And you may ask yourself-
Well...How did I get here?
- Once in A Lifetime, Talking Heads
Free!, as described by it’s creators, is a “swimming story about friendship and bonds.” Unlike most hot-blooded sports series where the sport is the crux of the plot, in Free! swimming serves merely as a back drop for a classic coming of age story.
Like everyone else, I started watching Free! for the hot bodies and swimming… but as the story progressed, I became engrossed in the narrative structure of the series. This is a literary analysis and trope driven deconstruction of Haruka’s progress throughout the story.
In short, the Hero’s Journey is an archetypal pattern that supports the narrative of many stories, usually epic quests like Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Lord of the Rings.
So, that being said… how does Haruka Nanase’s story, as the protagonist of a slice-of-life sports anime, compare to that of epic heroes like Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker?
I’m not kidding. This is a long ride, strap in.
I started mulling this over around episodes 5 and 6, it was at that time that it became clear that Haruka was being set up for some very big changes to his personality. Unlike Harry or Luke who have to face progressively worse foes that attack from the outside, Haruka’s forced to face his past and himself. His “quest” so-to-speak, was to break out of his own shell and the guilt that he shouldered.
Introducing Haruka’s “Familiar World”
In the first episode, we meet Haruka in his favorite environment, submerged in water, longingly wishing to be “normal,” to reach a point where his extraordinary talent for swimming will no longer matter to anyone. The shots selected in this segment, particularly the shot of the cast-aside box of all his trophies and ribbons, serve to support his narration.
Also, it’s very important to note, that this segment is just one of few points that Haruka actually provides solo narration to the audience.
And that brings me to… Makoto. Makoto is very much integral to Haruka’s “Familiar world.” The writers and animators made quick work of establishing Makoto’s character; within the course of a few seconds of the episode runtime, Makoto stops to greet an elderly woman and play with a kitten, all while on the way to get his friend up for school. It’s as if they wanted to scream at us, “Hey! Hey! He’s the gentle and caring friend.”
So what does this have to do with my initial point on narration? After Haruka’s introduction, he basically stops talking to the audience. (There are few exceptions— two I can think of were for for comedic effect.) Aside from visual cues like body language, the writers and animators have basically locked us out of Haruka’s head. And the person that’s our interpreter— just like for everyone else— is Makoto. His function is made clear in the scene of the walk to school. Makoto stops making small talk when he notices Haru staring at the ocean, and then he promptly echoes Haru’s thoughts for the audience.
This is very much Haruka’s Familiar World. He has his solitude, except for when he lets Makoto in, and Makoto doesn’t demand anything of him aside from companionship. Haruka’s world, however, despite being held up by Makoto at the moment, is fundamentally broken. I will explain that further on.
The point on narration and Makoto’s “interpreter” skills become VERY important in the next episode, so keep that in mind.
"The Call to Adventure"
The first step on The Hero’s Journey: the Hero learns that he must leave the known world behind and venture to unknown regions.
According to the theory of the Hero’s Journey, the hero is eventually called to a quest, to something that’s going to bring him out of his Familiar World and into the world of the adventure. For Harry Potter, as an example, it was the Hogwarts letter. So, what exactly is Haruka’s “call” to the quest?
First of all, every good hero has allies, right? Well, Haruka already has Makoto by his side, but they exist together in the Familiar World. We need someone who’s eager to face the outside world— whatever that may be, we don’t know yet at this point in the series.
Incoming Nagisa Hazuki. He’s the cute one with the bubbly big personality, greeting Haruka and Makoto as if it had only been a few days since they’d seen each other and not three years. Nagisa is a meddler by nature, he never goes with the flow, he’s always looking for an adventure. Nagisa can be cast as the Herald in this story, he’s the person that delivers the Call to Adventure to our Hero.
Nagisa, off the bat, suggests that Haruka and Makoto join him on a visit to their old swimming club, so they could dig “that” up— “that,” being their trophy from the elementary school relay. Makoto is hesitant (“Should the three of us alone really do that?”) referring to the absence of their old teammate, and Haruka is outrightly resistant. Think back to the discarded trophies in Haruka’s house.
Why would he want another reminder of a life he’s left behind? (Thankfully, a badly thought out lie from Makoto gets Haruka over his resistance.)
At the swim club,
the Hero and his party Haruka, Makoto, and Nagisa come face to face with their past— their old teammate, Rin Matsuoka. Rin quickly dismisses Makoto and Nagisa (this still makes me sad *sniffle*) and challenges Haruka to a race. (In an abandoned building… these two are idiots.) At this point, the narrative distinctly casts Rin as the Rival character, the Hero’s adversary to overcome— and this is a honey trap filled with lie-honey if I’ve ever seen one. It’s a false flag. But we’ll get to that later.
In short, the reappearance of Rin proves to be Haruka’s “Call to Adventure.” During the race against Rin, Haruka believes that he’s found what he’s been missing lately— the the solitude of the water, his freedom from the expectations and demands of others. He loses that race, but isn’t phased by it— but Rin, however, is pissed off about Haruka’s nonchalance over the loss. (You could say that Rin embarks on his own quest at this point, but he does so alone… and that’s a sadness filled analysis that I am not emotionally prepared to write about.)
Hearing the Call to Adventure, that he really is motivated when swimming competitively (even if it’s just a little bit), makes Haruka open to Nagisa’s next big idea: starting the Iwatobi High Swim Club.
Let me take a moment to just highlight how important Haruka’s opinion is to both Nagisa and Makoto. Nagisa is ecstatic when Haruka gives his blessings, and Makoto is practically cautious… he can tell that something big has suddenly changed for Haruka, but being Makoto, he doesn’t question it outright.
So we have a call to adventure, but no quest for the Hero as of yet. Like I wrote earlier, overcoming the Rival— beating Rin in a swim meet— is not Haruka’s quest.
We get our first inkling of Haruka’s quest, the real problem that he has to face, from no one other than Makoto. Makoto goes to the swim club one last time to see it before it’s torn down. Coincidentally, he meets Coach Sasabe, their old swim coach. After hearing that they’re still “friends” with Rin (I like that Makoto didn’t deny their friendship despite Rin’s coldness towards them), Sasabe reveals the story of the middle school race between Haruka and Rin, and how upset Rin was.
Listen closely. This is super important. If told to anyone else, what reason would we, the audience, have to believe Sasabe’s story? This is why the writers spent time in the first episode setting up Makoto as Haruka’s “interpreter.”
Immediately Makoto interprets the story as, “Haruka quit swimming, because he felt guilty about hurting Rin.” This conclusion is all we have to go on for the NEXT 8 EPISODES, until Haruka confirms it as true.
Makoto knows Haruka so well that he was able to deduct the reason for his quitting the swim team, and essentially his depression from a story given by a third party. We, as the audience, have no choice but to trust Makoto on this, because Haruka will not tell anyone. (Not even his best friend, obviously.)
By way of this revelation, it becomes clear that Haruka’s quest is aimed inward. He has to grow past being the distant boy that doesn’t share his feelings, past the boy who literally needs a human shield (Makoto) to deflect social interaction, and he absolutely must face the guilt that he took on for Rin quitting competitive swimming.
"Death of the Protector"
Every Hero has a mentor or protector, that person may act as a guide or a shield or a literal parent. Luke Skywalker had Obi-Wan, Harry Potter had Dumbledore, the list could go on and on. And what do these protectors have in common? Well, they’re dead. Death is commonly used to permanently separate the hero from his shelter, so that he must face the unknown by his own merit.
Makoto fits the Big Brother Mentor trope pretty well:
"This character is the hero’s good friend. … Additionally, the character, being older (though mental age matters more than physical age) and wiser than the hero, also acts as a mentor to the hero in times of need or advice.
Often, this character is doomed to die — both to bring the Hero out of the character’s shadow, and to give the character an emotional buildup.”
Well, no one dies in Free!, it just happens figuratively. Cue Episode 6.
As Makoto lies unconscious on the beach, panic sets in for Haruka. For a moment, he’s nearly frantic when Makoto doesn’t respond— he calls out for anyone, for Nagisa and Rei, but there’s no response. The most reliable person in his life is now the person in need. In that moment, Haruka is really and truly alone. Retrospectively, he’s already lost Rin (emotionally), and here he’s forced to face the reality of losing Makoto (physically and emotionally, as a result.) Haruka looks for comfort in solitude, but not in loneliness.
The “Familiar World” discussed before is threatening to break down around him.
Thankfully, as the anime gods would have it, Makoto doesn’t die, but it was very much a figurative death of his role as Haruka’s sole protector. Haruka is forced to confront the very real possibility of Makoto not being there for him at some point. And in a coming of age story such as Free! this is extremely important.
However, at this time, it’s important to note that Haruka is still not communicating his feelings with words. The writers draw a stark contrast between him and Makoto who can easily and openly bare his soul. Instead, Haruka chooses to communicate with his actions, choosing to reverse his role with Makoto and be the protective one for the rest of the episode.
Every Hero must face leaving their Familiar World, i.e. Harry leaves Hogwarts to collect the Horcruxes, Frodo leaves The Shire. So, what does this mean for Haruka?
There are three theories for why a Hero must leave his Familiar world, and the one that actually fits Haruka’s most closely is The Wasteland, which is described as being essential "for a story in which the Hero must restore his world.”
Haruka’s true familiar world— the one where he’s swimming with his friends, “For the Team,” has broken down. The only person that remains, as noted before, is Makoto. What Haruka learns from the beach incident is that even Makoto can be lost to him, and if that were to happen where would he be then? His world is too fragile as it is now, he must restore it to it’s full strength. With the help of the swim club, Haruka has started rebuilding his world and the pieces start to fall together somewhat easily… but he must venture out to return with the final piece— Rin.
"The Belly of the Whale"
So, where are we on Haruka’s quest? He’s taken baby steps so far, he’s responded to “The Call” (meeting Rin and starting the swim club) and he’s learned that his Protector is not invincible, and that his broken world cannot remain as it is, so what’s next?
The narrative, at this point, still has the audience tricked into viewing Rin as “the rival,” and the Prefectural Tournament has been presented as the place where they’ll face off. But wait, isn’t the Hero’s boss battle usually at the end of the journey? The seemingly strange chronology here should be our first clue that Haruka and Rin’s race would not be the end of their conflict. (Indeed, if this were your basic hot-blooded shonen sports anime, it may very well have been the end of their conflict. But this isn’t the Prince of Tennis, this is Free!)
“The Belly of the Whale" represents a symbolic death for the Hero: the Hero is defeated and killed, his flesh scattered, ready to be reborn and emerge as a new person.
Cue episodes seven and eight. Isn’t this exactly what happens to Haruka after the race? Haruka pinned a lot of hopes on this race, he wanted it to free him from his guilt and to bring Rin back to his side, he thought that this race was the key to his quest.
Instead Rin cuts Haruka down— to the bone. As the trope description states, his flesh is scattered. This is the first time we see Haru truly raw and in pain. It’s enough to actually shut him down.
As for Rin, this is where his story truly begins and the narrative divides. As we watch Haruka slowly ascend from his defeat and be reborn, we will have to watch Rin slowly spiral downward. (The latter first being sparked by Makoto’s words and then Iwatobi’s win at the relay.) The duality of the narrative is just beautiful from this point on.
But I don’t have the emotional comport to write about Rin, so lets carry on with Haruka.
Haruka is brought forth from his defeat by the power of True Companions. It started with Nagisa forcing him to watch the team swim.
The hero, at this time in the journey, undergoes various trials. The one that I would say fits Haruka the most in this moment is the “Leave Your Quest Test.” After the tournament, Haruka retreats to the water, his comfort space, to reflect. At this point, he has the option to stop here, to retreat to his old self. After all, Rin patently declared that they won’t swim together again, that essentially they’ll never be friends again. It seems that, no matter what Haruka does, his world cannot be restored. He could very well have decided to stop moving forward.
His teammates, however, refused to give up on him. Nagisa, Rei, and Gou leave him the most adorably sloppy and heartfelt message, while Makoto waits patiently for him to come home while holding his cell phone— effectively “delivering” the message to Haruka. All together in these actions, I would say that the Iwatobi team acted as “The Goddess" or the Hero’s Muse. They become Haruka’s inspiration to keep moving forward on his quest to become truly free.
(A lot of people, after episode 8, like to read very negatively into the fact that Makoto didn’t think Haruka would swim the next day. But honestly, considering Haruka’s past self, did Makoto have any reason to believe otherwise? But still, he waited, so even he hadn’t totally lost hope.)
For most epic quests, the Hero is usually practicing their newfound power or skill and it’s no different for Haruka at this time in the story. Haruka’s new skill is speaking about his feelings. Haruka slowly gains the ability to be more and more open, coming more into the fold of his friendship and appreciating the bonds that have formed around him.
He starts off easy, with Makoto, the person he’s most comfortable with, but still fails to express himself in words with. Inspired by Makoto’s own admission that he remembered “what they saw” that day during the elementary school relay, Haruka finally shares his feelings, his breakdown and the crux of his transformation.
Haruka confronts his past self:
"I don’t need a reason to swim. I just need to feel the water. That’s what I’ve always believed."
He confronts his defeat:
"When I lost to him… everything went black. I’ll never swim with Rin again."
He acknowledges his breakdown:
"I didn’t care about anything at that point. Not the tournament or anything else."
He acknowledges the spark for transformation:
"And then I remembered… how it felt to swim in the same lane together. How it felt when everyone was waiting at the finish line."
And the transformation itself:
"It made me just as happy!"
"Nagisa. Rei. Makoto. I want to swim in the relay. I want to swim with you guys again!"
And with that, ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Apotheosis: "The Hero comes to view the world in a new and radically different way, because of a critical breakthrough he’s made."
Simply described, The Return, is the hero’s reentrance to the Familiar World with the tools he needs to fix it. In Haruka’s case, he must return to his Familiar World with the final piece to rebuild it totally.
He needs to retrieve Rin and bring him back into the fold.
The latter third of the series shifts the focus more to Rin’s descent to rock bottom, breaking him down bit by bit, until there’s nothing left to take from him. This part of the series is especially frightening for me because, honestly, without the redemption offered by Rei and the rest of the team, the next step for Rin certainly seemed like suicide. It’s terrifying.
Haruka, however, has built up the power necessary to rescue Rin from his demons. In episode 11, much like in episode 9, Haruka practices his newfound power— sharing his true feelings— on his closest friends. He openly comforts and reassures Rei of his place on the team. He thanks Makoto for always being there. He thanks Nagisa for continuously pushing him forward.
It’s almost like Haruka is preparing for a battle that he may not come back from. (Remember Harry in the Forbidden Forest, in Deathly Hallows? This feels the same to me.) He doesn’t know what will come of facing Rin again, it could very well end up just like the Prefectural Tournament. Could he survive that again? He has to tell Makoto, Nagisa, and Rei how he feels now. The challenge ahead may defeat him again, he may revert to his old self— the Haruka that cannot be open with those closest to him.
Heroes have to build their courage, it doesn’t just appear out of nowhere. Acknowledging the very real threat of failure is integral to actually being able to wield that courage.
In episode 12, we see what near defeat does to Haruka. It nearly sends him back to his depression. Hearing Rin declare that he’s going to quit swimming shakes his resolve. He’s really not going to be able to swim with Rin again, Rin’s taunt from at the end of the last race is really coming true.
Thank the anime gods for Rei. I agree with most of the fandom that Rei is the Hero of this episode; but I think of it as more like a Heroic Assist. By backing out of the relay, Rei provides Haruka with the power to try one final time to bring Rin back. (Think of it as Zelda giving Link the Ocarina of Time.)
Recovering Rin is Haruka’s Ultimate Boon - "the reward that the Hero has been chasing all this time."
He has to win the reward and return to his world with it.
Rejuvenated, the Iwatobi team sets off to find Rin, frantically searching for him around the tournament venue. Remembering the Cherry Blossom tree that resembles the one at the their old elementary school, Haruka heads there, hoping that Rin was called to it too. This tree, by the way, is incredibly symbolic. Since their childhood, it’s been there, threatening to blossom… but for some reason it’s just not ready. The tree is a reflection of Haruka.
Rin is broken. The confrontation between him and Haruka quickly becomes physical. Rin, I would say, isn’t fighting Haruka physically, but he’s fighting everything he’s projected onto Haruka since childhood. This is why he doesn’t want to hear what Haruka has to say, it goes against his resolve to forget his friends, to forge on without needing anyone at all.
I think the pacing of the dialogue through the physical fight is very important.
"It was you, Rin!"
"You taught me—"
"Who I’m swimming for!"
The tussle stops and Rin catches the words that Haru scribbled into the ground earlier. (Chekov’s Gun. The creators wouldn’t have shown us Haruka writing on the ground at the start of the episode if it wasn’t going to be important later on.)
"For the Team."
The answer. This is who Haruka is swimming for, for himself, for Rin, for Makoto, Nagisa, and Rei. It’s all for their sake, so they can all keep moving forward.
Rin finally gives up the fight, he resigns to defeat, he finally breaks under all the weight of everything he took on on his own. Rin wants to be free like the rest of the team. He wants to swim with them again, he missed them more than he ever imagined he would.
Heroes, in addition to their courage, often possess healing powers as well. Rei offers Rin his space in the relay, and then… Haruka, literally, blooms. He’s matured. He’s able to reach out to someone else, he’s completely broken through his old limitations. He saves Rin.
I don’t think I have to quote this part for you. In retrospect, here’s something to think about:
"Such a special feeling these petals give to the human heart. Where one story ends, another begins. Such is the way of the Sakura tree. A tale spoken with each bloom.” — Michael Garcia, The Impossible Man
For Haruka and Rin, as well as Nagisa, Makoto, and Rei, a new story begins. The past is over, the pain is healed, now they can move ahead together.
The last step on The Hero’s Journey, Freedom to Live, is described as "the Hero grants the boon to his people." In epic stories, often the Hero returns with whatever it is he’s won and grants it to his people, to fix the problem that set him off on his journey in the first place.
Makoto and Nagisa missed Rin too. Haruka brings him back to them as well. During the relay, both Makoto and Nagisa regain what they’ve been missing as a result of his absence. For Makoto, it’s the will to face his fears for the good of everyone, for Nagisa it’s basking in the revival of love between all his friends. They too, are healed by Rin’s return.
All in all, at the end, we have five people that can now stand together, their lives together renewed because of the courage of one person. Haruka is a hero, indeed.
For a slice-of-life sports anime, it was one hell of an epic quest.
UPDATE: 9/30/2013 - Time for me to be less eloquent. HOLY SHIT… it’s only been what, 3 days since I posted this?? And it has gone over 5000 notes. Thank you SO much to everyone that’s complimented me in their replies, tags, and in my inbox.
I have not altered anything (save for some spelling/grammatical mistakes) since posting. I’m not going to alter the arguments or anything because I just want it to stay in it’s original form— if you have any questions or need any clarification, please don’t hesitate to pop into my ask box.
In “The Return” section, when I mentioned Haruka’s “near defeat,” that’s not a reference to swimming! I know he doesn’t swim before the relay, sillies. :P The “near defeat” I’m talking about is focused on Rin, when Rin declares that he’s quitting swimming, the goal— bringing Rin back— seems to be out of reach.
Will you write about Rin? Maybe, if I get inspired like I did with this meta. I love him and I’d very much like to take a closer look at his story one day. But I’m a graduate student and well… I’m not getting a doctorate in Free!
Will you write about Makoto/Nagisa/Rei? See above. :P
How long did this take you to write? About 5 hours I’d say? It came along really fast. 90% from memory— I’ve watched every ep about 3-4 times, to be honest lol. I went back for exact quotes when needed.
You didn’t include [insert thing here] from [this episode]! OMG you wanted this to be longer??? Seriously I reached 3000-some words and I wanted to cry. (In disbelief) But in all honesty, yeah I know, there’s lots of other things to say. I decided on a clear structure so I stuck to it to prevent going off the rails. Maybe I’ll expand one day. Who knows?