Or, rather, the madness of the resident water fiend…
…for the water.
Oh, Free!, you little controversy-maker, you. Who knew that such an ultimately tame show could inflame the passions of so many? Oh, wait – its a fairly tame show that lingers on the buttocks of male characters instead of female characters, of course it has caused such a firestorm! Silly me. And, yes, “tame” – the first episode was a bit gratuitous in butt and crotch shots, but it has dropped off considerably, and I think naked male torsos are a bit less eyebrow-raising than bulging backsides encased in jammers (yes, “jammers” – those are the tight swimsuits that go down to the knees, and, in some cases, the ankles).
As entertaining as it is to me to watch people freak the fuck out over a half-season anime as if it were a sign of an impending asteroid strike, I wouldn’t still be watching Free! if it’d just been all about over-the-top physiques and tight pants, and that isn’t what drew me in in the first place. I’m watching it because it is a show about a swim team and about a bunch of characters who are passionate about swimming and the water, and the last time there was any chance of us having that sort of show was with the thankfully-forgotten Umishou (which was just tits fest, although that wasn’t quite a shock). I swam for over a decade competitively, and I really miss being in the pool almost every day, even though its been about five years since I lived that sort of life. So the prospect of an anime about a swim team was exciting to me, even if it looked like it was going to be more “cute boys doing cute things” than a hardcore sports anime; you can take a gander through previous times I’ve talked about the thing and you’ll see that the entire time I was hoping that it’d be heavier on the sports than one could reasonably expect from KyoAni.
Now, mind you, Free! hasn’t had a hell of a lot in the way of swimming. We’ve only seen a few times so far of characters either racing or doing laps. But even though it hasn’t been tons of pool time, the show is nevertheless suffused with the idea of swimming, from Haruka’s utter entrancement with any water whatsoever to simple things like having to weed and repair a pool in order to be able to use it. Maybe that doesn’t sound like a traditional sports anime, but to me its a lot easier to relate to than if it were just nail-biter races endlessly. I’ve definitely had to do my fair share of pool maintenance to be able to keep the pool in working condition, and I’ve spent a lot of hours doing thrilling things like begging donations for my old high school team and trying to convince folks to join up.
But what I really love about Free! is Haruka, and, more importantly, Haruka’s relationship to water. Given the way athletes are often treated, I love that Haruka is depicted as an unrepentant weirdo, totally absorbed in seeking out a quasi-holy sort of connection with the water. Its an excellent reminder that athletes are NOT heroes, even if they perform amazing physical feats and wow crowds as they do so. The fact is, Haruka is fairly self-centered, even taking into account his departure from racing after beating Rin; he doesn’t display much regard for his friends other than that one time, and one could question if giving up the racing aspect really bothered him much given that his primary drive is to connect with the water, not to win, necessarly. Look to Haruka’s reaction after losing to Rin in the present – he doesn’t really care, he’s just glad he felt that special connection with the water during the race.
I got a little off-track there, though, since what I really want to talk about is Haruka’s deranged love affair with water. I completely get that. I was never a star swimmer; I did decently when I swam in high school, but out in the world of swim teams not attached to schools, I did not do well. I know the feeling of persistently being in the bottom third of heats (only in butterfly did I tend to avoid this fate). I didn’t keep swimming because I was a winner at it, and I didn’t keep swimming because I expected that the trend would ever change – I had no expectation that it ever would, because after you swim for hours and hours a day for multiple years and still end up placing toward the bottom, well, probably not going to suddenly wake up as an ace one day. I kept swimming because I enjoyed swimming, and because I loved being in the water.
Haruka is the first time I’ve really ever seen that sentiment reflected back at me. While I never tried to leap into any fish tanks, I almost always feel a pull toward any body of water, regardless of outside factors such as weather conditions or whether the water itself is clean. Freezing cold winter day and I walk by a pond? I want to swim in it. Probably stagnant man-made flooded area? Let me swim in it. Quite frankly, I feel more comfortable in water than on land (I may run a lot, but I find it painful and very unenjoyable). Generally I resist such temptation, but then I have moments where I find myself standing knee-deep in the ocean when its eleven o’clock at night and thirty-eight (F) degrees out, or I’m chugging full-speed ahead into muddy water full of massive fish of unknown sort, and I’m just focused on the fact that it is water, glorious, glorious water, and I am going to SWIM IN IT. AND YOU CAN’T STOP ME.
*That* is why I am watching Free!. Having spent oodles of time around young men in speedos throughout my youth, I can tell you that the prospect of naked 2D torsos doesn’t do a thing for me. But seeing a piece of pop culture demonstrate the feelings I have for water? Fucking thrilling, bros – fucking thrilling.
I also used to be on a swim team and I completely agree with you about the presentation of Haruka’s relationship with the water. Free! is not only about seeing built guys in swim trunks, but about a bunch of swimmers that are trying to make a club happen 🙂