In March 2013, Kyoto Animation released a short 30-second animated video displaying the company’s abilities. What the company did not expect was the overwhelming flood of positive responses to the video, which quickly hit viral status on the internet. Almost overnight, this 30-second clip gained its own fan base, and became known on Tumblr as “the swimming anime.” Potential backstories and personalities for these nameless characters were formed and fan art was produced as fans banded together to petition for a series based on these mysterious and attractive characters. And four months later, Kyoto Animation answered.
The studio has answered fans’ pleas and has turned this short preview into a series entitled Free!: Iwatobi Swim Club, the first episode of which aired on July 4. Apparently, the original idea was based on the short novel High Speed! by Kōji Ōji, but exactly how much of the original material has been retained is uncertain. It’s no cultural masterpiece, and in fact seems to use the exact same formula of so many female-targeted shows before it (it’s only a matter of time before they make a dating sim game). That doesn’t mean it’s not worth watching, but Free! is definitely a show for the fangirls.
The art style is lovely, and the color tones are soft and clean. The animation isn’t quite as impressive as the video on which the series is based, but we can’t expect it to be. We all know that Kyoto Animation is cashing in on this fantastic opportunity of a video gone viral (and they would be crazy not to), but it will be interesting to see how the quality holds up over time. I fear the show might start to take itself too seriously and forget its audience. Forego character development and this could easily go Prince of Tennis status (i.e. a painfully repetitive sport anime). The pilot is by no means unwatchable, and I found it entertaining. Not a masterpiece, but honest, good fun.
That said, the pilot episode is so fanservice-y it’s almost painful. The show features five shirtless swimmers, all fitting the stereotypes of anime hotties: the quiet, serious one, the overconfident rebel, the smart one with glasses, the happy-go-lucky one who provides homosexual subtext, and the feminine “shota” who looks and acts much younger than he is. We’ve got bathtub scenes, pool scenes, stripping on the sidewalk scenes, cooking shirtless with an apron scenes…it’s all there, and this is only episode one. I almost fear to imagine what subsequent installments might bring. But for a lot of fans this is great news, since they’re getting the show they asked for. In a way, the predictability is part of the show’s charm, and there is no shortage of abs shots and shirt removals. I swear these guys practice in the mirror.
It is yet to be seen how this anime will evolve. I think it is safe to say that it will remain very stereotypical, but will nevertheless retain its already enormous fan base. If you’re looking for ridiculous entertainment, or some shirtless sexy anime guys, you might want to give Free! a try. If you’re not, it might be worth watching for no reason but how humorously over the top it all is. Episodes air on Thursdays, and fans can view the pilot over on Crunchyroll or elsewhere on the interwebs. Check out the opening for Free!: Iwatobi Swim Club in all of its shirtless glory below.