Hear the Call of the Free!dom or Why Free! Makes Male Otaku Cry

The popularity of Swimming Anime means that nobody ever gets to complain about how women are depicted in anime compared to men ever again (x)

This Tumblr post is the post that finally made me watch Free!, previously known as Swimming Anime. If you recall, I did an article previously on the Swimming Anime phenomenon, stating that I’d remain skeptical on an actual release, but here I am months later with my foot firmly planted within my mouth. And as much as I was hoping that an anime would spring from the hype, with my dashboard being flooded with gifs of the well-toned boys ripping off their shirts and lingering camera shots on their torsos, I couldn’t really form an informed opinion about whether or not the aforementioned Tumblr post had any credibility.

After watching the first episode, I can safely say that that specific commenter suffers from a terrible bout of mantears and they need to sit the fuck down. Consider this my summary of not only the first episode, but also on why that person is wrong.

Free! Swimming AnimeFree! Features a group of four friends—Haruka Nanase, Makoto Tachibana, Nagisa Hazuki, and Rin Matsuoka—who are all brought together by their love of swimming. In a flashback, we see that they won their junior high swimming championships by all swimming in a relay; however, most of them drifted away from each other afterwards. While Haruka and Makoto stayed together, no word was heard from Nagisa, and Rin traveled to Australia to become an Olympic swimmer.

After their first day back at high school together—suffering from ‘cool anime guy’ syndrome, Makoto skipped the first day—Makoto and Haruka discover that Nagisa is also a classmate. Nagisa brings with him some sad news: the old pool where the group won their championship is getting torn down. Along with losing something with such sentimental value, that pool is also where they buried their championship trophy (since they decided because it was a team effort, no one person should hold onto it).

In an effort to get that back, the three boys sneak into the abandoned (and potentially haunted) building to retrieve the trophy. It’s there that they meet back up with Rin, who seems to have turned into a grade-A asshole who only wants to compete with Haruka. As to be expected though, the old pool doesn’t have any water in it since it’s being torn down, so their showdown must wait.

The next day, Makoto and Nagisa lament on how much Rin has changed and bring up that they’d like to see him again. Luckily for them, Rin’s sister, Gou, also attends their school and also had the idea to visit Haruka’s house after school one day. To the show’s credit, she doesn’t visit Haruka because she has a crush on him; instead it’s because she wants information. After returning from Australia, Rin started attending a boarding school known for their fantastic swimmers, but he still hasn’t come home. By telling the group where Rin is attending, she’s also asking them to check up on him. They (as in Makoto and Nagisa) seem more than happy with that arrangement.

The allure of swimming is too great for them though, and instead of looking for Rin the three of them enter the boarding school’s natatorium and take a dip (or a skinny dip, in Nagisa’s case). As if drawn by fate, Rin confronts them and yells at them to get out. Undaunted and a little annoyed at his old best (?) friend, Haruka challenges Rin to a race and that’s the cliffhanger we’re left with on episode one.

Now, I’ll say this right now: yes, there are several fanservice-y angles and long, panning shots down the characters’ abs, and yes to an extent this is objectification. But, and this is a very big but, the difference from other fanservice shows staring females is that the characters are much more than their bodies. Allow me to explain what I mean by this. The presumably mostly female audience of Free! is of course enjoying the amazing looking bodies of the male protagonists, but there is a reason why they have those bodies. These dudes are toned because they swim.

Totally comparable, right?

Totally comparable, right?

They’re perfectly okay with whipping off their shirts because it’s inferred that they’ve swam so much in their life that being that amount of naked is probably nothing to them by this point. Compare this to a series like The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (there are more extreme examples, of course, but I wanted to use a series from the same animation company). The character of Mikuru has large boobs, but why? No reason because there’s no reasoning behind boob size, they just are. However, they’re exploited so often that it’s clear that the character is not simply a character with large breasts, she’s characterized by her breasts. Why does Haruhi perform in a bunny suit? Because reasons. Sure, there are in-show reasons that might exist, but those reasons rarely, if ever, amount to anything besides “because it looks good”. To put it simply, the fanservice in female-oriented anime series like Free! is strangely un-sexualized while the usual otaku fodder starring female characters is almost always hyper-sexualized.

Also, another difference that I noticed is with the female characters. Only being one episode in, it’s expected that not much of the supporting cast has been introduced yet and one of the female characters, homeroom teacher Miho Amakata, has only had three lines, but I want to focus on Gou. Gou is already shown as an unsexualized female character that is not crushing on any of the main characters. Isn’t that great? She has her own motives and she is her own person. Usually in fanservice anime, when a lady character is introduced, they tend to fall in love with someone because that’s when they’re most vunerable and arguably their most moe/marketable. In fact, the only non-platonic relationship that is clear right now is Haruka’s strangely romantic relationship with water.

So, yes, Free! does pander to its audience, and why shouldn’t it? It’s clear from the time it was still Swimming Anime that shirtless men and quasi-homosexual relationships would be one of the major initial selling points, so it would be foolish to ignore it. (Especially from an animation company so already steeped in otaku pandering. They made K-On!, for fuck’s sake.) However, even daring to say that the male objectification in Free! comes anywhere close to the female objectification in the rest of the industry is crazy. And the fact that male otaku are getting so up in arms about this reveals how completely blind they are to their own sexism. It’s a hard pill to swallow, isn’t it? A good summary of this whole field of complaints comes from one of my new favorite Tumblrs, mantearsflowingfree, and can be read here. For now, I’m just hoping that the Haruka and Rin become a little bit less trope-tastic, but I’ll enjoy the view in the meantime.

Let me have nice things, damn it!

Let me have nice things, damn it!

This entry was posted in Anime, Internet, opinion, sexism and tagged , , , , , , , by Tsunderin. Bookmark the permalink.

About Tsunderin

Greetings and salutations! Feel free to just call me Rin—we’re all friends here, or nemeses who just haven’t gotten to know each other well enough. I’m a video game lover from the womb to the tomb, and Bioware enthusiast until the day they stop making games with amazing characters that I cry over. And while I don’t partake as often as I used to, don’t be surprised to find me poking around an anime or manga every once in a while either. A personal interest for me is characterization in media and how women in particular have been portrayed, are being portrayed, and will be portrayed in the future. I’m not going to mince words about my opinion either.

2 thoughts on “Hear the Call of the Free!dom or Why Free! Makes Male Otaku Cry

  1. It could be that Gou has no sexual feelings for the boys because its easier for keeping the guys gay.

    • Oh, I have no doubt that that has something to do with it. But I still appreciate that there’s no pining unrequited love from her end. Her character could have easily fallen into fawning fangirl (muscle love notwithstanding), but instead she’s on pretty equal footing with them.

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