Two rival medley relay swimming teams, one at Iwatobi High, the other at Samezuka Academy, prepare to battle it out to reach the Nationals. Charismatic Rin is now captaining the Samezuka squad, his passion for swimming re-ignited after reconnecting with his old friends and team mates from elementary school days. But his chief inspiration, other-worldly Haru, has only ever wanted to swim ‘free’. Makoto, Haruka and Rin, all in their final year, have to face up to deciding what to do with their lives, but just as the scouts are sniffing around the swimming heats, ready to sign up the new talent, Haru suddenly loses all sense of direction. Has the pressure made him lose sight of his dream? The second years in his team, Nagisa and Rei, are at a loss to know how to help. Especially as the unexpected arrival at Samezuka of two swimming stars – surly Sousuke Yamazaki, another contemporary/rival from middle school days, and brash, irrepressable Momotarou Mikoshiba – means that Rin’s team will be very hard to beat.
What’s the secret of Free!’s success? First and foremost, it’s a Coming of Age story, that deals with a group of young men facing up to the challenges and uncertainties of the future as the end of their high school days approaches. But it’s also very much a sports anime which deals with issues of competition, what it means to be part of a team, the difficulties of balancing school study and regular practice and the very real problems of what it means to win – or lose. Luckily, the creative team behind Free! (based on the light novel by Ohji Kouji) understood that bringing the main characters to life in a believable and relatable way was just as important as animating the swimming sequences convincingly. In fact, a realistic setting lends an extra authenticity, as the design team based the town of Iwatobi on the real town of Iwami, Tottori and even researched their locations for the trip to Australia. The script is well paced (except for one section towards the end of the final episode) resulting in a genuinely enjoyable, feel-good watch which makes the viewer really care about the characters. It’s also really well crafted when depicting the swimming, which is stunningly drawn and animated, delivering moments of transcendence when the swimmer’s consciousness seems to become one with the water. As in the first series, you almost feel as if you’re swimming alongside as you watch.
Free! Eternal Summer is the second series about the hopes, dreams and rivalries of these young men. You don’t have to watch the first 12-episode series Free!- Iwatobi Swim Club to enjoy Eternal Summer but you’ll probably want to (it’s not yet available to buy in the UK at the moment, but it’s still streaming on Crunchyroll).
If you’ve been put off trying this series by the vast amount of doujinshi and fanfiction it’s spawned, try to forget them and just enjoy it as a sports anime. True, there are plenty of young men in swimsuits but it’s difficult to make an anime about swimming without showing the characters in and around the pool. The attractive and distinctive character designs invite the viewer to appreciate the athletic young men just as Gou, Rin’s younger sister does, for their superb musculature!
I loved Free! from the moment I watched the first episode of the first series. I loved the main characters as well as the supporting cast who are all distinctive and interesting: from team manager Gou, Rin’s younger sister, and her obsession with well-developed musculature, through laid-back pizza-salesman/swimming coach Sasabe, to Nitorin, Rin’s diffident kouhai.
The US Dub
Let’s get this potentially contentious topic out of the way now. I – like most Free! fans in the West – first watched this series on Crunchyroll, subbed, with the original Japanese voice actors. And was perfectly happy with the excellent cast. Then, when Funimation brought out this dub for Eternal Summer, I read more than a few disappointed and critical comments, many focussing on the inappropriate West Coast surfer vibe that the dub script creates, especially the frequent use of ‘dude’, ‘man’ and ‘bro’. (This has been toned down in the more recent Crunchyroll US dub of Free! Iwatobi Swim Club in which the script seems more faithful to the original.) But I’m not a purist. I belong to the camp that says that hearing the dialogue in one’s native language, matched with the animation, can give just as good a viewing experience – even if a different one – as reading subtitles. I can think of several series when the US VAs and some clever rewriting (reversioning was Funimation’s term) of the script have delivered a – frankly – more enjoyable experience than the original. And such is the skill of the experienced voice actors here that the intrusive ‘man’s and ‘dude’s seem to become less noticeable as the skills of Vic Mignogna as Rin, Ian Sinclair as Sousuke, Jonny Yong Bosch as Makoto, Greg Ayres as the exuberant Nagisa and J. Michael Tatum as Rei shine through. I’m not one hundred percent happy with Todd Haberkorn in the crucial role of Haru; there’s a certain dry quality to his voice that makes him sound more snarky than otherworldly but, again, he seems to settle into the role after a while.
The soundtrack (as for Season 1) comes from Tatsuya Katou (Food Wars! Shokugeki no Soma) who is particularly good at ramping up excitement (and emotion) with strings set against pounding electric guitar riffs. The new Opening Theme is “Dried Up Youthful Fame” by OLDCODEX which – even if it’s not as powerful a song as “Rage On” their explosive opener for the first series – still works well to accompany the thrilling animation sequence. And, as in the first season, the male seiyuu sing the amusing Ending “FUTURE FISH” by Nobunaga Shimazaki, Tatsuhisa Suzuki, Mamoru Miyano, Tsubasa Yonaga, Daisuke Hirakawa as STYLE FIVE. They’re joined by Hosoya Yoshimasa, Kouki Miyata & Kenichi Suzumura for the Closing Song to Episode 13, “Clear Blue Departure,” a less quirky, optimistic (motivational?) song about the future which is paired with those vital ‘what happens next’ images all fans will want to see. (However, it’s worth noting that, as with many US dubs, the studio recording level must have been much lower than the original, so if you switch between the two versions, you’ll have to boost the volume for the dub. A lot.)
There are some genuinely attractive extras here (available on both DVD and the Collectors Edition). Frankly, I’d have bought this set for the chance to see the wickedly hilarious OVA ‘Forbidden All-Hard’ alone. Other extras include Episode 1 & 7 commentaries, web previews, Extended Card Collection, Illustration Collection, Memorial Promo Video, Promo Videos, Textless Opening Song, Textless Closing Song. (Do check out the cheeky US trailer as well, ahem.)
Anime Limited’s handsome Limited Collector’s Edition Blu-ray version contains 2 x Blu-ray discs, a rigid case, art cards, a 64-page booklet and stickers. There is also a DVD release.
Free! Eternal Summer is one of the most engaging and enjoyable sports anime series out there: a must-watch for swimming fans and anyone who relishes a well-told story.
© Ohji Kouji/Kyoto Animation/Iwatobi High School Swimming Club ES Licensed by FUNimation® Productions, Ltd. All Rights Reserved.