Free! Iwatobi Swim Club, or as I’ll be calling it, Free, is a fantastic example of how a sports anime can appeal to a demographic it usually doesn’t target: the female weeaboo. Free made waves (haha) when it first came out in 2013. Anime fans were shown shots of some beautifully drawn anime boys stretching and showing sculpted muscles in a trailer that became somewhat viral on sites like Tumblr. I remember not even being in the anime scene at the time and seeing countless gifs and screenshots of the trailer for Free. It was a massive hit, and not just for the obvious reasons.
Free follows the story of a couple main characters and is a hybrid between a slice of life and sports anime. The show focuses on both the characters lives and their relationships as well as the sport – in this case, swimming. I liked how the show gave a good mix of the two genres. It blended them perfectly, in my opinion. Instead of just showing the characters competing in the sport, and basically making it seem like the sport was their entire life, Free focused on the growth of the characters.
Another point I want to touch on is the way the show handled the typical sports anime power creep. In a lot of sports shows, it feels like the main character’s team is made up of perfect olympic-level athletes. In Kuroko’s Basketball, for example, Kuroko and his team literally never lose a single game. It’s super fun to watch, but extremely predictable. This can be fun in small doses, but gets old fast. In Free, it’s established from the start that only one character is really good at swimming – Haru. And even then, at the start of the series, it’s established that Haru doesn’t want to swim competitively anymore.
As the series progresses, we see Haruka learn to love swimming again. It’s presented in a realistic way, which makes the series feel much more satisfying. The other three main characters, Rei, Nagisa, and Makoto, all have their own flaws as well. The show is written intimately enough that you develop a special bond with these characters, and you genuinely want to see them grow. And the show allows for plenty of room for growth by not making the characters overpowered and perfect right from the get-go. Rei can’t even swim when he joins the team!
Free is written beautifully. I want to compare the writing style to Your Lie in April. You really do see the characters grow with time, and you become invested in them. I remember honestly tearing up during the scene where (very minor spoiler) Rei competes in his first competition, and his goggles slip down, he falls behind everyone else, and his form is terrible, but he still keeps going. I felt like I was a member of the Iwatobi swim club, cheering him on. That’s what makes this show truly special and makes it stand out from other sports anime. It doesn’t feel like you’re an outside observer looking in at the characters, it feels like you’re part of it.
People tend to hate on this anime sometimes for its fanservice-y nature, but I don’t see anything wrong with it. As long as Keijo exists, I don’t see anything wrong with a little male fanservice. It’s also sort of an area of controversy, since a lot of guys think they’re unable to watch it because it has lots of shirtless hunks. My answer to that is, you’re still an anime-watching fool. Who’s going to judge you for watching a quality show just because it’s got shirtless dudes?
Free has seen pretty tremendous success. It’s had three separate 12-episode seasons and three movies, all just as high-quality as the last. I found the ending of Dive to the Future to be a little unsatisfying, but I have to admit that it was as realistic as it could have been, and kept in line with the themes of the show. I highly recommend this show to anyone that wants a lighthearted sports anime that doesn’t take itself too seriously and has loads of likeable characters. I’ve found that this show always puts me in a good mood and I’ve rewatched it several times.