In Episode Eval, I take a look at a singular episode from one of the eight series I’m watching this season. At the end of the week these will be collected in the weekly Streaming Anime Round-Up for easier consumption.
Though some scenes are laughable–and I did have a number of hearty chuckles at the show’s expense, rather than at its insistence–Free! Eternal Summer ends on quite the high note, somehow wrapping up its story with a message that goes beyond shirtless dudes with hot bods and even exciting swimming action, to touch on the importance of friendship and lifelong dreams.
After Haru’s blow-up with Makoto–and the general feeling of being lost that surrounds him–Rin takes Haru to Australia to give him a sense of the world Rin got to see when he lived in Australia all those years ago. The trip obviously has an impact on Haru, but is it enough to give him a place in the world of swimming and to bring him back to his teammates before the end of their last year as the Iwatobi swim team?
Over the length of the season, Free! Eternal Summer has surely floundered from time to time. There have been filler episodes which, at times, were hard to sit through. There have been over-the-top dramatic performances where one–or more–of our protagonists couldn’t help but have an entire conversation at the top of their lungs. Those elements which tend to weigh this series down and keep it from ever achieving anything greater than being a decent sports show, are largely missing in these two wrap-up episodes. So much so, in fact, that the conclusion to this series is not only entertaining but enlightening, conveying the central ideologies of the series better here than ever before.
The last seconds of this season end with the camera pointed up at the clouds, the words “For the Future” filling the screen. It’s succinct, to the point and it encapsulates one of the main ideas behind Free! Eternal Summer. Haru spent so much of this season thinking ill of those people and elements that would try and persuade him to turn his art into a monetary venture–after all, aren’t Haru’s feelings tantamount to the musician who’s worried about selling out and losing the real reason for why he began making music to begin with? Thanks to Rin’s Australian adventure–which he takes Haru on in the 12th episode–Haru is able to finally peek out of his shell and understand that the “confines” of the swimming world give him the opportunity to freely swim for a living. Haru could care less about competition or the amount of time he makes in a given tournament, but he’s still willing to take on the worldwide notion of what swimming should be in order to continue on in his own personal endeavors. Nowhere is this more strongly felt than in the Iwatobi swim team’s final relay race. While up until now the timing and success of our four protagonists in the relay race has been tantamount to the storyline, here the “race” aspect takes a back seat to the majesty of the swim. Rather than showing the audience break-neck laps between Makoto and his opponents, we get Makoto meeting a metaphorical dolphin underwater, carrying the spirit of the majestic creature with him to the finish line. The same is true for the other three who meet there own spirit animals, leaving us with the idea that no matter how well they did in the competition–and we never actually see a score, or what place the team gets, further highlighting its lack of importance–what really matters is the way in which our four players are at one with their craft. In fact, they’ve gone beyond swimming being their craft, to it being a part of their very being. It’s even said throughout the episode that their teamwork in the sport will last forever, no matter if they all go their separate ways 2 months down the line. Sure, the animal representations made me chuckle because, let’s be honest, it’s a little cheesy. But Free!‘s always been cheesy, and at least this time, the message it’s pushing is one of earnest optimism for life and the things we do as humans to shape it. Either way, Haru has found his way to being inwardly at peace in his swimming while being able to outwardly play the game of life. Some may say that’s a rather capitalistic message–and I can’t entirely disagree–but it does represent Haru maturing in some way or another, as he’s able to make the decision an adult has to make of finding a purpose in the world for that which drives him. Finally, Haru is able to make a decision for the future, rather than living so stubbornly in the here and now.
All that considered, Haru’s future–and his acceptance of his place in the world–is so heavily impacted by his friends, that they are the main driving force in his life, even more so than swimming itself. Sure, it’s a type of escapism–in the real world, it’s rare to find the kind of friend who will pay for two round-trip tickets to Australia to wake you out of your teenage, angst-ridden malaise–but some of the best entertainment is able to balance the audience’s wish fulfillment with saying something of merit at the same time. It’s true too of the fujoshi leanings of the series; we get a scene here where the characters splash each other in a very female-gaze kind of way, but as a male who’s grown attached to our four protagonists, I can laugh at the pandering of it all but still appreciate the close bonds that the scene is showcasing. By the end of the series, Free! Eternal Summer is best seen as a show that can please many instead of answering to a particular niche crowd. In an era of shallowly formed high school dramas and shows about little girls aimed at grown men, I’ll gladly take these shirtless swimmers–and they do HAVE to be shirtless to play their sport, after all–who showcase what it means to realize and fulfill your dreams through the power of eternal friendship. Sound a little cheesy? That’s the best part.