Free! Eternal Summer
by Paul Jensen, Gabriella Ekens,
Spring has sprung, and in my corner of the world that means that racing season is back in full swing. Just as some people obsess over baseball or football, I waste nearly every weekend from March through November watching cars drive endlessly around in circles. Even as I type this, I'm listening to radio coverage of the 12 Hours of Sebring endurance race. Given that we've seen successful shows about bicycle racing and competitive swimming in the past few years, I can only hope that I'll end up watching a bunch of anime characters get unreasonably excited about driving sports cars one of these days. (Aside from good old Initial D, of course.) A guy can dream, right? Welcome to Shelf Life.
Jump to this week's review:
Free! Eternal Summer
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Shelf Life Reviews
This week, Gabriella takes a look at Free! Eternal Summer, the second season of the popular swimming anime series.
Free! Eternal Summer is the series at its peak form. It builds on preexisting narrative investment in the first season to ramp the conflict up right away, and sustains that momentum up until the end. While the first season was mostly cute fluff alongside moments of character drama, this second season gets surprisingly emotional. While I wouldn't call Free! Eternal Summer a deep show, it contains some rather poignant depictions of an important moment of adolescence. You probably remember that point in high school or college when it hits you that the experience is going to end - that your friend group is going to split up, and you're going to have to find a direction for yourself outside of school. Free! Eternal Summer is about different people in that moment and how they react. Some people are already chasing a goal. Rin is one of these, having decided to become a professional athlete at an early age. Some have more humble ambitions, but are nonetheless content. That's Makoto. He isn't a world-class swimmer, but nonetheless finds an occupation that satisfies his love for the activity. Some don't have to worry about all this yet. That's Rei and Nagisa, who are still freshmen. Most difficult of all, some people are met with unfortunate circumstances that force them to suddenly reevaluate their goals. That's Sosuke, who pushed himself too hard in service of a temporary goal, and ended up ruining himself for the long game. And then there's Haruka, the main character, who doesn't know what he wants to do with his life. And that's fine. Free! Eternal Summer is ultimately a reassuring story about how these are all equally valid paths in life. Whichever one you take, all that matters is that you take care of yourself and have a good time. School is only the beginning of your life. It's a good lesson and most likely a pleasant respite from Japan's notoriously punishing school system. Hey, it resonated with me as a college student.
I'm shocked how similar this material is to Ping Pong, a critically acclaimed work and one of my personal favorite anime. That's another sports anime about the different directions a person can take their adolescent hobby. But while that show is an eccentric piece of anime as capital-A Art, Free! Eternal Summer is about as polished and mainstream as the medium gets. They're both exquisite when it comes to animation, but in pretty much opposite directions. Like all Kyoani stuff, Free! conforms to a strict pseudo-realistic house style, while Ping Pong (product of anime auteur Masaaki Yuasa) is a tour-de-force of surreal, unconventional visual ideas. They're both at about the same level when it comes to artistry in animation, but with vastly different goals when it comes to mass audience appeal. I'd previously had an impression of Kyoani stories as shallow product akin to a Disney Channel sitcom or something, but this helped me realize that there isn't necessarily a big difference between this and the artsy stuff I like. Disney, for example, makes mass-audience family friendly tentpole flicks AND some of the most beloved films of all time. Just because a work is commercial doesn't mean it's cynical.
This also helped me understand what fans of the studio get out of their stuff. They're conventional but well-executed stories about The Pleasures and Pains of Youth for a general audience. Of course, the fact that I'm into this one at all has everything to do with the fact that it features glistening man-chests rather than dappled girl-knees, but this does give me a sense of the other side. The puppy-faced, plainly-emotional baby people are just so cute when a sex that I'm attracted to is doing it! Free! Eternal Summer is full of titillation if you're into boys with mile-long abs being subtextually gay with one another, but if that doesn't sound like a good time, chances are you won't get too much out of this. As titillation, it helps that it's simple fun. None of the really unhealthy relationship dynamics that plague BL/yaoi bleed into this show. Sure, it's objectifying these dudes, but doesn't romanticize any troubling relationship dynamics. For a genre that sometimes feels like a minefield of dubious consent, Free! Eternal Summer feels like a cleansing desert oasis.
Now for the rough part. This show's dub caused a fair kerfuffle when it was announced. Rather than accurately recreate the source material, it seemed designed to show off some of Funimation's more popular voice actors – and that was accurate. Free! Eternal Summer's dub features an all-star cast in terms of male voice actors with fanbases, including Vic Mignogna as Rin, J. Michael Tatum as Rei, and Johnny Yong Bosch as Makoto. On one level, I can see this as an attempt to recreate the Japanese casting, which itself features some superstars. The problem is that most of these people are miscast. Vic Mignogna is way too smarmy for Rin, while Greg Ayres makes for an irritating (instead of charmingly annoying) Nagisa. Todd Haberkorn isn't placid enough for Haruka, while J. Michael Tatum sounds way too old for Rei. I enjoyed Jonny Yong Bosch's Makoto and Ian Sinclair's Sosuke, though. The script also isn't very good – they filled it up with slang and jokes rather than the original direct, emotional dialogue. This fundamentally misunderstands the point of Free!. The appeal is that the boys wear their hearts on their sleeves, not that they're quipsters out of the latest Joss Whedon show. The same people fawn over this stuff, but they're acutely aware of the difference between them. People were bound to dislike this dub, and I can't say that it resulted in a good product.
Beyond the dub, the biggest problem with this release is that there's no Funimation equivalent for season one. For obscure licensing reasons, the first and second season were split between Eastern Star and Funimation. Funimation gave Free! the premiere treatment, while Eastern Star was much more modest with their release. If you like fancy matching boxes, this is a disappointment, but there's not much that anyone can do about it. Otherwise, this is an attractive release that will look nice on your shelf. In terms of the discs, I was irritated to learn that there's no option to put on both the English-language track and subtitles at the same time. Extras include episode commentaries with the dub cast and the OVA episode. I recommend the OVA highly – it's the funniest the show has ever been while also wrapping up Sosuke's character arc.
Overall, this second season takes everything that was good about the first and ramps it up to eleven. More honest, relatable emotion from adorable baby men. More abs that you could go rock climbing on. More of some of the most detailed and realistic animation in the business. It's a shame about the dub, but I don't mind owning this as-is.
That wraps up this week's review. Float on back next week!
This week's shelves are from Joseph:
"I showed off my collection in two prior shelf life columns: August 24th 2015 and September 3rd 2012. I didn't take a very good photo of my keychains back in 2012. This time, I wanted to focus on the keychains and take some better photos. The rest of the items (anime dvds/blu-rays, manga, and the laserdisc) are items I added since August 24th 2015.
PS: The box I arranged the keychains in, I made back in high school. It was made to display a bug collection and identification project in my biology class."
That's an impressive collection of keychains! I've got Kirishima from KanColle hanging from my car keys myself. Thanks for sharing!
If you've got a special part of your own collection that you'd like to show off, or if you just want to display the whole thing in all its glory, send me your photos at [email protected]!
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