First Reactions: Free! Episode 11

Before the episode, a point: Free’s first volume posted a combined BD/DVD sales figure of 25,000 volumes. If this stays above 20,000 copies per volume (it will), it’ll log in as Kyoto Animation’s best-selling TV title since Houkago Teatime planted their feet in London. If it gets a decent second week boost, there’s a non-negligible chance it passes Clannad’s 24,808 average and goes into the studio’s all-time top 5 behind Haruhi, Lucky Star, and the K-ons. Oh, and that mark is generally good for somewhere between the 40th and 60th best selling TV anime of all time. Those are some legit numbers. By accounts I’ve heard, the farm-system novel that birthed Free, High Speed, is playing out fairly directly on the screen and doesn’t leave much room for a sequel. That said, if I were an exec at Kadokawa I’d be doing my best trying to see if I could finagle one in. Remember, ignoring whether or not the ending is open or closed, 50 percent of anime that sell 4000 copies per volume or more get a sequel. I did some garbage calculations with a smaller sample of the 27 non-sequels to sell 20k+ volumes, and found that all but 8 eventually got movie or TV sequels of some kind. That said, 2 of those 8 were Kyoto Animation products.*

Now that I’m done being a mid-level sales stats geek, the next obvious topic of discussion is how well-balanced the screentime was between characters. From their splitting melon breads at Rei’s house to their settling in at the hotel the way most high school athletes tend to do when at a hotel with no supervision (i.e. skipping the hotel and going out to have fun), this week offered plenty of opportunities to flesh out the cast. At this point, I think Free is pretty close to Ippo-swap theory territory; tell the story from the perspective of any other main character, rather than Haru, and the show is just as good. That’s not a knock, but a statement that they all have backgrounds and mindsets deep enough to carry a show on their own. And when your third-best character is strong enough to carry a show, you’re in pretty good shape.**

Nowhere was that strong breadth of developed character more evident than in the confrontation between Rin and Rei in the opening minutes. Rei was nothing this episode if not relentlessly hard-hitting. He managed to really dish it out on Rin, who didn’t have any answers for at least a few days after that talk where Rei somehow got extremely emotional (digging that triple-take on his mouth when he came as close to snapping as he did during that conversation) about the situation and managed to cooly bring Rin down several notches. The way he gave his own straightforward take – that he just wants to win with the teammates he’s got – so straight up undoubtedly forced Rin to do the same.
And it turns out, Rin does view his relationship with Haru as a rivalry. Despite his abrasive mannerisms, he drew fuel from his relationship with Haru in a way that not only restored his passion for the sport but made him a much better athlete. It’s just too bad he had to be Reggie Miller in 1994 to do it. I can gel with that approach, but it did come with consequences, stuff he’s going to have to deal with.

In light of the revelation of Rin’s using his rivalry with Haru as fuel for his passion, the ending was an (admittedly telegraphed) shot to the solar plexus. I can think of few voices better than that of Vincent Bold*** to deliver the disappointing news. It really ties back to the main theme of the episode; while Rin was ultimately using his enmity with Haru as fuel, he took his single-mindedness far enough that he ended up with not a whole lot left. The dude has my sympathies, but it’s a bit of self-inflicted karma after the extent to which he antagonized Haru.

All of which leads into the obvious question mark; now that the series has deprived itself of the poetic kinetic showdown finish, what angle do they take to close out strong? Actually, I’d tinker that question around a bit – I’ve seen plenty of sports anime/manga pull off the all-stars-in-alignment final showdown, but it’s much rarer for them to sidestep a physical climax.**** Free’s in comparatively uncharted territory, but that just means there’s a number of vectors to explore. I’d welcome a longer-term epilogue and the Rin and Haru resolving their differences in a good “I got you this burger so let’s sit in silence for a second so we can apologize to each other like adults” talk. So long as it doesn’t end on a Tiger and Bunny style sequel hook that’ll kick things ahead to whenever, I’m fine with anything.

*You could argue that Lucky Star got a sequel, but I could counter that it was an ONA which was a) directed by prima-donna and Fractale-debacle architect Yamamoto Yutaka with Studio Ordet, b) 4 minutes per episode, and c) near-universally panned.

**Cut to Kenji Nakamura nodding sagely while Toshiya Ono gleefully waves around paper cutouts of Hajime Ichinose, Berg-Katze, and Paiman in the background.

***I just realized the swim team captain shares his VA. So does the Class F’s sad sack teacher from BakaTest.

****Except for Touch, where manga’s patron saint of Baseball Romance Adachi Mitsuru took about 15 chapters after the last instance of the former to build up the climax of the latter. Yet another reason Touch is the greatest baseball manga not to feature performance-based contracts.

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