What They Say:
After a run-in with former teammate Rin ends with bitter feelings and hurtful words, Haruka and his friends become determined to re-form the Iwatobi Swim Club. There’s just one problem-they’re missing a much-needed fourth member! With their eyes set on the athletic Rei, they’ve got to do what it takes to convince him to join so they can be in fighting form to face Rin’s new school, Samezuka Academy.
The audio presentation for this release brings us the original Japanese language track in stereo and an English language adaptation that gets a 5.1 bump, both of which are encoded using the Dolby TrueHD codec. The series is one that uses the sound design well when it can, which is mostly with the swimming sequences themselves. These have a good design about them as there’s a fuller feeling where needed and the impact of the water feels like it’s stronger and more engaging. The flow of it is solid and makes for something that definitely enhances the show. The bulk of the show is still mostly dialogue and that means fairly standard scenes there. That’s not a bad thing as it handles it well and competently with a clean sense of placement and depth where needed while generally working an engaging forward soundstage. Dialogue is crisp and clean throughout and we didn’t have any problems with dropouts or distortions during regular playback.
Originally airing in 2013, the transfer for this TV series is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 in 1080p using the AVC codec. The twelve episodes and three OVAs are spread across two discs with nine on the first and the rest on the second. Animated by Kyoto Animation, the series is one that’s simply beautiful to watch play out with its colors, vibrancy, and the general pop of everything that it wants to do. There’s a lot of very fluid sequences as they almost over-animate some of the swimming sequences, but it’s designed to make it highly engaging and rich looking, which it succeeds in. The end result is a fantastic looking show that this transfer captures beautifully. There’s a lot of detail to be had throughout both in character and backgrounds and all of it comes across wonderfully clean and problem free. Having enjoyed the look of this show in the simulcast, this just takes it to another level.
The packaging design for this release brings us a heavy chipboard box that brings us some great key visual image of the guys together that delights with its style and look, as well as the fanservice. With an almost matted background style to it, the front panel is off-putting at first because of the raised areas that are clear which look like you spilled something on it until you realize that it’s replicating water splashing on the guys. The back panel under the glued on information page has our leads together laying on their backs that uses a different kind of slick overlay to give a watery feeling that’s really great and stands out compared to so much of what other releases have done in creative ways. Within the box we get the two Blu-ray cases where they each hold a different format. The front cover pieces are great pairings of the main cast while swimming underway that just make you grin while the back covers provide for more playful and silly pairings with their expressions. Each case has artwork on the reverse side that’s different for each of them that shows off more character artwork while also breaking down what’s where and what extras there are. No show related inserts are included with this release.
The extras for this release are a bit simpler than what Funimation produced for the second season that they have the rights to. In addition to the three OVAs being presented here, which is definitely welcome as they’re cute and short bits, we also get the clean opening and closing sequences.
After a short that caught a lot of people’s attention surfaced, Free got itself the green light to go for a full series from Kyoto Animation, which has been mostly focused on shows with many girls as the main characters and a few boys along they way. They’ve produced some very engaging shows over the years, but when I saw the previews originally for this series with its focus on the swimming side of it, the beauty of the animation and the fluidity of it all, it’s a show I couldn’t wait to see since it’ll delve into the bonds of men in a different way than a lot of the shows we often do get that cover it. Working with seventeen-year-old young men, after giving us a taste of them as ten-year-olds where their swimming skills are certainly impressive, we see in the present that their bonds have certainly lasted over the years as well as some of their personality quirks.
We’re introduced well to the core group, with Haru as the lead as a young man who is definitely strong in the water and can’t live without it, so much so that he spends a lot of time in the baths in the offseason. His longing to be in the water, be it the ocean or pool, is made pretty clear. His longtime childhood friend, Mako, tries to keep him a bit on the straight and narrow but gives in to his friend easily. What changes a bit is the arrival of Nagisa, a friend of sorts of theirs from elementary school that transferred away but is now back and is just treating it all like old times. Through their first blush time together, we get a good idea of how the high school works with the fact that the pool isn’t used and there’s no swim club and we get some decent time to the past seeing what the boys were like as they started to go their separate ways before middle school.
When the trio head to their old elementary school to check out the no longer in use pool building, it’s a good little bit of fake haunted fun in a way, and we definitely get to see some cute bits about all of them, but what it also reveals is that their other friend has returned to the area. Rin, who had gone off to Australia, now has a very laid back and cool feeling to him but also a real competitive edge as well as he challenges Haru from the get go, which definitely goes back to their old days in a lot of ways. Of course, there are problems with such a challenge, but it’s the kind of thing that brings them all back together in some form and makes it clear that Rin is not the bright, outgoing engaging person he once was.
While Free! didn’t knock it out of the park with its first episode, it definitely got me interested in it just from the visual perspective and having a group of friends with some interesting quirks. But largely it gave me a group of men with a passion, and that’s hard to find with a lot of school based shows these days as the cast tends to just stand or sit around and does nothing besides talk. While there’s a place for that, there’s something to be said about characters that have more to them than that and Free definitely made you interested in the four core personalities that we saw here and the way they interact, especially as some of them are realizing their period of being “special” is coming to a close and there’s only so much more time where they can do something really amazing.
That said, there are cute times to be had here just in watching Haruka sitting in the tub and lightly splashing water, because it is a human moment that many people do throughout their entire life. While the boys managed to not get into too much trouble with their late night swim competition, they’ve ruffled a few feathers but have also brought on the interest of Gou, who is trying to get closer to Haruka and the others, who in turn find that getting to know her better can bring them back into competition with Rin a bit more easily. With the boys doing their best to come up with the swim club and all that’s involved in it, the dynamic is definitely fun as Haruka envisions an easy paradise while others are a bit more serious about the work involved. Getting an advisor is harder though since their teacher is essentially bullied into it in a very cute way that also involves getting some designer swimsuits.
There’s some adorableness as they go through the usual kinds of montages here, including cleaning the in very rough shape pool while wearing their school uniforms, and figuring out what needs to be done. It is, at its core, great bonding material for them all and their advisor that helps to reaffirm who they are, as well as some of the cute ways others in the school get drawn into it. Those were some great club recruitment posters! While we go through this, we also get Gou going to her brothers school and finding out that things aren’t on the up and up with Rin and his involvement in the swim team, which sets off a few alarms for her, and which come back into play for the boys at Iwatobi as well. This all wraps around nicely with what happened when Haruka and Rin competed at night, and with what the boys are doing now during the day to repair the pool, and encourages Gou to get involved with the Iwatobi team because she can see it as a way of getting all of them to help with her brother. This is a nice way of making her more integral to the club while avoiding some of the more cloying aspects of it with her just lusting over one or all of them.
Thankfully, one area that the show doesn’t overplay is with Gou since there were a lot of bad ways this could go rather than the far more restrained and largely realistic approach that was taken. As the obligatory female student of the moment, there’s a lot of ways her character can go bad, but they’ve handled her well in this, especially when she discovered some of the lies her brother has been telling about what he’s been doing at the other school. She’s managed to stand her own ground and have her idolization moments when it comes to the young men here in their tight swimsuits, but she’s also avoided being a caricature with how she does handle it all. And with the way so many shows go for that easy shortcut, it’s a pretty welcome change of pace.
Gou’s doing the manager job pretty well and is setting things up for the club to go in the right direction, but they also have the problem of not really having any sort of club budget, which makes sense since it’s a new club with no accomplishments. For Haruka, he’s pretty intent on making things happen so he can swim all the time, and that means building out the club more than it is now, since there are minimum memberships and all. That turns the focus on Rei, who has already joined a track team and is intent on sticking with that instead of touching the swim team in the slightest. For his part, Nagisa does his best to continually go after him and to try and get the others to see the wisdom of his choice. There’s definitely some pressure there, especially with the way their advisor figures into things.
There’s a lot of fun as we see the gang work through this and the push to get Rei into it, but it also goes for some silly fun, especially when he ends up at the pool and is quickly and forcibly changed into a swimsuit even though he said he wasn’t going to participate. But as we get so many people there, and some intriguing observers as well, it all builds up well. The way they push and prod at Rei is great and comical since it hits all the right notes with how they manipulate him and how he’s able to be manipulated before just getting right into it. Though we don’t get a lot about Rei when you really get down to it, it does play out well to show us who he is and that he can dream and have great desires to achieve something new and intense, which is displayed beautifully in the final act here.
Free gives us a lot of time with the setup in getting to know the characters and that fleshes out very well as it progresses so that everyone gets their time while still reinforce that this is very much a group show. The training side makes for a lot of great material as the four work toward their prefectural tournament and all that comes with it while also ensuring that we get plenty of time with Rin along the way as well. Rin’s side gets some decent exploration as time is spent showing him with his club and the very different kind of structure there is to training and tournaments, and winning as well. It’s not a surprising angle to take where his school is more focused on serious competition, but that’s not to say Haruka and the others are doing it for laughs. They don’t have the weight of the history of the school behind them like Rin and the others do, nor are there underclassman to inspire and help raise up to take their places (yet). So the different dynamics work well and adds another very welcome level of realism to it all.
It’s also what helps to make things toward the end work better than they might in other series as Rin and Haruka end up on a trip to Australia after Haruka struggles with things for a bit. Because the show started off with them much younger and showed the childhood bonds we’re able to accept that they would do these even as teens separate for years and in competitive elements in the present. It all serves to bring Haruka to a good place in the present and it helps to alter the course in small ways between Rin and the rest, but it’s also a great side story that helps to show that Rin had an interesting life all on his own and didn’t just stew in his own juices for years before his return to Japan. There’s likely more than enough there for a good writer to present a solid lengthy series exploring his life that would enrich both the early years we see and the time from here on out in a good way.
The Free series in its original run is one that works very well with what it does as it covers a lot of ground. It’s a show that I enjoyed a lot for the way it handled the male relationships that a lot of other series aren’t able to do well all while giving plenty for female viewers to really enjoy with the eye-candy, another area that these shows tend to not do well. The character stories are good and the overall arcs that we get are engaging and progress in a smooth and fun way. The best is that it’s simply beautifully animated with a lavish level of detail for the swimming side of it that’s almost fetish level. Funimation’s bringing this out for Crunchyroll has it tying in well to their release of the second season and fans that have wanted to own this show in this type of form will have a great release to add to their shelves.
Japanese Dolby TrueHD 2.0 Language, English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Language, English Subtitles, OVA 1-Makoto’s Problem! Recruiting New Members! OVA 2-Rin and Nitori, a Week With Us! Rei’s Entry Training! OVA 3-Rei, Theory, and Speedo! The Iwatobi Family! A Distant Tremble! Textless Opening & Closing Songs and Trailers
Content Grade: A-
Audio Grade: B+
Video Grade: A-
Packaging Grade: B+
Menu Grade: B
Extras Grade: B+
Released By: Funimation
Release Date: May 9th, 2017
Running Time: 300 Minutes
Video Encoding: 1080p AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Widescreen
Sony KDL70R550A 70″ LED 1080P HDTV, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080p, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.