First Episodes, First Impressions: Free! – Iwatobi Swim Club

Promo image for Free!Fanservice… it’s not just for male otaku any more.

In my earlier article on straight female fanservice moments in geek culture, I mentioned that I held off on including anime and manga as it had a much better track record in showing off “hawt menz” than Western media. But even with a long and storied history of willowy bishonen who sparkle and make smoldering bedroom eyes at the heroine/the camera/each other, never has anime fanservice for the straight gals and gay guys been this… um… blatant.

For those that don’t know, Free! – Iwatobi Swim Club is a currently ongoing series from animation studio Kyoto Animation, aka KyoAni, famous and beloved for their endless stream of borderline moe fanservice series such as Clannad, Kanon, and K-On. As far as I can tell, Free! seems to have come about from someone at the company saying, “Let’s make the same sort of series we usually do, only instead of cute underdressed girls, let’s go with cute underdressed boys.” The initial commercial went viral and set the Internet ablaze as some squeed, others… well, there’s an entire tumblr dedicated to the tears of those who consider it a sign of the anime apocalypse. That could be (and will be!) an entire post in and of itself.

So what’s the big deal, and what is the show itself like? Here’s another First Episode, First Impressions to provide an appetizer to this bare-chested bishie series.

Episode summary: Haruka Nanase and his friends Makoto, Nagisa, and Rin, were members of the school swim club in elementary school, but life, school, and the departure of Haruka’s main rival Rin caused the four to grow apart. Years later in high school, Haruka has remained friends with Makoto but stopped swimming competitively, despite having an almost, er, erotic love for swimming and being in the water. When Nagisa enrolls in the same high school, however, the three of them wax nostalgic over their time in the swim club and return to the now-abandoned pool where they used to swim to recover an old time capsule they buried before parting ways. However, they also run into Rin, who’s returned from Australia with a newly aggressive and dismissive attitude and wants to race Haruka (somewhat stymied by the fact there’s no water in the pool!) After meeting with Rin’s sister Go and finding out Rin now goes to an elite rival school, the three boys sneak onto the campus and its pool at night and confront Rin again…

And oh yeah, imagine every other sentence of that summary followed by, “and then they rip their clothes off to reveal half naked manflesh and skintight swimtrunks.”

First impressions: You mean beyond “half naked manflesh?” Because really, it is clear that that is at the core of this series. It’s hilarious how Haruka is willing to leap on the smallest of excuse to whip off his clothing in a flourish and flutter of cloth and bare himself  in preparation for jumping in the nearest pool. It’s almost like he’s allergic to clothing. It’s actually very entertaining to see the same hilariously transparent techniques in female cheesecake anime – the panty shots, the boob jiggles, the sighs or moans that sound vaguely erotic out of context – are transposed into male equivalents like glistening wet pectorals or lovingly tight crotch shots. There are also several moe tropes here, particularly involving the doe-eyed Nagisa who just demands to be cuddled.

Having said that, while seeing the male-focused version of moe and fanservice is pretty entertaining and original, that’s about the only originality you’re going to get out of it. Make no mistake, Free! is basically a moe anime in a different guise, or perhaps more accurately the lovechild of shonen narrative (with its story of boys’ sports ambitions)  moe (with its celebration of youth and friendships that drip with homoerotic overtones) and outright fanservice (with the long, lingering shots over naked flesh and sexual body parts). If you have watched any sort of anime in either the moe or sports-club genre, chances are you’ve already “seen” this anime, albeit with fewer shirtless boys prancing around. The first episode feels so well-worn and familiar that you can pretty much plot out the whole thing by the five minute mark when Rin and Haruka’s rivalry is set up. The jokes and writing are still entertaining, and the characters are likable enough, but it’s all very archetypal, by the numbers stuff. Except for, you know, the endless half-naked teenage boy thing. Which, to be fair, sets it apart pretty, er, decisively.

Compared to the rest of the series?

Me: “So, judging by this first episode, I expect lots of swimming, shirtless boys, teenage rivalries that secretly mask  epic bromance, aloof and dedicated heroes, more shirtless boys, and a lot of stuff about the power of friendship and swimming.”

(Reads the Wiki article for rest of series)

Me: “Wow, nailed it in one.”

Well, to be fair, there is a bit more to it than that; more characters show up (including one boy who becomes part of the main cast), and the friends soon go on to form their own swim club at their school, dealing with the trials therein. But at first glance, at least, this is pretty by-the-numbers stuff, just with more male bodies on not-quite-nude display.  The first episode pretty much spells out exactly what to expect… same as every other fanservice anime.

Worth plowing on? 

If you loathe generic moe anime, generic shonen anime, or just plain generic anime, Free! is going to drive you nuts, and I wouldn’t even recommend touching the first episode. For everyone else… it’s going to depend almost entirely on whether the premise of scantily clad teenage boys who whip their uniforms off at a moment’s notice either A) amuses and entertains you, or B) arouses and titillates you (or both, of course). For myself, while I love me some geeky fanservice for the straight ladies, these boys are just a liiiitle too young to get me Interested with a capital I. I sort of felt like a dirty old lady watching it, actually, and found more enjoyment out of laughing at the absurdity and blatancy of it all… it actually works pretty well as comedy in that sense.

But you know, I’m glad a series like this exists, if only for the fact that the cosplay it’s inspiring is Relevant To My Interests (thanks to non-teenage cosplayers etc). Moreover, I’m eager to see that more companies, even ones so strongly identified with the classic straight male otaku base as KyoAni, are not only embracing a female audience, but acknowledging that yes, many of them have libidos just as earthy and demanding as a man’s. There’s also potential here for a larger discussion on objectification in anime as a whole, and how it looks when seen through this different lens. Are crotch shots somehow more embarrassing and awkward on a man than a woman? Does this make guys feel uncomfortable, and if so, can they now empathize with how women might feel about ecchi fanservice? If women like me are drooling all over half naked guys and objectifying them, is that falling into the same problematic pattern as men objectifying women? Is equal opportunity objectification something good, or dangerous?  What do gay men and lesbians make of all this? Why are all these male otaku suddenly getting their knickers in a twist over this show? What does Free mean, damn it?

Whazzat, you say? It means teenage boys take their clothes off and fangirls rejoice? Okay, I can live with that.

Seen Free! yet? What do you make of it? Fun, frothy fanservice, or just the same tired objectification in a different package? Or both?

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