice of life anime that's as refreshing as the water they swim in. But more importantly, the very fact that an anime like Free! exists shakes up the status quo, and the more diverse anime we get out of it, the better.

Now if you'll excuse me, I think I'll do sit-ups for a while.

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