Well, I never did get around to watching the first season of Free! Nevertheless, it did win the poll, so I’ll do what I’ve got to do… to a point. If the anime somehow turns out to be the most boring thing ever (which Kyoto Animation shows are wont to do), I won’t hesitate to drop it. For what it’s worth, however, I suppose I’d rather watch this than DRAMAtical Murder, which looked kind of skeevy when I did my cursory research for the summer preview post. In any case, it’ll take me some time to pick up the finer details I’ve missed out on since I never saw the first season, i.e. the various interpersonal relationships between the characters, their different personalities, etc. I will also go into this show rather clueless in another way: I don’t know a single thing about swimming. So who knows? Maybe the series can even be illuminating in that department. So with that out of the way, I suppose it’s time to get started.
Like I’ve said, I never watched the first season of Free! I think I got through at least the first episode, but I wasn’t in an anime-watching mood back then. As a result, I never stuck with it along with a lot of other shows from back then. If Eternal Summer‘s first episode is any indication, however, I doubt I had missed much of anything, to be quite frank. It is early, but so far, Free! seems to be one of those slice-of-life series where, well, nothing really happens. And obviously, things happen, but I’m referring to something more than that. I’m talking about drama. The set-up is rather familiar. One fancy school. One not-so-fancy school. One school with lots of recruits. One school hard-pressed to recruit anyone. Still, our underdogs at the not-so-fancy school will “Ganbatte!” it up. After all, if they don’t manage to increase the size of their club, the administration will dissolve it, blah blah blah. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before. Despite the familiar set-up, however, there is hardly any conflict to be found in the first episode.
The two clubs from the two rival schools are way too friendly with each other. Even the rivalry between Haru and Rin is jovial as shit and rather one-sided to boot. How can there be a rivalry if one of the rivals barely even cares about it? Basically, there isn’t a single meanstreak in the entire anime. Even the need for the Iwatobi Swim Club to recruit members or potentially face dissolution seems to lack any sort of urgency. Everyone is just happy-go-lucky, and as such, the anime seems to lack much of a story. It’s just cute boys doing things, and, well, that has often been Kyoto Animation’s schtick, isn’t it? Not so much the cute boys part, but cute anything doing anything has generally been their calling card. But drawing me in with a compelling story, however… well, dot-dot-dot is about all I can really say. But anyway, without conflict, the first episode also lacks drama.
I’m not referring to the overly exaggerated sort of drama that one might typically find between teenagers (though to be fair, this is a show about teenagers). Rather, I’m referring to drama in a general sense: “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.” I think Hitchcock said that, and pardon me for appealing to authority, but I bet he knows a thing or two about drama. Unfortunately, the only drama to be found here is all located in the boys’ carefully chiseled bodies. Seriously, the only life you’ll find in this episode is when the cast members dramatically fling off their jumpsuits. If there is such a thing as the female gaze, then you might find an example of it here. The way the camera is positioned as Haru slowly pulls himself out of the water, the way the water drips off of his skin pulled tautly over his muscles, the way the camera finally settles upon his posterior for just a second, but oh does it nevertheless feels like an eternity… Free! knows which side its bread is buttered, that’s for sure.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. And certainly, I’ve seen far worse in other shows. At least clothes are falling off of these boys of their own volition. At least the boys aren’t randomly drowning, necessitating Go to valiantly jump into the pool in order to save them. At least the only liquid covering them is H2O and nothing more. Still, I only wish the show would take the same passion that it pours into the boys’ bodies and stick some of it into the story. No, there’s no need to take the passion away from the revelatory nature of their bodies. Instead, why can’t we have both? All that I can see in the first episode, however, is some flaccid comedy mixed in with a bunch of saccharine feel-good moments (a pool filled with cherry blossoms!). Well, here’s another quote for good measure: “Comedy just pokes at problems, rarely confronts them squarely. Drama is like a plate of meat and potatoes, comedy is rather the dessert, a bit like meringue.”
It’s not that I want the characters to go around screaming “Fuck your mother!” at each other. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t necessarily want animosity between them. Still, I just want the first episode to display any sort of passion that isn’t pure, unadulterated joy. Passion comes in so many forms, but all I see here is happiness. I’m not asking for the story to emotionally torture these boys, but c’mon, the first episode is one-note as fuck. Last season’s Ping Pong set the bar. It showed us that sports anime could run the gamut of emotions. Not a single character in that series was wasted. Every single character had a richness of depth that I had never seen in any other sports anime. Most of all, the show displayed passion in its many different forms. Joy, excitement, determination, resiliency, despair, hopefulness… the list goes on. With Eternal Summer‘s first episode, there seems to be only one emotion to feel: happiness. And if you don’t feel it, you’re bound to be bored as fuck.
Alright, alright, time for me to pull back a little bit. This is, after all, just the first episode. Of course, if you’re not going to start grabbing the audience’s attention right from the get-go, then what are you waiting for? But who knows! Maybe Eternal Summer will eventually build up to something compelling. After all, there’s plenty of time for the anime to prove me wrong. Given Kyoto Animation’s track record, however, I won’t hold my breath. Still, fair’s fair, so I’ll stick around for the requisite three episodes.