Such is the ubiquity of Free! that it’s difficult to think of simply as an anime or Koji Ohji’s light novel series, rather a franchise in the upper echelons of fandom that has snowballed into a marketing monolith. Yet outside the commodity is a potent yarn of determination, perseverance and friendship that are the core tenants of sports shows of this kind. But while Haikyu!!, Kuroko’s Basketball and Days benefit from protracted matches to demonstrate and explore these themes, the swimming races in Free! pass at breakneck speed. Even when the abstract, visual metaphors slow down the pace, the life of the series is as much outside of the pool as in it. While this sets the series apart from its contemporaries, it goes to show the strength of its characters and their respective journeys.
Eternal Summer’s opening rhymes with the first series, reintroducing the cast but also showing the year that’s passed. Haruka is still living semi-aquatic in his bathtub, whiling away the time until he can again paddle out in the open. Makoto, still the father-figure of the Iwatobi High School Swim Club, picks up Haru and the rest of the gang to meet with Rin at Samezuka Academy, and bid farewell to its third years. Of course, each of them is wearing their swim gear under their clothing and get roped into a relay race. Rei has shed the new guy with something to prove, and become a quintessential member of the team, while Nagisa is still the eternal optimist. But it’s the hothead Rin who’s undergone to biggest change; he’s even made captain of the Samezuka swim team. For our money, Rin remains the real central figure of the series, and certainly the most captivating. Mamoru Miyano’s voice acting only sweetens the deal.
With Haru, Rin and Makoto approaching the end of their high school lives, they’re forced to contemplate life after graduation. Rin, we know, has a clear-cut dream, setting his sights on the world. But Makoto hasn’t given it much thought, while Haru stubbornly refuses to acknowledge it – the future a torrent even he can’t swim through. His final realisation is a real triumph that’s as much a little victory for the audience. The entanglement of Rin and Haru’s future is a poignant study of the depths of friendship and needing to rely on one another – a mission statement for sports anime if ever there was one.
The visuals are impeccable, as we’ve come to expect from Kyoto Animation (the eyes; the eyes!) and the emphasis on chiselled bodies and bulging muscle is charged with motion. The male bodies straddle the line between ideals of masculine beauty in the West and those of Japan, a contributing factor in its meteoric rise in popularity and enduring appeal. Plenty has been said about the female gaze aspect of the show and its appeal to gay or bisexual viewers, so we won’t go over it again. Suffice it to say that it’s all been stepped up from the first series, and occasionally taken to ludicrous extremes you’re never sure are supposed to be satire… probably not, there are figures to sell after all.
Perfect bodies aside, the boys of Eternal Summer prove to be inspiring role models, whether it’s Rin finally gracious in defeat, Haru opening up to his friends and dropping his near-insufferable I-only-swim-free façade, or perhaps Nagisa never afraid to show his emotions. The threat of quitting swimming is omnipotent, either through waning faith or injury, but mostly through the unknown future pressing down on the third years. Here we have a series about leaving the long season of childhood behind and entering the brave new world of maturity. But we realise from the added OVA that summer really is eternal.
Extras: English dub; commentary on episodes 1 & 7; web previews; promos; trailers; textless opening/closing; illustration collection; extended end card collection and OVA episode.