Earlier this year, four shirtless anime boys appeared in a commercial—a commercial that became so popular that a full anime series about them was ordered. That is how Free! was created. And, as you might expect from those beginnings, Free! is a shameless cash-in—though that doesn't make for an unwatchable show.
Free! is one of those anime that it quite difficult for me to review since I am, as a straight male, most definitely not the target audience. So in lieu of the normal reviewing format, let's take a look at Free! in two different ways: as a sports anime and as a fanservice anime (for those among us who like their animated men pretty and shirtless).
As a Sports Anime
As a sports anime, Free! is just about par for the course. A group of championship-level swimmers who, for various reasons, have quit swimming, decide to create a swimming club at their high school and aim for the national championship. Along the way they encounter numerous problems to overcome as it seems the whole world is against them—lack of funds, no place to practice, not enough team members, etc. Together, they overcome these trials and go to the big swimming meet, but will their pertinacity be enough to win?
Of course, as with all sports anime, there is the rival character. As you might expect, he knew the main cast when he was younger but has since come to despise them. He is determined to beat his rival—the main character Haruka—at the big swim meet and prove once and for all that he is the best.
When it comes down to it, Free! is pretty cliché when viewed as a sports anime. It does next to nothing truly original but the execution is well done enough that those who like sports anime will find it watchable. It certainly isn't terrible, but it is terribly average.
But let's face it, it wasn't the promise of a sports anime about a swim team that turned Free! from commercial into TV series. No, that would be the shirtless boys with swimmer's bodies. Free! is completely unabashed with its fanservice—with the main character stripping at the drop of a hat and constantly lounging around his house in nothing but a swim suit. It’s no exaggeration to say that the main cast spends the majority of the anime's run time shirtless.
Each of the swim team boys is a different cliché type: Haruka is soft spoken yet passionate; Rei is overly serious and wears glasses; Nagisa is small, cute and hyperactive, and Makoto is a strong, reliable, kind leader. The rival, Rin, is the arrogant bad boy with the tortured past—just to make sure every possible fetish is covered.
Though really, all the boys have some sort of tortured past—or at least some negative quirk that causes them trouble. Of course, these human frailties are included to elicit an emotional response from the viewer: If only you were there to soothe their emotional aches.
What's interesting—though, hardly surprising—is that while there is a female character that just screams potential love interest (their manager), Free! chooses to go for the boys love angle instead. While there is nothing as overt as a kiss or a declaration of love, there are numerous personal confessions. The characters simply love telling each other how much they mean to each other in tearful scenes. Then there are the cliché romantic situations, like playing truth or dare or setting up the “kiss” resulting from CPR. Thus almost every scene is designed in some way to excite your boys love fantasies.
In the end, Free! really is nothing more than a series of fanservice moments tied together by a sports anime plot. As a sports anime, it is painfully average—it has a competent enough plot but does nothing innovative to make it stand on a level with the sports anime greats. But as a fanservice anime for those who like quirky, shirtless boys and sappy emotional moments, it excels. If you are excited by this type of fanservice, by all means give Free! a watch. If not, there are far better sports anime out there that are worth your time.
Free! aired on Tokyo MX in Japan. It can be watched in the US for free with English subtitles on Crunchyroll.
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