It’s the day of the regional tournament and the Iwatobi boys are all raring to go. First up though is Rin’s freestyle race…and he comes last, clearly not in his right mind and very obviously upset. Nobody is able to comfort him, either – he throws a massive tantrum straight at Nitori and declares that he will finally quit swimming for good….which Haruka sees, sending him into another funk.
Luckily, Haruka has learned how to bounce back from funks, unlike Rin, and is able to confront the overemotional sharkface who unleashes all his frustration on him before finally confessing that he still wants to swim with him despite everything.
With their own race fast approaching, Rei has a plan, one that will reunite the Iwatobi boys and Rin for good and, if successful, win them the race. But it comes at a price – his own place in the relay.
Well that was just about the most melodramatic and ridiculous finale possible, being so over the top I actually laughed in several parts. In other words, it was great, and a perfect end to what has been a really fun twelve weeks. I didn’t see Rei’s plan coming at all; I’d been expecting all along for Haruka and Rin to end up simply swimming against each other again for the climatic race, not relaying together. So basically, Rei is a saint. I was pleased enough with how much development he had gotten in these past episodes, but this was pretty incredible. We know he was uncomfortable about being the ‘newbie’, and about wanting to prove his strength and being of use to the other boys, so the relay was the perfect opportunity for that…and yet he threw away all his personal feelings and withdrew from the team just so that Rin could take his place. It’s such a beautiful act of selflessness and it really drove home the series overall theme of the importance of teamwork (indeed, the key phrase of the episode was ‘For the Team). And yet, martyr Rei aside, I have mixed feelings about this. At first I was glad to see Rin being so emotional and finally being happy again after working with Haru instead of against him, but at the same time, holy shit Rin can you be a bigger selfish baby? I went through most of the series not liking him that much, and to tell the truth this episode made me both really like him and be mad at him at the same time. I also think the other boys accepted his plan a little too quickly, and it just made me a little sad in a way after all they’d done to make Rei feel like he was a definite part of their team. But on the other hand I’m kind of glad for it because I honestly would have rolled my eyes just a little if they’d managed to come first with swimming newbie Rei in the team. I don’t care how fast he learns, he isn’t going to win a regional tournament when he only learned to swim less than a year ago. (Never mind that their little switcheroo got them disqualified. The magic of friendship was the true reward here.) Also, it resulted in happy (and hopefully, more matured)Rin and well and truly secured Rei’s shining place in the Best KyoAni Characters Hall of Fame so I can’t get too hung up on my detail nitpicking. Because, honestly, that group hug near the end there brought on the warm fuzzies like almost nothing else in this whole series so far. Likewise, Rin finally being nice to Nitori got a smile out of me (because honestly, the way he treated the kid before kind of annoyed me), and it seems like the two will actually be friends now rather than the besotted kouhai and the sempai that seems to only barely tolerate him.
The high-running emotions and hilarious fabulousness of this entire episode just made it that much more fun to watch, really, and I actually think it was possibly the most enjoyable one so far.
I’m glad that Free! exists, and I’m glad that, if the ‘see you next summer’ teaser is anything to go by (and it’s most likely that it is), it will continue to exist. Despite what so many delusional whining dudebro manchildren may gibber about, this really was a series that can be enjoyed on multiple levels (and, indeed, plenty of male fans were able to look past the female gaze in the show like female fans such as myself are able to do with the male gaze in almost everything else I watch ever, to discover these other levels). Sure, there’s the shirtless strapping young lads who act very close and friendly for those who like that kind of thing, but for me there’s a lot more than that – I would have gotten pretty bored rather quickly if that’s all it had to offer. There’s the comedy for those who are into that, and, indeed, KyoAni have always been very good at creating humour out of the most ordinary things and I believe Free! managed to constantly deliver in the humour area. There’s plenty of swimming action and the typical tension and rivalries that tend to be found in sports anime, for those who are interested in that. And, of course, it’s just a really sweet little show with some genuinely touching moments and some really fun characters. Not to mention that water animation – indeed the whole thing sprang out of what was basically an advertisement for KyoAni’s ability to animate water, and they show off at every opportunity.
It’s definitely not perfect or for everyone, and I can’t exactly say the pool is particularly deep. The characters, while fun, definitely need more developing (Rei aside, who achieved perfection). I’m still not even sure how I feel about Rin – and the ending animation, which makes him out to be a completely different character with a completely different (and much more interesting) personality, still confuses me. (Yes, in that whole bizarre ending sequence Rin is the thing that confuses me). However, I’m sure the second season will give them plenty of opportunity for more development here…although it’s hard to count the lack of development as a major minus as it’s not like KyoAni are ever really known for having shows with ‘deep characters’ in the first place, they’re known for having shows that are fun and, for the most part, satisfying. And Free! was very satisfying. Ridiculous and over the top, sure, sometimes ham-fisted and corny, but satisfying. I look forward to its next incarnation and would love to blog it again if I don’t have too much else to take on when the time comes.
Overall out of 5,