There’s an anime that’s been gaining steady popularity this past year, and it’s about – well, what else could it be – swimming.
Now, before we begin, I’ll explain a bit about my experience with Free!, namely, my resistance to watching it. “An anime about swimming,” I said. “No, really, what’s it actually about?” Everyone else would insist. “Swimming. It’s about swimming. It’s great. You should watch it.”
That didn’t seem right. An anime about swimming? How is that supposed to be good to watch? And then social media took over, and I found that Free! would crop up time and time again in the form of raving reviews, fanart, and screenshots; it eventually reached the point where I referred to Free! first as “that swimming anime” and second by its actual name.
Well, after enough insistence on all sides, I decided to finally watch it. And I can tell you this: Swimming. It’s about swimming. And it’s great. You should watch it.
The premise is as follows: four elementary school boys become friends in a swim club. They win a swimming tournament together only to part ways shortly after, and, of course, later on in high school, they somehow manage to stumble into one another again.
So what else? Is there more? The answer is a solid and resounding yes.
Free! isn’t one of those strangely addictive, mindless animes that you feel compelled to watch. While the actual story is based around swimming, there is much more substance to it than just four guys competing in a pool. The characters are very three-dimensional, starting out with each individual falling under what would more or less be a cliched character: the cool, quiet protagonist; the small, quirky personality; the all around, “average” guy; and the angry antagonist who is searching for something. But within a few episodes, that is quickly eliminated, and what happens is that each character gets added depth and character. You learn their fears, their childhood, how they became what they are, and all of that is learned through their relationships and how they interact with one another, which is by itself the most compelling part of Free!
As can be assumed from the art, title, and summary, Free! falls under the category of a light-hearted anime. There are good times, there are bad times, there are things to laugh at (one of those things being that all the main characters, who are boys, have girlish names), and then there are serious moments speckled throughout. Of those serious moments, there is rivalry, competition, difficult friendships and histories, along with conflicting ideals and beliefs between various characters. This is very easily the driving force behind Free!, and the fact that everything is well spaced out to span across just a single season makes the decision of watching it even easier. The use of swimming, of all things, as a platform to show how all the characters interact is executed exceptionally well, and it could partly be because of such an unlikely subject matter that really piques everyone’s interest.
And, of course, for swimmers who are worried the sport is portrayed two-dimensionally, you should fear not. The anatomy of the body and the way it moves while swimming, the various swim strokes, the level of respect many of the characters have for swimming, and even how a swimmer takes off from the diving board are all portrayed beautifully. Everyone would be happy to know that this attention to detail extends to every crevice of the anime. From the dinner table to the roof of the school, the colors and minute details are vibrant, clear, and very well done.
So one last question remains: Is there anything in terms of plot? The answer to that is difficult. It’s a yes and no. The only plot, if you can consider such, would be from the actual swimming competitions and the way each character fights to attain their wants. Free! can easily be labeled a “slice of life” anime, and if you’ve never liked any types of those animes, Free! most likely won’t be for you. Otherwise, there is no lost soul searching for his identity, no hero trying to save the world, and no villain trying to take it over. At the same time, this shouldn’t be a complete determent to watching Free! After all, it’s an anime about swimming. Who ever thought they’d get into something like that?