A new show is taking the anime world by storm, raising palms to laughing faces all across the fandom community. It’s been wonderfully received so far… you could even say ratings were going swimmingly.
Free! is a new series currently airing from Kyoto Animation about a group of friends who are competitive swimmers. That’s it. It’s two episodes in, so no great overarching plot can be expected to have revealed itself… but it has been very well established that this is not a show that will be watched for the plot anyway.
The series was teased at a few months ago with advertising material and a few short segments, affectionately just called ‘Swimming Anime’ by those that (amusedly) received it. They didn’t necessarily think it would get a whole show, but now it has and before us stretch 12 glorious episodes of slice of life magic centring around toned, shirtless and commonly wet pretty boys.
Free!’s treatment of its cast (for a quick example, check out the ending theme, lovingly nicknamed ‘the gay oasis’) seems fairly tongue-in-cheek, nodding wholeheartedly to the concept that shows about young men playing sport often end up with great swathes of female fans. And why shouldn’t they? Girls can enjoy a story about the serious business of tennis or basketball and the interactions of the characters playing just as much as anyone. As an added bonus, there’s a guarantee that most of the main cast, being athletes, will be designed with optimal figures and to be aesthetically pleasing.
Because you can do that when you’re working with the animated medium—your world is a blank page and its lifeblood is the imagination and artistry of the creators. You’re immediately working beyond the realm of human possibility, able to summon breathtaking scenery, awesome effects, funky machines and monsters and magic without having to pay heed to the complicated special effects you’d need if you had to add them on from a live action take. You can also give your characters multicoloured hair, wings, cat ears, robot arms and other cool bits and bobs, and you can make them as exaggeratedly ridiculous-looking or mathematically attractive as you see fit.
Free! has gotten a bit of backlash from male viewers complaining of the objectification of the athletes and the unrealistic view of the male body it sets. To which there has been an even greater female back-backlash wherein it’s been pointed out that this happens overtly to female characters all the time. At least the Free! lads have physiques that are within the realm of possibility (as you’ll note with even the smallest bit of research and photo comparison, they look like professional swimmers). And aren’t, for example, subjected to boobs bigger than their heads. As for the objectification, well, they’re swimmers. Do you want them to do laps in their clothing?
This brings up the question, is it still blatant fan service if it makes sense in context? The boys have to be sans shirts half the time because it’d be highly impractical to swim competitively with them on. In the same way you can nod away (however begrudgingly) the spontaneous bouncing into view of bikini-clad figures if the plot takes its characters beach or pool-wards. Free! just happens to revolve around pools, so it’s jumping that gun to begin with. Fan service can be grating when it gets in the way of the plot, but what if the plot is the fan service?
And is that a bad thing anyway? Some people don’t watch TV to get their hearts ripped out, and just want to settle down to some slice of life happiness starring pretty people. K-On is a series produced by the same studio, which supposedly centres around a budding light music band, but is primarily just 25 episodes of cute girls doing cute things. Sometimes you’re just in the mood to watch teen girls going about their business, eating snacks and hanging out and having adorable adventures without them having to save the universe or undergo trauma.
The same principle applies to a show like Free! Sometimes you just want to look into the comedic hijinks of a lovable cast of pretty boys who you can be fairly certain aren’t going to get stabbed at any point. There are plenty of series that follow this pattern, though most of them centre around girls—fun slices of escapism where the viewer can kick back and chuckle and ogle. Is this objectifying the characters, if they only exist to provide mindless, emotionless attractive entertainment? Does it matter, since they’re just made up people created for entertainment in the first place, whether that entertainment involves sending them on a world-shattering adventure of survival or to the hot springs?
On one level, there’s really no harm in the occasional fan service-driven series (if nothing else, it helps the audience relax and recuperate after finishing one of the more dramatic and depressing ones around), especially one such as Free! which provides some gender balance to the market by emblazoning every surface with buff, lithe, dripping wet guys instead of D-cup toting, fluttery-eyed girls in thigh-high socks. It rather pokes fun at the entire fan service business, making the ship teases blatant and flinging its main men out of their clothes at any given moment (no, really) and giving absolutely no indication that it takes itself seriously (unless, of course, some speculation is correct and we may have all been lured into a very poignant and emotional series with the promise of washboard abs, but I digress).
On another, objectifying the human body is never really a good thing, and sports-accurate and parody-fuelled or otherwise, doubtless the shimmering bods in Free! are making a guy out there as insecure and uncomfortable as every booberiffic, skinny-waisted, long-legged heroine or love interest who’s ever strutted across a screen has made girls. And this isn’t just the anime world, you know. Arrow is airing at the moment, a show which I presume is about an archery-based superhero of some description but can’t really say because every time I flick over to it all I get is a screen full of gleaming abs. Again, it evens the scales against every bloom of overflowing cleavage you’ll come across while channel surfing, but it’s still a little degrading.
I’ve said this before, must we use sex appeal as the greatest tool to try and get our audience’s attention? It can get severely tired and quite insulting when overused, both to the people being sexualised and the target audience having it shoved in their faces.
Is Free! a hilarious and ridiculous take on the fan service industry? Yes. Is it still problematic despite being an object of parody? Yes. Am I going to watch it? Oh, yes. It’s funny and light, it will be interesting to see what directions the series takes after its beginning made such a splash, and if nothing else, it has some of the most nicely animated water I’ve ever seen. There you have it, I’m watching for aestheticism, humour and wonderment, another part of the clockwork design of the entertainment industry.
Now, did someone say pool?
Further your education into this pile of ridiculous here, wherein every mention of the word ‘swim’ is censored. Just look at it. It tells you everything you need to know.
UPDATE: Well, it’s finished! Here’s the retrospective review…