I lament over the things I never could give up on,
But every time, I can’t face them down.
If I laugh and go out to meet the end,
Maybe I won’t make mistakes anymore.
– Dried Up Youthful Fame, OLDCODEX
Earlier this year, I spent most of my time in university devoting my studies to a Biochemistry class, sticking my head in a heavy textbook and solving problems on the whiteboard. It was like any other science class I was excited to learn about, but slightly different at the same time. The reason for this is because the professor was someone I knew very well, having taught my Genetics Lab class from last semester, and also because I had established a very strong set of friends (also from Genetics Lab) with whom I could finally study with and hang out with for the first time in college.
The first time, and also the last time. I was a senior, and many of the people I had met during that brief semester were seniors like me, and were planning to move onto the next stage of life. And unlike me, who was planning to spend an extra year at college, my friends were also much more smart and talented. Most of them had already applied for their respective graduate and medical schools, and some of them had already gotten in. We all worked our best and had fun, eating out at restaurants and pulling all nighters to do the best we could in the class. But no matter how hard I tried to understand the material, I usually ended up with the lower grade. I loved my Biochemistry class perhaps more than any other student in our group, and yet I was the one that suffered academically the most. How was it fair my other friends could fare better and be praised for their efforts, when they didn’t have the same passion that I did for the subject? The bitter thoughts did not drive a stake in my relationships, but they left me wondering what the consequences were of living in a field where competition inevitably rules over friendship and passion.
Free! Eternal Summer asks the same question. In season two, Haru, Makoto, and Rin are all last-year students, about to leave the rose-colored life of swimming behind to pursue their larger dreams. Rin has already planned, like Sousuke, to be scouted by colleges for a swimming team, as he dreams of joining the international level someday to become a pro swimmer. Haru in contrast, pursues swimming as a hobby, and wishes to continue his life as it is, free of competition and obligations. Makoto is caught in a fierce struggle between the two, as he neither desires to swim competitively, but leave behind his bonds with friends. We see that the way Makoto started swimming was through his friendship with Haru – a desire that still continues into the present day. However, in episode 6, he asks Haru to seriously race him for the last time as a way of respecting the friendship they share and the passion they both have for swimming.
Makoto loses, and it is hinted that it may have been on purpose (not being able to pace yourself in a 200m event is a very easy beginner’s mistake and Makoto is anything but that). In his defeat, he realizes that he will never be able to connect to Haru on the same intimate level that Rin can – a self loathing attitude that ends in his loss. It is also clear however, that despite knowing he would lose, Makoto wanted to race for the sake of friendship anyways. The result is a melancholic ending where Makoto is stuck in a void of loneliness, loss, and friendship, all interconnecting in a place where competition is prioritized – a place where Makoto will never be able to realize his dream of swimming with Haru on equal terms due to a lack of natural talent.
Episode 3 and 5 approach the same theme. In episode 5, Nagisa, out of a fear that his parents will permanently ban him from being a member of the Swim Club due to poor grades, runs away from home. When confronted by his teammates, Nagisa finally confesses that he found no passion in academic competition, and that his love for swimming isn’t bound by races, but by friendship. His parents however, see the former as more important than the latter, and Nagisa would much prefer a life driven by passion than by numbers and rules. Finding a middle ground is tougher than he thinks; it is only when he convinces his parents that he will do well in both areas is he allowed to return to the Swimming Club. It’s a sore reminder about how friendship alone is not sustainable as a reason to pursue a hobby – there must be some profitable output from it.
Rei in episode 3 also suffers from an anxiety where he feels like he will be left behind, as he lacks the experiences that the rest of the club has. In a desire to keep up with his teammates, Rei decides to spread his wings and approach other forms of swimming – freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke – only to fail. Hard work and training help, but not at a regional level, and Rei realizes that he may just be good at one thing in swimming alone – the butterfly. It’s yet another notice that not all of us have the talent to freely pursue our passions and friendships without some consequence that could leave us in the dust.
From this perspective, Free! Eternal Summer seems to be a message about how competition will always outrun friendship and passion in the future. And for nearly 6 episodes, that message is shared through different stories. Nagisa isn’t good enough to survive on swimming alone; Rei does not have the talent to pursue other types of strokes, and Makoto will never be able to swim side by side with his best friend. Friendship cannot save the lack of natural talent here. But at the end of episode 7, we see something different. Haru, a character who is blessed with natural talent (but chooses not to swim competitively out of his intense love for swimming as a hobby) is scouted by several colleges at the end of the regional tryouts. Whereas Rin sees these as opportunities, Haru sees them as a curse as his talent ends up hurting the people he cares about the most. But it is here in a small dialogue that Rei shares with Haru that we see what Free! is actually suggesting.
I guess it’s true that no matter what anyone says, your style of swimming is truly beautiful, Haru. It has nothing to do with theory or calculations. It is just something that makes me feel very powerful. It made me want to be able to swim that way too…freely. That’s why I think it’s fine for you to always remain free. Being free can mean many different things, but I think its truest meaning is having a free heart that can’t be bound by anything. So not matter what choice you make, as long as you remain who you are, you will forever be free!
– Rei Ryugazaki, Episode 7
Even if reality will throw one above the other, the teammates of Free! pursue their dreams with passion because passion – whether it be through friendship or competition – is what matters most to them. Rei may never be able to participate in the other regional sections, but he decides to try different kinds of swimming because he doesn’t want to give up. Nagisa chooses to do his best in both studies and swimming because he wants to stay with his friends and share his passion with the people that matter most to him. Makoto knows that he will never be as good as Rin or Haru, but his friendship doesn’t need to be an imitation of another; his relationship with Haru is unique as it is.
As for me? I love taking classes because I love to learn from and share my love with passionate people, and because I love passion itself. Perhaps it’s sad that this kind of passion is doomed to be dominated by overlying feelings of competition – someone will be chosen, and someone will not, in the end – but I think what Free! tries to say is that competition doesn’t have to negate these kinds of emotions. The friendships I had with my classmates and teacher were real, as real as the grades I made. Perhaps I won’t be as smart or talented as them, but I do sincerely believe that in a life where competition dominates and victors and losers rule the chessboard, the only thing we can do is pursue our desires freely and bring out the best in ourselves, whether it be through defeat, friendship, victory, or solitude (the four are not codependent). It is important to cherish the memories you make with people and improve yourself at the same time.
Makoto, Rei, and Nagisa understand this, and that is why they continue to be a part of the Swim Club despite not having the kind of natural inborn talent that Haru and Rin share. They are the people who are going to be left behind, but they will grow because of it. It’s a lonely thought, but to make the most of it is what counts – and that is exactly what they choose to do.