Just thinking through about a few things in Free. Well, one main thing: I don’t feel the characters are believable teenage boys.
The way characters assembles in the Database Animal era is the combination of “database” elements. Stories, too, are constructed from archetypal narrative elements. What is new is each and every daring combination of things we know, the cultural remixes that results.
Can we look at Free as just the same constructed elements but with some parts swapped in for the female otaku audience? I think that’s the reasonable take.
As someone elsewhere said: Now you know how people who are into boys feel about K-On. And why it had so many female viewers.
— Schneider Hime (@schneiderheim) July 25, 2013
While it may be reasonable, I still don’t know if it is really true. I think there are definitely a lot of similarities between Free and past Kyoto Animation works. Maybe a better question would be if we subtract from Free what makes up the similarities between Free and K-ON, what do we have left?
- Cute girls versus ikemen (let’s ignore Kou for the moment)
- Athletic rather than culture club; swimming versus “keiongaku”
- Inclusion of the opposite sex
I think none of this is particularly problematic. By problematic I mean if I watch an episode of Haruhi I might coincidentally see all those elements at play there as well, and nobody thinks twice about Haruhi. So it’s not just “genderswapped K-ON.” Rather, it is more like just Haruhi.
What I find difficult about Free, aside from any concerns of the gender-specific fanservice sort of thing, is that the characters don’t behave the way I imagine them to be. For a point of contrast, check out this series that is kind of popular with some fujoshi: Ookiku Furikabutte. Big Windup, as it’s localized, is actually a seinen manga adaptation with a very sports-centric appeal in which happens to feature many database elements that fujoshi and female otaku look for. The anime, coincidentally, is also pretty good. But in that show, despite how touchy feely or at times feminine some of the guys act, these characters come across to me as believable high schoolers, in the “go to koshien” sense (man I haven’t used that term unironically in a while). Yes, even the hand-holding part. [They certainly do some weird stuff.]
That is a lot more than what I can say about Free. Haru, clearly, has a swimming thing going on for him. We can put him in the “eccentric” bin. But how about Makoto, Rin, Rei and Nagisa? Rei and Rin seem like the most masculine of them all in some ways (certainly physically), perhaps because they are a blockhead and a tsundere–both generally gender-neutral traits. I can give Nagisa a pass–these kind of people do exist as high school boys, but I think if such a person exists they are going to be really annoying to deal with, speaking as an average guy. Maybe that’s just how Nagisa is with his close friends, I don’t know. It just seems too much of a copy-paste sort of deal, where you take 50% Mugi and 50% Yui and add a dash of Ritsu. I probably have the most problem with Makoto, who seems just motherly. I know guys who can be motherly, but generally they are portrayed like this. And Makoto does not remind me of that guy whatsoever; Makoto reminds me of a more believable version of 30% her and 70% her. At any rate, the point is none of the main guys exhibit anything particularly masculine as character traits.
Well, I am also making a call with 4 episodes in, so things will likely change. The least I could do to reserve the right to change my mind and say this is more a first impression than some kind of judgment, maybe a bit of a prediction. Perhaps it’s more of an indictment of the problems common to Kyoani works. What I really want to get across is that when I watch Free, I don’t really see a story about some guys swimming, I see some muscle-blobs swimming. Where’s their humanity? I don’t feel this way with K-ON, but that’s probably because K-ON doesn’t get deep enough about character traits to really paint that kind of a picture. We might see flashes of the characters’ worries and inner thoughts in K-ON, but it’s pretty much a story at a very low depth to begin with, and the deepness largely relies on framing a passive sense of melancholy through the passage of time. It’s a lot more lifelike than Free, let’s just say.
So I guess what I have problems with isn’t exactly how girl-pandering opens new ways to reassemble the database; it’s more because Free seems to take the theme and story somewhere different than the characters that it swims with. Well, let’s hope Kyoani proves me wrong.
PS. About Kou… Maybe it’s the reason why some people can handle watching all those cool-girl Houko Kuwashima reverse harem anime, when it really isn’t meant for them. I think if there’s a character worth watching for, people will watch the show, to the degree that they can put off the detracting elements of the show. I know that’s the reason why I can tolerate a lot of anime originally written for girls. And it goes back to simply having quality story, theme, characters, direction, music, acting, whatever. That said, I’m not saying Kou is such a thing.