Reviewby Rose Bridges,
Free! - Iwatobi Swim Club Sub.DVD
Haruka Nanase hasn't swum competitively in years, despite his natural talent for all things water-related. He prefers to "swim free," letting his swim trunks guide him to wherever water can be found. Still, Haruka's best friend Makoto Tachibana is determined to get him back in the competition pool, and when former teammate Nagisa Hazuki wants to form a swim club at their school, he ropes the other two boys into it. It's too bad that old friend Rin Matsuoka is back in town, and attending rival swimming school Samezuka. He's determined to best Haru in a race. The whole Iwatobi Swim Club will need to work hard if they want to compete, especially with the addition of aquatically-challenged track star Rei Ryugazaki.
In politics, there are two broad types of successfully candidates: those who appeal to a wide variety of voters in different ways, and those who pander heavily to a passionate "base." The same is true of popular anime, and Free! is firmly in the latter category. It's a bishonen show through and through, all about the complicated friendships, inner desires and of course, glistening abs of a group of buff high school boys. And of course, swimming, but doesn't make Free! a sports anime. Any given episode's as likely to focus on character moments and side-story shenanigans as it is the actual competitions. In short, it's Kyoto Animation's usual teen melodrama applied to bishonen.
That's a lot of why it's so much more successful than other fujoshi shows. Free! takes that group's desires seriously, and realizes they want more than just pretty boys being pretty. It has the high-end production values expected from any KyoAni production. The characters are based on familiar archetypes—the hyper cutesy boy, the serious nerd, the flawless sweetheart—but Free! adds just enough punch to make them feel fresh. Rei isn't just a fountain of facts, but he uses that to get over-excited about butterfly swimsuits. The series also has a specific brand of comedy that explains a lot of its appeal, even to those who aren't female or aren't attracted to men.
Free!'s comedy and camp are based in self-awareness. It's shameless about its fanservice in a way girl-targeted shows rarely are, as it slowly pans over the boys' abdominal muscles or Haruka's crotch (through his swimsuit, of course). Depending on your preferences, the obviousness of it all can work as titillation or comedy. It plays around with other trappings of its genres, too, like the female character being an audience stand-in. Gou does exactly what the fangirls would do in the world of Free!: constantly ogle the boys and squeal over their muscles. It comically exaggerates some character types, too: Haru is so into swimming he wears his trunks under his clothes. He even tries to take a dip in a fish tank when the boys are out shopping. Free! never directly references any of this or breaks the fourth wall, like an Ouran High School Host Club. Regardless, its humor is built on fans knowing the ropes, and winking and nudging along with it.
However, it isn't all laughs. Free! can dip into drama, too. It varies in success; some plots, particularly one-off ones, are a little too saccharine for grown-up audiences. That's true of episodes 5 and 6, an extended "beach episode" which focus on Rei nearly drowning and Makoto's childhood "fear of the ocean." Free!'s longer-burning plots tend to succeed better, like Rin's inner turmoil throughout this first season. Flashbacks and traumatic dreams do a lot to convey the boy's baggage with his father and Haru. His sequence at the beginning of episode 7 is filled with shadows, creepy mannequins and Dutch angles, setting it apart from the rest of the show and upsetting viewers as much as him. These are the most powerful, memorable parts of the show, and something Free! built on in its second season.
This is where the KyoAni house style really helps. Free! gets it all: rich colors and backgrounds; rounded character designs; fluid, realistic-looking animation; evocative camera-work. I especially like the show's use of lighting and shading, which differentiate easily between the various places and times of day in the show. They even have different styles for underwater or dream sequences. Point is: Free! looks way better than other shows for its demographic, which are usually handled by cheaper studios with awkward art and worse animation. The DVD release has no problems with conveying KyoAni's crisp style.
The musical score is typical for a slice-of-life school show: gentle piano pieces for introspective moments, bouncy (even beachy) rock for happy scenes. The one exception is the dubstep that dominates Rin's scenes, especially when he's picking a fight with Haru or the others at Iwatobi. It's the stand-out of Free!'s soundtrack, and not always in a good way: its loud drone can get excessive, almost drowning out the dialogue. Thankfully, everything else is more subdued. It's not too noticeable or special, but adds just the right punch when it needs it.
There are parts of Free! that lag, of course. It depends a lot on which characters you find yourself invested in the most. The first time I watched through it, when it aired in summer 2013, my favorite characters were Nagisa and Rei. I looked forward to their cute character moments even more than the core plot of Haru vs. Rin. On re-watch, I still love them and their relationship, but a lot of their centric moments drag. Nagisa's hyperactive nature is only funny for so long. As with any group-oriented show, which boy(s) you zero in on will be wildly individual, and may change from viewing to viewing. Since each character and pairing gets its moments of focus and subtext, how you enjoy its slower, slice-of-life moments will depend a lot on that choice. They could be the most exciting, or the most boring parts of the show. Nagisa in particular appears to be a polarizing character. He'll either make you laugh out loud or get on your nerves. Slice-of-life shows are always a gamble, since they're built largely on the backs of their characters. Free! puts more work into theirs than a lot of fanservice shows, but that doesn't mean they'll jive with everyone.
Free! is an unusual license for Discotek, usually a purveyor of older shows. That's probably why its package feels so odd, a DVD-only, sub-only, bare-bones release for a super-popular show. The only special features are the standard clean opening and closing (which I appreciated, as a lover of STYLE FIVE's ED "SPLASH FREE" and its surreal Arabian dance party). It makes sense not to gamble on something so atypical for their output, but it's still disappointing to get so little. Free! fans will just have to wait for Funimation's release of the second season for all the bells and whistles. Other than its sparseness, the only real downside of Discotek's release is the cover art. It's based on the official art, but the faces are visibly off-model, especially Rei's. At least it's inexpensive.
It's hard to go into too much depth about this show, because there isn't that much there. Free! may have its darker, more introspective moments with Rin, but it's still popcorn entertainment. Luckily, this is gourmet popcorn with all the fixings. Summer is here, so if you need something light, shallow and pretty to watch by the pool, you can't do much better than this.
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : B-
Animation : A+
Art : A+
Music : C
+ Top-notch art and animation; fun variety of characters; self-aware camp comedy; can be surprisingly introspective at times.
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