After taking a break from ‘Why I Watched…’ for a couple of weeks, I was looking through my short-list of possible shows to write about, and realised there were a couple of reasons why ‘Free!’ ought to be next. First of all, it’s one of the many top-rated shows from Kyoto Animation, and it seemed right to take a moment to celebrate the wonderful work they’ve done. But also, ‘Free!’ was sort of my way back into online fandom at a time when I thought I’d almost left it for good.
In late 2013, I was a year and a bit out of my only serious long-term relationship. I’d been living with friends in a shared house, trying to figure out where my life was going. A couple of close friends had moved away, and I was gradually drifting away from the theatre group that had been a major part of my life for several years. Generally, I was feeling a bit lost. A little adrift, disconnected. I had spare time that I didn’t know how to fill.
Before then, having a full-time job and an unexpected social life meant I’d had little need to seek out people online, and joining a theatre group helped fulfill my creative urges. Losing two out of those three things meant that, after work, I was back to being by myself a lot of the time.
At some point, I realised that I hadn’t touched my LiveJournal account for a few years. I’d met the ex through LJ, and for a while it was our primary mode of communication, even as we were dating, right up until we moved in together. I looked around my friends list, and found that most of the fandom friends I’d made had, naturally, moved on to other things. Like me, many had moved on to relationships and offline social lives, and the few that still updated were involved in other fandoms. In fact, LJ seemed devoid of a lot of fannish activity. Where were all the writers? The artists?
I think I found AO3 first, after hearing writers mentioning it frequently at Nine Worlds Geekfest (where I volunteered one summer, finding myself at a loose end with no holiday plans). Through AO3, I found Tumblr, thanks to several writers including their usernames. And suddenly, there was fandom again. Not remotely how I remembered leaving it in 2009, but there in some form, at least, with art and fic and memes. And lots of talk about some anime about swimming that might be a bit gay.
I watched the first season in one go, with a basic Crunchyroll membership which required the viewing of some frankly horrendous adverts. It was my first sports anime. I’d heard good things about shows like ‘Kuroko No Basuke’ and ‘Ace Of The Diamond’, but they seemed more concerned with the sports. ‘Free!’ was about the swimmers, and how swimming factored into the rest of their lives.
Honestly, I did not expect to relate to a bunch of teenage boys quite so much. But there was Haru with his depression and abandonment issues, and Makoto desperately trying to patch things up with the friend he’d lost, and Nitori trying so hard to make senpai notice him, and oh my gosh if Rei wasn’t basically me but athletic. Fully rounded and believable characters, who were all likeable and watchable? Do you know how unusual that was in a show about teenagers?
‘Free!’ felt like such a rarity in that it allowed boys to have problems that weren’t solved by fighting, but by talking. It was about friendship between young men – older teenage boys who were actually allowed to be affectionate with each other and to affirm how important their friends were to them. I didn’t particularly read any of them as gay (although the official art was queerbaity as hell!) but I did find myself looking for fanfiction. Mostly Rei/Nagisa, because Rei was like my TV self and I wanted to live vicariously through him. I heard, distantly, about ship wars between the Haru/Makoto shippers and the Haru/Rin shippers, but I’ve generally avoided fan drama and thankfully didn’t see any of it up close.
The second season, ‘Eternal Summer’, brought new characters. Sousuke wasn’t my cup of tea, but Momo was adorable. It was the first anime I remember watching on a week-by-week basis instead of being able to binge all at once, and that was a strange new experience. The water animations, especially in season 2, were incredible, and the final relay sequences genuinely brought tears to my eyes.
Then English dub cast was announced, and I had…Feelings. They were some of my absolute favourite Funimation VAs, but honestly, hearing them playing teenagers just felt off, somehow. I still watched it, of course, because Funimation dubs are generally good quality (and they cast two openly gay men as Rei and Nagisa, which was fun, and Jerry Jewel was an absolute treat as Momo), but the Japanese cast remain my favourite.
To compensate, I tracked down translations of the two light novels on which the series was based: ‘High Speed’ and its sequel. They were fun to read, as much for the experience of reading translated novels as for the stories themselves. I discovered OldCodex, the band responsible for the opening themes (and fronted by Makoto’s seiyuu, Tatsuhisa Suzuki).
I found myself wanting more and more of this fictional world, in which boys were nice to each other instead of horrendous bullies like the boys I’d grown up with. I even started writing fanfiction again – I’d dabbled with a couple of other fandoms, but posting ‘Free!’ fic was how I got back into active fandom after my unintentional hiatus. I got to know people through Tumblr instead of just reading and reblogging stuff.
We got official art, birthday themed stuff all year round. We got ‘Starting Days’, an adaptation of the second light novel, with new characters. And then we got ‘Dive To The Future’, and although I was disappointed by the lack of Rei+Nagisa content, I accepted the character development of the older boys as decent compensation. Honestly, I was miffed about what felt like deliberate queerbaiting in season three, compared with the vagueness of the first couple of seasons, and especially since DttF came after ‘Yuri!!! On Ice’, which had heard everyone say ‘you can’t actually make a sports anime gay’ and said ‘hold my beer’. But what is fanfiction for, if not exploring the things that the show itself won’t?
I’m actually excited for more content to tie in with Tokyo 2020. This morning, I saw the preview of the all-recycled medals for the next Olympics and my first thought was ‘Imagine Haru and Rin with one of those each!’
I’ve since watched a few other sports anime series, and while ‘Yuri!!! On Ice’ might have just edged into number one on my faves list, ‘Free!’ will always be my first. I like it for the way it focuses on the characters beyond the sport, with swimming as a metaphor for their lives, rather than being all about the sport and not much else. It’s the show that brought me back into fandom when I was struggling to find a focus in life, and while it might have been tainted by unfortunate shipper drama, it will always have a place in my heart.
Are you a Free! fan? Are you looking forward to new content too? Is there a show you’ve seen me mention in my blog that you want me to feature in an upcoming ‘Why I Watched…’? Do let me know!