Free! Eternal Summer Ep. 1: Pretty uneventful

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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24 thoughts on “Free! Eternal Summer Ep. 1: Pretty uneventful”

  1. Well, there was some drama on the last season between Rin and Haru, but since they already solved it, well…

  2. Your evocation of Ping Pong towards the end of this post prompts me to jump in.

    I simply do not understand, and cannot agree with, this enormous rush throughout the serious anime community to proclaim Ping Pong a masterpiece. To start, while I can overlook the show being ugly – Flowers of Evil was ugly, though I think it used its ugliness more effectively than Ping Pong – I simply can’t abide by the fact that it was barely animated at all.

    I watch animation because I believe it is a beautiful art form that can accomplish things that regular live action or plain pictures cannot. And Ping Pong wasn’t just an anime, it was a SPORTS anime, yet for the most part the matches were portrayed with little more than what can only be called slideshows.

    But my objection to the artwork aside, to me Ping Pong was fatally flawed because it was so proudly puffing out its chest as an “anti-sports” sports anime, which undoubtedly made the creators feel even more smug about the lack of animation. Yet, unlike you (and just about everyone else, admittedly), I found the characterization wholly one-dimensional, hugely deterministic and ultimately every bit as simplistic as the most cheap and manipulative sports shows. Yet, the veneer of artsy pretentiousness – I’m almost surprised they didn’t tattoo the word “HERO” on Peco’s head – seems to not just shield this show from criticism, but actively encourage undue praise.

    I get that people want to have something to love that isn’t about a girl wanting to bone her brother, but I think Ping Pong is unfairly benefiting from a bit of anime Stockholm Syndrome.

    I bring this up not because I want to take on the world about Ping Pong – I recognize that perhaps the problem is with me and not the show – but because I want to at least take a stab at defending Kyoto Animation.

    Like you, I watched one episode of Free! last summer and cast the show aside. I would also agree that the studio’s output over the past year or two has been wholly unsatisfying and seemingly all created to just make a fast buck.

    That said, even at its worst, Kyoto Animation’s actual animation is pretty much as good as most studios’ best work. And even when they appear to be selling out with a show like Free! or the witheringly dull Tamako Market, their shows usually seem to be done with a modicum of taste and decorum (although I’ll be the first to admit that some of the awful fetshistic nonsense in Beyond the Boundary isn’t much better than the typical incest and panty shot malarkey).

    But at its best, there just isn’t another TV studio that can touch Kyoto. Again, in my personal opinion, Hyouka is one of the most beautiful, subtly told and richly emotional stories ever told in ANY medium. The animation was as good as Ghibli, but without all of the hectoring and knuckle-rapping about loving and honoring Mother Nature. I don’t know if many people watch anime for shows like Hyouka – I think Kyoto’s turn to these blatantly commercial vehicles since then argues that they largely do not – but I think it’s pretty unfair, not to mention patently incorrect, to tar Kyoto Animation as a “boring” studio, as you strongly suggest above.

    1. I found the characterization wholly one-dimensional, hugely deterministic and ultimately every bit as simplistic as the most cheap and manipulative sports shows.

      That said, even at its worst, Kyoto Animation’s actual animation is pretty much as good as most studios’ best work.

      Hyouka is one of the most beautiful, subtly told and richly emotional stories ever told in ANY medium.

      The animation was as good as Ghibli, but without all of the hectoring and knuckle-rapping about loving and honoring Mother Nature.

      We’re so far apart on these issues, I’m not even going to bother. Also, I remember us disagreeing vehemently over Samurai Flamenco, so really, what’s the point?

    2. You do realize you’re defending KyoAni based on “one” good thing that they did in-between the 4-koma adaptations beforehand and the light novel adaptations they did after and you even admitted that their other stuff is crap? The fact that amongst all their sequel announcements, they somehow ignore Hyouka doesn’t help either. Meanwhile, I’m still waiting for Shaft to stop making Monogatari and give us more Soremachi.

    3. Can’t agree with your entire comment, but I really like this line: “I get that people want to have something to love that isn’t about a girl wanting to bone her brother, but I think Ping Pong is unfairly benefiting from a bit of anime Stockholm Syndrome.”

      Ultimately what is most impressive to me about Ping Pong is really the unconventional narrative and art styles used, whether be it in the anime or the manga, because they gave otherwise simplistic/flat characters extra edge. In that sense I guess if the art direction didn’t work for you the characters and the show in general would just seem pretentious/overrated.

      Have you considered reading the manga or watching the live-action movie?

  3. I think all the drama you were looking for was in the first season. Rin and Haru’s relationship was front and center there, and there’s a reason that they’ve tamed things down now. And Rin and Haru are rivals, but they kind of understand their relationship because of who they are as characters. Haru only cares about swimming because of what it brings him in terms of his relationships with his friends. Rin is a lot more competitive, but he also understands Haru’s outlook and prizes his relationship with him and the others.
    In terms of the teams, they aren’t really rivals, the whole drama of the last season was just between Rin and the Iwatobi Swim Team as they kind of struggled to understand each other after not having seen each other in years.
    I think to really have a good understanding of this series and why the characters act the way they do and the situations play the way they do, you probably need to see the first season. There are a lot of parts here that really you would only understand if you knew the backstory and plot points that lead up to it.

    1. I think to really have a good understanding of this series and why the characters act the way they do and the situations play the way they do, you probably need to see the first season. There are a lot of parts here that really you would only understand if you knew the backstory and plot points that lead up to it.

      I think you have the wrong idea about my post. I’m not confused by anything. There’s nothing I’m failing to understand when I say that there is no conflict here to draw me in. The fact of the matter is that there’s no drama. No amount of “deeper understanding” will suddenly make this episode eventful.

      Rin and Haru’s relationship was front and center there, and there’s a reason that they’ve tamed things down now.

      So what? Come up with something else then. Just because a conflict was resolved last season, it’s okay for nothing to happen in the first episode of this season?

  4. The first season really bored me because the characters were very shallow, the drama was dull and the story was weak. I never finished it. From your review here I can see they just decided not to try and do anything new and up the fanservice. Well I guess you need to be a certain kind of audience to really get into this.

  5. Eh, you didn’t really miss much by not watching S1. I’m sure wiki has a quick summary of the episodes if you’re curious. I think the 1st ep. was boring but it’s more a setup for future events and establishing current old or new characters. The only drama would be between Rin vs Haru which ended (rather quickly) last season. Basically, the power of friendship theme.

    Sousake is possibly the new rival/antagonist for the 2nd season. There’s a few more new guys from the intro but I think they’re minor ones. I admit the entire show was just worth it for ED. Animation quality is, as always, impressive from Kyoani orz.

    @DMMD: IMHO your guess is correct. VN –> Anime shows never make much sense even in their fictional worlds. I’m sure they’ll fix the anime so it won’t be too BL but nothing to see here otherwise. The original game is/was fairly popular and there had been a lot of VN adaptations last few seasons. I might watch it to see how much of a train wreck it’ll end up.

    1. it’s more a setup for future events and establishing current old or new characters.

      Yeah, I get that. Doesn’t change much in my mind, but I’m well aware of the fact that it’s a setup episode. Not referring to you specifically, but people seem to think I’m reviewing the entire show by merely commenting on the first episode. I really am just commenting on the first episode, and why should I pull punches with regards to it? I thought it was boring, so I’m going to write down that I was bored. If future episodes prove to be exciting, then I’ll change my tune.

      1. Eh, I don’t disagree with the review that it is a boring slice of life so far. It’s just that IMHO most 1st episodes are boring even though it’d be more sense to have a dramatic entrance to pull more viewers. Yeah, Free! doesn’t stand out despite all the hype from the PVs.

        It could get better but most of S1 was setting up these big conflicts i.e. swimming tournament with rival school which just ended without a sense of resolve even with the main characters being friends again. I’m not saying I want a battle to the death for final episode but Haru gets shafted in the character development area. FWIW, he’s still a weirdo who just likes swimming all the time and Rin is still a jerk a bit less violently inclined.

  6. I’ll never be able to abide the lack of nipples. What is the point of having shirtless men without nipples? Why did kill la kill, a show ostensibly not even about male fan service have more male nipples than this show? Was there some kind of market analysis that determined that nipple-less men would sell marginally better? Is it the timeslot?

    1. Yeah, I come here watching this show expecting fanservice, and I get chiseled muscles. Which is nice and all but I do like my man nipples. Why, oh why did KyoAni leave them out? :(

  7. This is a show of nekkid men, and KyoAni doesn’t hold back.
    Last season I fell asleep during episode 6 and dropped it ever since.
    The OP and ED were good, though.
    The story, meh.

    Their behaviour are totally not high school boys. They are transgenders of K-On girls.

  8. The first season had a lot of pointless empty SOL shenanigans (and I’m sure the second season will as well), but its chief concern was actually interpersonal drama and the relationship between Rin and his estranged friends, especially Haru. It’s therefore pretty funny seeing you write about the lack of drama in the Haru-Rin rivalry now, because it was a source of much melodrama and bishie angsting in season one, only reaching a better place in the final episode.

    I think the reason several commenters above are taking issue because to those who haven’t watched the first season, this episode indeed seems pretty flat — but to those who have watched the first season, this first episode works as a strong contrast to the first, showing how far some of these characters have come. (It even opens with a deliberate visual and narrative mirroring of the first episode of the first season.) The healthy Haru-Rin rivalry shown here seems boring and plain to you, and rightly so, but it’s significant precisely because of how unhealthy it was in season one.

    So yeah, this ep probably fails to hook anyone who didn’t catch the first season. But then, it’s not really written with that unfamiliar audience in mind. Of course you were bored.

    1. It’s therefore pretty funny seeing you write about the lack of drama in the Haru-Rin rivalry now, because it was a source of much melodrama and bishie angsting in season one, only reaching a better place in the final episode.

      Again, I’m referring to drama in a general sense, not specifically the teenage melodrama that is attached to how we’ve come to understand the word.

      first episode works as a strong contrast to the first, showing how far some of these characters have come.

      Still, nothing happened. Having a contrast doesn’t mean nothing should happen. Just because there is no longer any tension between Rin and Haru doesn’t mean the entire episode should be completely devoid of tension as well. Okay, their relationship is no longer unhealthy. Fine. Introduce something else then. That’s the entire point of the first episode. Hook the audience.

      But then, it’s not really written with that unfamiliar audience in mind.

      So it doesn’t want to attract a new audience. Still, even if I had watched the first season, I bet I’d still be pretty damn bored with this episode. No amount of “significant contrast” will change the fact that nothing happened.

      Of course you were bored.

      I have no idea why you’re explaining to me why I’m bored. I just wrote an entire post to explain why I’m bored.

      1. Eh. Nothing immediate happened in terms of plot, but the events were significant for people interested in character development and clearly suggested possible tensions that will come into play later (their future plans, especially given Rin’s ambition and Haru’s lack thereof vs Rin wanting them to advance together, something that came up in S1; and Mysterious New Guy obviously).

        I think your boredom is at least partly due to the fact you didn’t catch S1, is all.

  9. I’m not the target audience for this, which means I will not watch more than one episode, but I’ve heard some fans of the first series weren’t too big on the dramatic content, so they’re apparently hoping for less of that and more of what they really came for: cute boys interacting, swimming and generally showing off while having a good time. That’s fine, but it’s not my thing.

    1. Well, I’ve nothing against people like shows for their own reasons. I’m just here to describe my reactions to these shows.

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