Reviewby Carlo Santos,
Free! - Iwatobi Swim Club
Episodes 1-6 Streaming
As a boy, Haruka Nanase used to swim competitively—but he hasn't done so in years, despite the urgings of best friend and former teammate Makoto Tachibana. However, things begin to change when Haruka and Makoto are reunited with Nagisa Hazuki, who's a year younger than them and just enrolled at their high school. Nagisa insists that they should re-form their old swimming relay team, but the plan hits a snag when they learn that their fourth member, Rin, is now attending an elite rival school. Fortunately, another student—track athlete Rei Ryugazaki—grudgingly agrees to join them, and at last they have enough members to field a proper team. However, the squad will have to go through some rigorous training if they want to compete legitimately against Rin's school. Can Haruka and friends overcome the odds and succeed as the Iwatobi High School swim team?
Free! - Iwatobi Swim Club is the kind of show designed to please as many fans as possible. It's got a classic sports rivalry for those who enjoy action and conflict, school-club antics for comedy and slice-of-life enthusiasts, polished animation to get art aficionados talking, and a cast of attractive, lean-muscled young men for those who care most about the characters. But not every aspect of the series is equally well-developed, and over the first six episodes, Free! takes the easy path. Pretty backgrounds, pretty boys, and goofy comedy moments dominate the early episodes, with the only major spot of drama being a life-threatening incident when the boys go on an excursion. The deepest part of the story, it turns out, is in the back-story—a strange case of misplaced priorities.
Maybe it's all part of a plan to make viewers fall in love with the series' lighter side before getting all serious. The first few episodes introduce the characters in broad, appealing strokes, pointing out simple (and easily lampooned) personality traits rather than going for nuance. Haruka is brooding and water-obsessed, Makoto is the nurturing ideal-husband type, Nagisa is a bouncing bundle of joy, and bespectacled Rei is full of lofty theories that don't quite work in real life. Only Rin, with a perpetual chip on his shoulder about his past races against Haruka, has a genuinely dark edge to him. This melting pot of a cast lends itself to plenty of comedy moments: Haruka trying to jump into any available body of water, a group shopping trip that quickly turns absurd, and—in a sly, self-referential nod—the main female character, Gou, losing her cool over the sight of the swimmers' toned bodies. But the euphoria of forming a school club and goofing off with friends only lasts so long, and eventually the series starts to show some weaknesses.
One of those weaknesses is the overall pacing: by the end of Episode 6, the boys are still a day away from the prefectural tournament, and so sports fans hoping for a quick jump into the action may find themselves disappointed. Indeed, with two episodes spent on an overnight training camp (including a brief, heart-pounding cliffhanger that is quickly resolved), it seems that the storyline is actively trying to avoid any real conflict. Instead, it promises that the drama is yet to come—a future Haruka/Rin showdown is the dangling carrot that leads this plot—or it digs into the past, flashing back to childhood experiences that affected Haruka, Rin, and even too-nice-to-be-true Makoto. (Nagisa, however, remains as shallow as ever after six episodes.) Therein lies the problem: it's fine to showcase some serious back-stories as a way of balancing out the school-life humor, but at some point the seriousness needs to start happening now.
Although the story could use some improvements, the visuals are already more than satisfactory. Right from the very first frame, the backgrounds are richly colored and detailed, with a distinctly coastal, small-town feel. (As expected, Japanese fans have already gone afield and found the actual locations that the backgrounds are based on). Character designs are another strong point: instead of five generic pretty boys with swapped eye colors and hairstyles, each member of cast is unique, differing from one another in height, build, and even posture. The anatomy, too, is beyond reproach—competitive swimmers really do look like that in real life, and the occasional bursts of "Gou vision" allow the animators to show off how well they've studied the male form. But the boys aren't only good-looking on land—the swimming segments boast first-rate animation too, capturing the beauty of the human body moving through water. However, much of the story still takes place on school grounds, where the animation is more ordinary.
In keeping with the series' lighthearted nature so far, the theme songs are both uptempo numbers, catchy but unremarkable. The opening is a typical rock-inflected tune, while the dance-pop ending is more notable for the surreal credits sequence (An underwater nightclub? A Middle Eastern sojourn?) than the actual quality of the song. The soundtrack during each episode also lacks depth: the swim team's comedy escapades and school activities are accompanied by canned, repetitive tracks, with only a bare hint of melody. On the other hand, friendship-building moments and serious flashbacks get a more heartfelt background-music treatment—but those are the exception rather than the rule.
Over its first six episodes, Free! proves that it has the right elements to succeed as both a sports series and a school-life series, but it hasn't put those elements to full use yet. The characters have legitimately deep back-stories that drive their present-day goals, but so far the main plot has been more about things like what swimsuit to buy for Rei, rather than the longstanding friction between Haruka and Rin. The promise of an inter-school swimming competition also lies out there, yet six episodes have passed and the prefectural tournament still hasn't started, which may be testing the patience of fans who want real action and not just lighthearted training sequences. At least the high-quality animation makes each episode a feast for the eyes—but Free! needs to step up its storytelling game if it is to emerge as a summer hit worthy of the hype.
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C
Animation : A-
Art : B
Music : C
+ Successfully brings together the sports and school-life genres with a likable cast of characters, comedic energy, and first-rate animation.
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