Free! is an interesting series for the context surrounding it. Previously each Kyoto Animation series has only been targeted toward either men, or both men and women, while Free! is the first to have fujoshi’s as its primary demographic. It also marks a shift in the anime industry where the fujoshi side of the otaku fandom are gaining more attention and agency. Since all anime fans are whiny this naturally lead to a sense of entitlement from both male and female fans; male otaku insisting that Free! is somehow trespassing on KyoAni’s previous male-oriented filmography, and fujoshis stating how they “deserve” this show after years of male otaku being the dominant demographic for time immemorial.
As for the actual series itself, Free! actually isn’t all that great. In general, KyoAni certainly does have the people capable of writing compelling and “deep” characters, as can be seen from last year’s Hyouka, but otherwise it hasn’t really been since Clannad: After Story that they’ve been successful at writing anything serious or dramatic in regards to television anime. (Munto might prove otherwise when I get around to watching it, but doubt it seeing how so many have collectively blocked it out their memory because of how awful they thought it was.) Instead what they’ve exemplified at in the past four years is to utilize their impeccable visuals in order to churn out something which strikes all the right points in moe pandering.
And I don’t necessarily mean that in a negative way. Keep in mind I’m the person from Population GO who praised Vividred Operation precisely because it was nothing but a bunch otaku-pandering bullshit. The big problem with all of KyoAni’s past three shows—Chu2Koi, Tamako Market, and Free!, is that they’re all decent slice of life animes brought down by poorly written drama.
And really, the sports drama in Free! is terrible—even worse than Chu2Koi’s attempts to glorify chuunibyouism or Tamako Market’s weird story about teenage marriage. The characters of Free! are charming and likable enough when used for slice of life comedy, but when you throw them into a sports drama which tries to take itself seriously it’s clear that they really weren’t written with that sort of story in mind. I mean, Haru’s whole character revolves around an almost fetishistic obsession with water, to the point where he’s just a mindless sack of beefcake who upon seeing a body of water won’t hesitate to strip down. Because of that it’s difficult to take him serious when he gives a heartfelt speech about how joyous he felt upon winning a competitive race in episode 9. And the other four members of the Iwatobi Swimming Club aren’t much better, since they’re little more than pastiches of typical yaoi archetypes. Kou at least occasionally acts as a parody with her gushing over muscles, but only occasionally.
Aside from Kou and Ama-chan, who I admittedly only adore because of KyoAni’s masterful skill at making me love any and all of their moe characters, the only character of the show who I really sympathize with is Rin. Although it appears a bit silly with how melodramatic it can be at times, the contradictory grudge he has towards Haru for losing a race against him, and his longing to be with his old pals again is compelling and believable. Even if it’s just some race between two kids that happened years ago, such scars can leave a lasting memory on someone, and it’s clear in recent episodes that Rin is possibly regretting acting so spiteful to his childhood friends. I still don’t really care for the actual sports drama surrounding Rin and Haru’s rivalry however.
Thus, to reiterate the subtitle to this post, Free! would have been better if it didn’t dwell so much on poorly-written sports drama and instead stuck to the slice of comedy.