“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.