The story of Free! begins with four ten year old boys who were brought together by their love of swimming. Unfortunately, after their first big tournament, two of those boys leave the group, and the fellowship is disbanded.
That is, until the first year of high school, when they are finally reunited, and Nagisa convinces them to start the long-defunct Swim club back up again! With a new manager, a new faculty adviser, and a brand new team mate, and an old friend as their new rival, this club has just begun to tread water!
As awesome as that sounds, and as intensely likeable as the characters are, the writing in Free! is just kind of… Okay. Free! is Kyoto Animation’s first ever sports based anime, which automatically means it has more plot than half of the work they’ve put out thus far, but even with that to boast about, Free! is still just a little too passive for it’s own good. They go to a few swimming competitions, but the stakes of these events are never more than just “We wanna swim together and get a higher budget for our club.” They never seen to desire anything other than “Let’s be stronger friends.” That makes for a very pleasant tone, but it doesn’t make for a very engaging series.
The only thing that really develops is the relationship between the five leading males. Their growth as individuals is negligible, aside from the rival Rin. Their occasional coach is only ever used when he’s convenient, and their faculty adviser makes little to no effort to distinguish herself as anything other than a recycled K-ON! trope. Kou, the group’s manager, is not used nearly enough, and has basically no story arc, considering how much potential she has.
As I said before, it’s a decent, pleasant show, and while I didn’t find the plot very engaging, I still enjoyed watching it. The chemistry of the characters more than made up for their lack of depth. I’m monolingual, but the japanese dub sounded really good, and I had no problems at all with the actual dialogue. Normally, I’d give this kind of show a 7/10, but there’s one more aspect that I forgot to mention.
Kyoto Animation may not be known for having stellar stories, but it always brings great animation to the table, and from that perspective alone, this is the best looking show they’ve ever released. The backgrounds and character designs are outstanding, the attention to detail is mind blowing, the characters are capable of a full range of graceful, fluid motion, and the water…
If you’re not taking a simplistic approach, water can be one of the most notoriously difficult things to animate. While there are a few notable exceptions, like the stellar art design of The Little Mermaid, most examples of animated water range from bland and forgettable to just plain awkward.
But I have never seen animated water that looks as good as it does in Free. They used a seamless blend of 2D and 3D techniques to make the water look not only natural, but alive. Every reflection, every ripple, every bubble and every distortion is captured with the power of a force of nature, and yet with the subtlety of a facial expression.
This show may not have the best writing, but it does have a charismatic energy that will grab you right from episode one and not let you go until long after it’s finished. The amount of love and enthusiasm that went into this show is like night and day when compared to some of Kyo-Ani’s lesser projects. The water’s great, so leave all doubts in your locker and dive right in!