Free! to be ugly: Rei Ryuugazaki.

rei ryuugazaki, free! OP, free!, Free! anime, Free! Iwatobi Swim Club, Free! episode 4

“A swimmer must flap his arms and legs underwater, while struggling to break the surface for a gasp of air. You can’t look good while doing that!”

-Rei Ryuugazaki, Free!, episode three

Rei, in your specific case, looking ugly is exactly the point.

The five main boys of Free! make for some interesting contrasts and comparisons in terms of how they each see the world, and subsequently, the different lenses that one may choose to view the world through. If one were to dive into Makoto Tachibana’s head, for example, one would imagine that he sees the world in terms of relationships. This hardly means that he figuratively pairs people off into romantic relationships, he simply sees the bonds between people, specifically his close friends, first and foremost. This study of people and how they act around one another, in addition to consistently considering others’ views and emotions while watching them interact, defines Makoto’s perspective and character within the series. If we were to dive into Makoto’s thoughts for a brief moment, we would probably hear him thinking in terms of relationships and emotions.

Rei Ryuugazaki sees the world not only in sums, but in a beauty that he assigns to people and activities based on calculations. It’s a slightly more neurotic and measured way of seeing things than Hagu Hanamoto of Honey and Clover, who stops randomly to study things, in preparation for regurgitating what she sees onto a canvas at a later point in time. I can personally relate to the latter, which is why Rei interests me more than any other character in Free!.

By measuring the world in how beautiful it is at any given time Rei additionally gives value to this beauty through his own mathematical calculations. He assigns worth to things through their precision and ability to fit into his figures. We have heard a bit what it’s like to be inside of Rei’s head – through his attempts to pole vault and swim – and it’s entirely in calculations to make himself look as beautiful as possible. This presents the perfect contrast to what Haruka Nanase’s inner thoughts often are, which can be summed up in their entirety as: “I want to swim.”

“Do what you want.”

“What do you mean?”

“Don’t think about swimming, just dive in.”

“I don’t understand what you mean.”

“Dive in with your heart.”

“That doesn’t help.”

“Go by your senses–”

“Can you stop using abstract expressions?”

-a conversation between Haruka Nanase and Rei Ryuugazaki, Free!, episode four.

It is difficult to describe to someone how to do something when the one receiving the information sees things only in sums and figures. This becomes near-impossible when the person trying to teach can only explain things in abstract terms as it runs contrary to how the would-be student interprets information. I run into this myself when attempting to describe why I find something in life particularly beautiful, and often resort to gesturing like an idiot while lamely trying to explain: “You know, how it moves through space like this…”

In spite of this disconnect, I’d argue that Haruka is the perfect person to explain things to Rei – Makoto, the one who sees things in terms of emotion and relationships agrees – due to their respective passions. Haruka isn’t seeking to be beautiful, he achieves it naturally through his love of swimming, which is something that Rei has the ability to understand. However, in order to fully realize this, Rei also must abandon his love of sums and search for a raw love of swimming.

Free!, Free! episode 3, Free! Iwatobi Swim Club, Haruka Nanase, Rei Ryuugazaki

“I’m not free either.”

-Haruka Nanase, Free!, episode four.

Both Haruka and Rei are bound by their respective passions, and in this can find common ground. I would like to believe the precise moment that Rei begins to understand Haruka is when Haruka speaks the words above. We as an audience know that Haruka is anything but free. His love of swimming has brought him an equal, if not larger, amount of pain than joy, primarily due to his prodigious ability. Just as Rei’s inability to swim is due to his passion for beauty through calculations Haruka, until recently, had repressed his own love of swimming due to how it caused a rift between him and his closest friend, Rin Matsuoka**. In realizing that even the beautiful Haruka is held back by his own particular emotions and foibles, Rei is able to finally let go of some of his own.

This brings us to the specific stroke that Rei magically learns overnight: the butterfly. It suits Rei, not only in its technical precision – it was developed as a faster competitive alternative to the breast stroke – but in the fact that it’s not the most beautiful of movements through water. Yes, it is a powerful stroke; however, at best, it looks like precise thrashing in water, lacking the grace and fluidity of the back stroke, breast stroke, or front crawl.

Simply put: Rei learned the ugliest possible stroke, and it suits him perfectly.

**As an aside, if we were to peer into Rin’s mind, we would probably hear him viewing the world in tangible achievements, like being an Olympian, which runs contradictory to Haruka, who throws his physical trophies into a cardboard box while specifically valuing the one that he won with Rin, Nagisa, and Makoto the most.


  1. What I find the most fascinating about Rei is how, in his most natural tendency to see the world in formulas and metrics, he managed to pick up the butterfly in the most matter-of-fact manner. He simply had not tried it yet, and when he got around to doing it, he found himself more capable than with the other strokes that he had been struggling to learn. While I can sort of see how the show tried to use this development to establish a lighter mood to contrast with the heavy postulation of freedom and expression of one’s passions, they certainly touched upon one of my own with this attempted reversal.

    For me, the most beautiful part about science is not so much the end result of seeing the world as a collective of theories and phenomena, but rather the process in which we arrive to establishing and understanding them. One does not simply see gravity; they first learn and discover it for themselves, then applying those principles to further their understanding of other related concepts like vectors and motion in general.

    What Rei had accomplished with the butterfly is the most fundamental principles of the scientific process. He happened upon the concept that he was good at the butterfly, and he will be using that information to modify his approach to swimming as the swimming competition draws ever closer. While the numbers and physics behind the sport is far from beautiful, Rei’s approach to developing his newfound stroke (and the others) is the most beautiful of all.

    1. While I’m in agreement with Day (who wrote that Rei picking up the butterfly was a bit unbelievable due to the difficulty of that stroke) I, like you, loved the way that he learned the butterfly, although I saw it in less technical terms than you.

      Simply put: Rei learned the butterfly when he learned to let go. Later, as you say, he will be able to apply his knowledge of physics and mathematics to furthering his knowledge of swimming; however, in order to actually learn how to swim, he had to understand that no one, not even Haruka, operates without restraints, and then learn to momentarily relax his own.

      I’m in complete agreement with you that the process is far more interesting than the result, and the process that Rei used was additionally what allowed him to let go.

      Thanks for the comment! ^ ^

  2. I wonder if he’ll have a moment of such realization- that what he’s good at is what he thought was ugly. But yes, his new approach is the beautiful here.

    Another blog pointed out butterflies don’t have to do with water much like Rei some time ago. Her friends also think that since Rei is good at launching and getting out of water, butterfly stroke is the most mechanical one that includes continuous launching and re-emerging from water.

    1. In my opinion, people are at their most beautiful when doing something they love. This is why Haruka is so beautiful when he swims, and Rei can only achieve this if he finds a similar love of swimming.

      Hnnn…that blog brings up a few interesting points, and I especially love how they point out that Rei is so different from the rest of the group because of the way he thinks.

      Thanks for the link, and the comment. ^ ^

  3. Love your character study posts! 🙂

    BTW, how would you describe how Nagisa sees the world, out of curiosity? He definitely makes things happen, from my observation.

    1. I think for Nagisa, it’s more about what he doesn’t see. He’s very optimistic and tends to ignore any/all obstacles in his way. Additionally, we’ve seen that he tends to cling to basic character traits in others, and group people together in his mind as such. (For example: picking Rei because he also has a girly name.) Because he tends to only see basic traits in others, he doesn’t pick up on subtext or mood easily (like when Makoto had to stop him from butting in on Rei and Haruka’s conversation). Of all the boys, Nagisa is the most free in terms of personality, simply because he ignores or does not see social constraints.

      Thanks! I love writing character studies. Thank you for the comment. ^ ^

  4. I must say I disagree that butterfly is only capable of looking like thrashing in the water; a truly strong swimmer makes it beautiful, the fluidity of it amazing given the amount of effort it requires.

    1. I’ve always intensely admired anyone who can do the butterfly well (I can’t) because of how difficult and physically demanding it is. There are very few swimmers I have seen who I’d say look “beautiful” while doing it. Sorry, I should have said this instead. The majority of the time I’ve seen it, it does look like thrashing (and now that I’m caught up, I love how Rin calls Rei out on this while watching their relay) but you’re right. Thanks for commenting! ^ ^ I’ll have to catch up on your Free! posts now that I’m caught up on the show (finally!).

  5. This is was amazingly written. Looking forward to more posts like these! ( or maybe I just have to search the archive– oh well)

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