First Reactions: Free! Episode 2 (Plus Too-Long Footnotes on Why Summer 2013 Will End Up Being a Better Season Than Spring 2013)

Based on what I’ve seen of reactions to Free on the internet, it seems like a large quantity of people are ruling it out with one glance at the promo material rather than 20 minutes of episode time. It’s becoming increasingly obvious how much of a shame that is, because this show is complete in ways it didn’t even have to be to be an enjoyable ride.

If I’m going to over this show for 12 episodes, something I have every intention of doing, I’m going to need to find points to praise other than how detailed the visuals are. Still, it’s worth noting just how slick the handling was during the diving scene at the beginning. It was set up with a lot of split-second shots showcasing stillness while the characters were actually moving at high speeds, but cycling between them to make it feel dynamic. It reminds me a lot of how Yuu Kou handled Giant Killing, except in this case the creators don’t have a Kodansha Manga Award winner to pull storyboards from, so it’s even more impressive. My biggest criticism of Kyoto Animation shows is that they often straddled the line between effective use of budget in scenes where it made a real difference in painting a picture of the action and gratuitous full-motion animation for the sake of full-motion animation. Free does not have that problem. Hiroko Utusmi’s direction is tighter than the pants the main characters wear, and stands an outside chance of pushing this show into high-tier sports anime territory when all is said and done.*

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Of course, Free’s budding candidacy for potential long-term notability is helped that one of the characters is driven by a real inferiority complex of the “never really satisfied” variety. The scene with Rin lamenting while curled up in the dark brought that trait out with some fairly effective acting. Too, the characters are being shown to have different individual strengths (Haru’s the best swimmer, Makoto’s the captain with leadership ability, Nagisa takes care of paperwork and is generally the glue guy), something that’ll make them more fun to watch as a team in the long run.

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Especially if the drama gets played out more.

All of what’s been written above is somewhat superfluous to Free being a good anime to follow week-to-week, because, regardless of its long-term lastability, the comedy is top-notch fun. From the guys’ innovative recruiting strategies to the more old-timey duck/rabbit season bit with Gou’s name to the self-aware satire of the intended audience where Gou was in a room with shirtless Rin, Masahiro Yokotani is finding all sorts of ways to pull laughs out of my gut. The jokes in this show are clever enough to carry the rest of the material on their backs, and they don’t even need to.

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Free is definitely one of my 3 favorite shows of the season thus far, and it’s showing off a number of good points a variety of angles. I could not be more excited for the best show of summer sweepstakes, which at this rate should take a month or two to shake out a winner.**

*Though I still don’t think there’s any real chance of it becoming a classic of the genre in the same way that Touch, Hajime no Ippo, and Ashita no Joe are classics. I’m thinking something more in the tier of Big Windup or Prince of Tennis, great and charming shows with flaws and fun characters who fall short of being timeless.

**That’s a positive thing. Because it’s not one awesome show at the top that makes a great season, but several great shows airing at once.*** Last Summer won 2012 on my ledger while having none of my top four on the year by rocking Tari Tari, Humanity Has Declined, Joshiraku, Moyashimon Returns, and Kokoro Connect. That Space Brothers was airing at the same time didn’t hurt.****

***Spring 2013 was crazy top-heavy with Attack on Titan and Muromi-san, but the rest of that season’s supporting cast (most of which I gave multiple episodes) were on the upper end of good-tier. And most were lower than that. Also, basically nothing continued from the overly-maligned Winter 2013, so we were stuck with exactly what we had. Compare that with the high-tier stock this season’s already pumping out in Free, WataMote, Uchoten Kazoku, Dangan Ronpa, the surprisingly rock-solid C3-bu, and the latest run of the always-reliable Monogatari Series. Mix in the fact that Attack on Titan is still running. Toss in a number of potential x-factors that are playing around with their respective genres while executing solid like Golden Mosaic, Kanetsugu to Keiji, Teekyu 2, Blood Lad, and Love Lab, and it’s reasonable to feel pretty good about this season’s chances of being a real great one on the tier with Fall 2007 or Summer 2011. And speaking of which…

****In terms of things that continued into the next season making things better, the year 2011’s Summer stands way, way out in my experience. New shows I followed included Usagi Drop, Kamisama Dolls, Kamisama no Memochou, and a second season of BakaTest. The shows that continued into that season from Spring? Try Tiger and Bunny, Steins Gate, Blue Exorcist, and season 2 of Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji. That totals to 3 competitive, blue-chip candidates for Anime of the Decade (2 of which were hitting their even-better second halves), plus a whole lot of red-chip greatness.

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