On Love and Prodigy: Free! Episode 1

free!, free, Free! episode one, free tv, swimming anime

“There’s an old saying my late grandma taught me. At ten, you’re called a prodigy, at fifteen a genius. One you hit twenty, you’re just an ordinary person.”

– Haruka Nanase, Free! episode one.

I dove into Free! expecting a standard sports narrative, or perhaps, K-ON! with pretty boys in swimsuits. What I received was something that personally hit a bit too close for comfort.

Most sports narratives – additionally, romantic narratives – in anime end in high school with whatever accomplishment that the protagonists set out to achieve; winning Koshien, beating a long-standing rival, and the like. It makes a logical place for a story to end, and it’s highly unlikely that Free! will do anything differently. However, Free! is framed by Haruka’s words above, and the lingering shot on a cardboard box of dusty accolades next to his grandmother’s shrine. He only has three years before he becomes completely ordinary in his grandmother’s eyes, in his own eyes, and the collective eyes of society.

My mother has a drawer in her house, the house I grew up in. It’s full of the various academic and artistic achievements I managed to garner when I was younger. The last time I visited my parents, I rummaged through this drawer in search of a novel that I wrote and illustrated when I was in the third grade. Thinking back on it, it’s painfully obvious from the plaques and ribbons I tossed aside in this search that my own achievements came with far less frequency the more I aged.

Much like Garden of Words, Free! prodded me to again think along the same lines as Yukari Yukino: “Is it too late for me?” When I was younger, I was called prodigious. As I grew older, I was called intelligent. Now I’m completely ordinary.

“‘I heard Ms. Ama is from this area. She went to college in Tokyo and found a job there, but she came back after her dream fell through.’

‘What was her dream?’

‘Beats me. Maybe music?’

‘We’re supposed to be learning from a woman who became a teacher as plan B?'”

-A conversation between Makoto Tachibana and Haruka Nanase on their homeroom teacher, Miho Amakata, Free! episode one.

One will rarely be able pursue the same dreams they had in high school, never mind elementary school, when everyone was telling you that you were prodigious. For Haruka, the constant pressure of living up to the idea of being a prodigy, whether he is one or not, has seemingly caused him to give up on swimming competitively altogether. Nonetheless, he obviously loves swimming. He cannot live without being able to swim, in spite of the fact that he has relinquished the most obvious outlet to display his talents. Additionally, he looks down on others who have attempted to achieve their personal dreams and failed, like his homeroom teacher, Miho Amakata. In his scorn of her lies his own disgust with himself.

Like Miho Amakata, I aim to become a teacher. Also like Miho Amakata, it is not my first choice. It’s actually my third choice, with painting solidly as my first, and journalism as a failed second. One day, I will be in a classroom staring down an eight year-old Haruka Nanase clone, who will be glaring up at me through his bangs, wondering who I think I am, and what qualifies me to teach him anything. In that moment, I’ll be terrified, but I’ll also have to have faith that he doesn’t know the entire story, that even if I was and still am a failure to most, I’ll have added enough of my own meaning to my life that I’ll be able to quash my fear and teach him something.

When I was at home, rifling through my own scattered collection of achievements, what I was looking for was not my academic record, nor my award-winning oil paintings, it was a silly murder mystery with a colored-pencil dagger drawn on the cover and fake accolades from the New York Times and the Library Journal that I had hand-written on the back.  Haruka has a box of trophies, plaques, and ribbons thrown haphazardly into a box next to his grandmother’s shrine. He has discarded them there because they are closer to her heart than his and he aims to please her. However, whether he realizes it yet or not, the trophy that he buried carefully with his three friends means more to him than that entire box.

18 comments

  1. I really loved this review you wrote on Free! A lot of people are always talking about the fanservice side but wow, you hit home on all the important plot parts. Look at this. Miho Amakata and Nanase’s words regarding her, his prizes and trophies, all these things you’ve garnered together and interpreted.
    It’s amazing.
    Thank you so much for sharing this and what they truly mean.

    1. Thanks! ^ ^

      I love sports series in general, as they tend to cover particularly resonant emotional narratives. Honestly, as I said, I went into Free! expecting that it would be fanservice-y fun with a decent start to an overarching sports plot. For the most part, it is that; however, I couldn’t overlook how the series lingered on those trophies next to the shrine as Haruka quoted his grandmother and my gosh, what Haruka thought of his homeroom teacher was a dagger to my heart and self-esteem. I hope that these thoughts continue to frame Haruka’s personal development. I may not particularly be rooting for Haruka, in fact I’m fairly envious of him, but I’m definitely interested to see what the series has in store for him, and the rest of the cast for that matter.

      Thank you so much for the comment, it means a lot.

  2. Ah, to reconcile one’s love for their passion with the emotional drain of putting that passion on display. Hits too close to home for reasons that we’ve discussed in private.

    I don’t have much else to say on the matter, but I will continue to watch this show as an attempt to sort these things out. Hopefully, I will continue to watch this show with you, as you’ve definitely helped me in that regard as well. I doubt that my own emotional narrative will be resolved as neatly (or even favorably) as Haruka’s, but I assure you that it was your post that had a hand in this decision. For that, I cannot thank you enough. Your writing may be ordinary to most, but to me, you’re the best.

    1. It’s funny, because you know the rest of the “Emily drawer story” being on the other end of the line at that time. When I finally was able to get around to finding that book, the best part about it was sharing it with you. I could have showed you, say, an art award that I received from a Boston Globe competition; however, I instead shared that book. I have no doubt that, if you were able to, you would share with me your equivalent of “Tyler and the Treasure Island.”

      Your own overall emotional narrative is constantly evolving, and will never be resolved as neatly as any work of fiction, so long as you are alive. Nonetheless, I’m certainly curious to see how it progresses. Thanks for allowing me to be present for it. ^ ^

  3. As Splashofsky has already said, you’ve written about the parts of Free! that appeal to me the most (well, other than the very cute and sculpted boys of course). Your writing is incredible as always – thank you for sharing these moments with us, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the show as it progresses!

    1. These are definitely the things I’ll be paying attention to the most. I’m especially interested to see if the series decides to give Haruka’s relationship with his grandmother any thought (beyond a passing backdrop). It would seem as if she had a hand in forming his own opinion of his swimming, so I’d love for the series to focus on this a bit.

      Thanks for the compliment. I’m trying to progress my writing, and feel a bit better about it but, like most people I’m not where I want to be, but am still constantly improving, so look forward to it! ^ ^ I too, look forward to talking about this show with you.

  4. Wow– I really enjoyed reading your post. Your post went beyond the majority “fangirl squee” and focused on the plot.
    Even though you’ve labeled yourself as a “failure for journalism,” I say you’re a talented writer!😉 Thank you for this post!

    1. Thank you! I enjoyed writing it, even if it was difficult due to the personal nature of this post.

      I did fail at journalism, and failed hard. Most of this failure came from a lack of effort rather than a lack of skill; however, the two are closely related. Since I didn’t bother to put in the effort, I didn’t acquire the skill. As a result, I’ll never know how good or bad I would have been, I quit before I could find out.

      I’m at a great place now, and trying to improve my writing by simply writing more. ^ ^ Thank you so much for the compliment, and hopefully, if you’re interested, you’ll stop by again.

      Thank you for commenting.

  5. I have yet to see the episode and this article made me look forward to it. I enjoyed reading your article. I can relate.

    You can write. You write well. I know when a writer is one.

    The article has a heart.

    1. I’ve been thinking for over a day on an adequate way to respond to this comment that will reflect not only your genuineness behind it, but the amount of happiness and gratitude I felt while reading it.

      Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to come up with an eloquent way to express my feelings, so all I’ll say is, thank you. Thank you so much. This comment meant a great deal to me.

  6. Do you remember what I was saying about you influencing people?😉

    I didn’t pay much attention before your post except of that teacher-related Haruka statement. Kids are harsh no matter what. Be prepared😛 Becoming a teacher was my first choice but that doesn’t mean anything. Some students questioned why I became teacher with my high marks instead of becoming lawyer or doctor and now I have to bear them. I swear that’s what they said.

    Really great post. I’ll keep my eyes open to this topic from now on. I got a bit overexcited at the fanservice, I admit *blush*

    1. I’m still unsure as to whether I influence people, but I’m incredibly grateful for the responses that I’ve received on this post in particular. It means a lot to me.

      My mother is a high school teacher (I am attending university to be an elementary school teacher) and she certainly has some horror stories to share, as does anyone I’ve ever spoken to who chose teaching as a profession. On the flip side, she also has several truly uplifting stories about how she’s been able to help kids find their ground, or really get through to them in a meaningful way, far beyond teaching them algebra or geometry. I hope that one day I will have my own stories to share. ^ ^

      As an aside, oh my gosh the fanservice was excellent. ^ ~ Thanks for the comment!

  7. I just got reminded, i’ve been playing badminton for eight years with the best team in my country. In primary school, I was a talented player who could beat seniors. For personal reasons, i’ve deteriorated significantly and in secondary school I became a mere reserve. It sucks to look back and see the huge amount of trophies and medals i’ve gotten, when I know I didn’t really deserve it. Yes– I did train my hardest and cheer my hardest for my teammates, but I can’t deny feeling rather nonchalant about whether we win or lose, because essentially, it wasn’t my game.

    I used to love the sport. I still do. But i’m quitting it next year when I move up to Junior College because however selfish this may sound, I don’t want to be in a team where i’m not playing right there on the court. Just a month back, I missed my greatest opportunity to make it to the individual semifinals where I was planning to retire with a medal, but guess i’ll just retire as the loser who never accomplished much alone. Really, when I look back at those medals i’m both thankful and sad. Badminton has been a huge part of my life.

    Great post! Indeed, if your skills don’t match up with your growth, you’ll be left behind. There’s only two ways: to persist and try harder like Haruka, or to leave everything behind and move on.

    1. Hello again!

      Thanks for sharing. I know from your blog that you’ve been undergoing a lot of interesting emotional things in your own life, and I wish you nothing but the best. I absolutely love the energy with which you throw yourself into things, so regardless of what passion you decide to move on to, best of luck. ^ ^

      Thanks again for the comment.

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