Watson is a New Zealander in his 30s. He knows what anime is, but never watched it growing up and has still seen few titles to date. And a little while ago, I sat him down to watch the first four episodes of Free!.
This article is the fourth of its series – the first, second, and third were Watson Watches: Azumanga Daioh, Kuroshitsuji, and AnoHana respectively. As usual, Watson knew nothing about the anime before watching other than the title, and the following questions were given to him to answer afterwards.
Free! was never originally intended to be a full anime. However, the project gained a huge fan following on Tumblr after a 30 second promotional commercial (which contained no name for the project or any information about the characters) went viral. A petition was then created in order to entice anime studio Kyoto Animation into creating a proper series, which was released less than half a year later. What do you think about the idea of fans demanding and receiving an anime seemingly based on popular demand?
My first reaction is that it seems like an overpoweringly bad idea. Any business has to have customers, to be sure, and at first this might seem like a way to be sure that a customer base exists for a product before taking the risk of creating it. But too many cooks spoil the broth, and many creative endeavours benefit from a firm directing hand on the controls. In this case there are as many cooks as there are fans, all pulling in a different direction on the levers. And if you think this metaphor is getting confusing and unhelpful, spare a thought for how it would be for the creative team trying to satisfy the many-headed hydra masquerading as the ‘vision’ for the piece.
Another concern would be the difficulty in taking any creative risks. Perhaps the anime community is significantly different in this respect, but in general audiences want more of what they have liked in the past, and regard deviations from this as being unacceptable. We have seen it time and again, how an idea that might have been a thing of beauty is beaten into a horrible caricature of itself by trying to appeal to a larger audience – and, in so doing, losing the very things that made it attractive in the first place.
Thinking about it a bit more, however, I suppose it could work. Two possibilities spring to mind for that. If what the fans want is simple and clear-cut, or if they’re willing to let the creators work unhindered, then you could end up with a good product. Others would know better than me how likely this is, however.
Alternatively (and more cynically), the creators might have a list of things they know fans will like, and decide that as long as they include enough things from the list, they can produce pretty much anything and still get a good response. As a bonus, this would also help in dealing with criticism; there will inevitably be dissatisfied viewers, but now they will be arguing among themselves over who “forced” the developers to include the things that are irritating people. I don’t know if this could happen in the anime business, but I’ve certainly seen it in other creative industries.
In short, I don’t regard the idea very favourably. It could work under the right circumstances, and Free! might be a rare example of exactly that. But I think it’s more likely that it’s going breed formulaic pap that stays within the established strictures and is careful to avoid offending too great a segment of the market. Still, if that’s what people want, who am I to say it shouldn’t be done?
Perhaps as a backlash against the largely female-driven fan following that it spawned, Free! has gained plenty of hatred and derision from male anime fans who believe that Kyoto Animation – a studio well known for their male-targeted shows such as Lucky Star and K-On! – should remain faithful to their usual primary demographic. Do you believe this backlash has some validity, or do you see these male viewers as simply being sexist?
I suppose the entire point of these articles is to provide the perspective of an uninvolved party, so let me dive right in to an argument that I know nothing about and which pertains directly to an extremely sensitive subject. In any case, I think there’s a logical mistake in that question – the fallacy of the excluded middle. I’m reluctant to label those people as sexist, although that doesn’t mean the backlash has validity.
I get the feeling that Free! has been pretty popular, and Kyoto Animation will have noticed that. They’d be silly not to be including that data point in their plans for the future, which fact is presumably as obvious to anime fans as it is to me. And, despite their reputation as shy and retiring types, I also get the feeling that anime fans can be pretty passionate about their fandom. If a group of dedicated fans perceived a threat to the future production of the shows they cared about, do you think they might lash out at whatever they blamed for that threat?
That’s what I suspect happened in this case. Now make no mistake: I still think that the fans are wrong. Kyoto Animation ought to be able to make whatever they feel like making, and if that happens to involve a show that’s popular with females then I don’t see any problem with that. But just because someone doesn’t like it doesn’t mean they’re being sexist, even if the target of the backlash is something a lot of women do like.
On the other hand, if this really is a case of a bunch of sexist guys not wanting to let girls in on the fun, then they can go and fuck themselves.
Traditionally, anime bishounen (i.e. pretty boys designed specifically to appeal to female audiences) have been given extremely willowy figures, while the character designs of Free! are considerably more muscular by comparison. Do you feel that this change in style is a positive one?
Yes, insofar as changing from one improbable body type to another is a positive step. Sure, I understand that swimmers at such a highly competitive level would have to be toned and muscular, so it’s not necessarily unrealistic. And generally speaking, I feel that the more body types we can see as major characters, the better.
But one of the big problems with anime (and visual media in general) is how often the characters don’t seem to resemble actual people. I don’t think it’s controversial to suggest this has been linked to self-image issues, and this can affect all sorts of people. For example I’m in my 30s, male, and about as resigned to my body shape as I’m likely to get. Even so, I’m a little uncomfortable being presented with main characters like that. Maybe this is because I have a character design that with the best will in the world could not be described as either “extremely willowy” or “considerably muscular”.
Yes, yes, I know “comparisons are odious”. I don’t want to overstate the importance of the point, and it’s possible that this is an issue more to do with my particular psychology than anything else. It’s certainly a good thing that the women (and gay men?) in the audience have a greater selection of designs to lust over. Overall I do think the style change is a positive one – it just doesn’t go as far as I’d like. But then again, I’m starting to get the impression that anime in general is a pretty conservative medium.
In particular, Free! has earned a lot of praise for its bright and crisp artwork, smooth animation, and excellent camera work. Do you think Free! is genuinely better looking compared to other anime you’ve seen to date, or are viewers being blinded by the generous amounts of bare flesh?
To be completely honest, I didn’t even notice the artwork or any of that other stuff until you mentioned it. Having gone back to take another look… hmm. Comparing it to, say, AnoHana, it does look noticeably crisper and brighter. The water is also surprisingly well done (if anyone is waiting for me to make a joke about how ‘fluid’ its animation is, you can just keep waiting). So yes, I do think that it is genuinely a bit better looking than the other anime I’ve seen.
Of course, that doesn’t mean some viewers aren’t also being blinded by the amount of skin on display. I certainly noticed a lot of time in each episode is spent on that, to the point where it was obvious that flimsy excuses were constantly being manufactured to make the characters start stripping off. It was getting pretty ridiculous at times, and made it pretty clear that ‘manservice’ was one of the major objectives of the show. If that’s what you’re there for then I’m not going to judge you, but that’s not the same as the artwork being actually good.
In terms of the general story and writing, do you think that Free! – officially labelled as a sports anime, but also regarded as a comedy and high school slice-of-life series – would be able to stand on its own if the ‘manservice’ was taken away?
I suppose it’s possible, but I’ve got my doubts. I feel like Free! is in a bit of a weird place plot-wise, and without the ‘manservice’ propping it up there might not be enough left to make something worth watching. Let me explain.
From what I’ve seen, anime generally falls into one of two categories. There’s the episodic shows like Azumanga, where each episode exists more or less completely independently, and there’s the story-driven shows like AnoHana where each episode is part of a greater whole that develops over the course of the series.
With the episodic shows, it doesn’t matter if there isn’t really anything going on – indeed, they benefit from it, because each episode is complete unto itself, and an overarching plot would just get in the way. There may be some vague sort of continuity established, but it’s very much a backdrop to the events of the episode (will Miss Sasaki be bitten by the cat this time? Spoiler: yes, she will!). The story-driven shows on the other hand have to, well, tell a story. There may be the occasional ‘filler’ episode, and the significance of events may not be clear at the time they’re shown, but generally speaking, everything is contributing to that goal’s eventual achievement (what is Menma’s wish? How will it be fulfilled?).
Getting back to Free!, it feels like it’s caught between both of these. It seems as if it wants to be a story-driven show of some sort: it’s laying down the framework of characters, their relationships and history, and all the other things one would expect. At the same time however, it does all that in a rather half-hearted fashion and never seems to get very far towards using any of it. Once you take away the time spent looking at high school boys in their swimsuits (hello again, implicit-paedophilia! I’ve been expecting you!), there’s surprisingly little left that propels the story forwards.
I think that if it was forced to stand on its own merits, it would have to have more content – either by increasing the amount of attention given to the plot (of each episode or the series, whichever), or else by the amount of “cute boys doing cute stuff”. But that in turn would require the creators to decide what they want the show to be, and I get the feeling they’re not entirely sure about that. Until this impasse gets resolved, I don’t think Free! could stand on its own.
You know, I’m not sure. It’s pleasant enough – good humoured, nice art and all that. So far, so good. But as I’ve alluded to above, there just doesn’t seem to be very much to it. The scantily-clad bodies don’t do anything for me and the story is taking its sweet time about going anywhere. There doesn’t seem to be anything important at stake: “Oh, I really want to go swimming!” “Cheer up, Haruka! You can go swimming!” Not exactly gripping drama, is it?
I suppose I might give it another couple of episodes to see if it picks up, but if it doesn’t then I won’t shed any tears about dropping it and spending my leisure time on something with more to offer. Credit to the creators, I guess, for coming up with a show based on the exploits of a swimming club. But for me it isn’t making much of a splash.
Question of the post: What do you think of Watson’s reactions, and do you have any other questions for him? (As per usual, Watson himself will reply directly to anything aimed at him.)