Free!: How Did the Anime End up Being so Popular?

Free! Anime characters

In 2012, Animation DO released an image of a man swimming, stating it was working on a new project. Nothing about the project was heard until March 2013, when Kyoto Animation released a commercial with four boys that ends with the line ‘Ore To Omae No Sa O Oshiete Yaru’ (I’ll Show You the Difference Between You and Me)

The commercial went viral, and people quickly dubbed it ‘swimming anime’. However, there was no information as to what the whole commercial was promoting. That didn’t stop fans from begging the company to make an anime using these characters. 

Free! Anime Characters

A few months later, the swimming anime Free!, inspired by Oji Koji’s light novel High Speed!, was released, and it became an instant hit. No one thought that the show would still be relevant to this day. With three seasons and three films, Free! has proven itself as a worthy entry in the sports anime genre. 

What Made It Popular?

The series drew a lot of criticism for being an anime filled with pretty half-naked boys. While that might’ve been the main appeal due to the promos, it didn’t stop viewers from tuning in and finding a gem. They soon found out that Free! is a series about bettering yourself, friendship, and healthy competition. 

KyoAni’s fluid animation and attention to detail made the swimming sequences wonderful to watch, and it drew audiences in. The animators paid close attention to how the body moved while swimming and how the water moved with it, which made the series feel like something out of this world, despite it being something so common. Their attention to detail also made the audience feel what the characters were feeling and the overall tone of certain scenes. 

The characters themselves also drew in audiences due to their quirky habits and actions. From Haru stripping near any body of water to Nagisa just trespassing on private grounds and encouraging public nudity, fans had non-stop laughs. 

Watching the characters develop throughout the franchise also gave fans stories they could relate with as they saw themselves in the characters who struggled with pursuing their passions, overcoming roadblocks, and honing their skills. 

The Characters 

Haru 

Haru is the protagonist of the series. He comes off as cold and uncaring, but he’s actually very protective of his friends. He’s also extremely competitive and enjoys racing against his rival. He does have a habit of taking off his clothes near large bodies of water like giant tanks and pools so he can swim, which is why he always has his swim trunks on under his clothes. 

Rin

Rin is Haru’s rival, and like Haru, he’s determined to excel in swimming to become an Olympic swimmer. While Rin can be a bit standoffish, he is very caring towards his friends and family. It does him a while to open up to others after he comes back from Australia at the beginning of the series. 

Makoto

Makoto is Haru’s best friend. Makoto is very kind and caring with everyone around him. However, many people are intimidated by him due to his giant figure, but he’s actually a big softie who gets scared very easily. Throughout the series, Makoto develops confidence and is able to stand up to people without shaking. 

Nagisa

Nagisa is a year younger than his friends, Haru and Makoto. He’s opinionated, straightforward, and has a tendency to act on his whims. This usually leads the group to worry about him and his chaotic tendencies, especially since he once led the entire group to skinny dip at another school’s pool.  

Rei

Rei becomes friends with the group when he is recruited by Nagisa to the swim team, which leads him to quit the track team. Rei is analytical and is always calculating his next move. Due to this, he tends to focus more on results instead of the journey. Over time, he learns to let loose after he becomes very good friends with Nagisa and the others throughout the series.  

Sousuke

Sousuke doesn’t appear until the second season of the series, but he is a pivotal character in the series. He is Rin’s best friend, and the two share a competitive streak when it comes to swimming. Sousuke is stoic and intimidating, but he’s also kind. He tends to be very hard on himself and the people he cares about because he believes they can do better. 

Ikuya

Ikuya is a character that only appears in the prequel films and the final season of the series. Due to the events of the films, Ikuya is rather cynical, distrustful of others, and determined to be anything but ordinary. By the end of the series, he learns to trust others again and once again finds the joy of swimming.

Asahi

Asahi is another character who only appears in the prequel films and the final season. He’s very energetic and is always trying to push himself forward, even if it ends up blowing up in his face. He’s an optimist and is always trying to encourage himself and those around him to continue chasing their dreams. 

How Long Is It?

The Free! series has three films and three seasons. Each season has around twelve episodes documenting the casts’ journey. The films were met with massive success in Japan. Since everything wasn’t released in order, here is the order to watch the series in. 

High Speed! Free! Starting Days

This film is a prequel to the series, and it is loosely based on the High Speed! light novels. The film follows Haru, Makoto, Asahi, and Ikuya in middle school as they struggle with their insecurities, friendship, and reasons why they swim. The tension escalates as the four enter a team medley and race towards their answers. 

Free! Iwatobi Swim Club

This is the first season of the anime. This is set when Haru and Makoto are both in high school, and Haru’s passion towards swimming is reignited when Rin comes back from Australia. This leads them to create a swimming club where they recruit Nagisa and Rei. The four begin to train for a tournament in order to show people what they’re made of. 

Free! – Eternal Summer

This season is set a year after the events of season one. Haru and Makoto are seniors, and they have to think about what they want to do after high school. To make matters more complicated, Sousuke enters the picture and causes issues between Haru and Rin’s recently mended friendship. This only adds stress and makes Haru more confused about his future. 

Free! Timeless Medley: Bond and Promise

If you don’t want to watch the entire second season, these two compilation films will summarize the season with some redone scenes and added bonuses. Bond focuses more on Haru, Makoto, and Rin while Promise focuses on Rin and Sousuke’s friendship. The film introduces new characters for the next season that pose potential threats for Haru. 

Free! Take Your Marks

This film is a segway into the final season. It focuses on setting up the stage for the next generation as Haru, Makoto, Rin, and Sousuke prepare to graduate and pursue bigger, better things. It’s overall a light-hearted send off that reminds the four that their bonds with their friends will always remain.

Free! Dive to the Future

This final season follows Haru as he navigates his first year of college. Haru reunites with friends from his childhood friends Ikuya and Asahi. While everything is fine with Asahi, Ikuya proves to show some resentment towards Haru for leaving him when they were in middle school. Haru intends to reconcile with Ikuya, but there is one obstacle the two must overcome in order to truly be friends again.

Free! Road to the World Anime Poster

Is It Still Popular Now?

It is actually still pretty relevant due to the investment people have put into the series throughout the years. A 2020 film titled Road to the World was announced to be released during the 2020 Olympics, but due to the arson attack on KyoAni in 2019, the film was delayed. There is no news if the film will ever be released, but fans who are waiting for this final installment in the series are hoping it does at some point in the future. 

©おおじこうじ・京都アニメーション/岩鳶町後援会2019
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