You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘anime’ category.
As an anime and manga blog largely focused largely on commercial output, it is rare that I will report on and review an Art Show in all of its capitalized glory. However, I feel it important to discuss the “Empty God Core” show at the B²OA Gallery, featuring the works of Japanese artist Umezawa Kazuki.
I am well aware of the fact that anime and manga have been subjects of exploration, self-discovery, and exploitation since at least Murakami Takashi and his “superflat” movement. Often times challenging and presenting the exoticism of Japan’s visual culture, artists like Murakami tend to feel as if they come not from the otaku subculture itself, but are reacting to it as it has grown over times. While I would not go so far as to say that this is some unforgivable flaw in his work, that he may not be a “true” otaku, it does make me notice when a piece of art conveys the perspective of someone who has embraced the lights and sounds of anime and manga as almost existential hazes.
That is the impression I received from Umezawa’s work, though even before I saw the actual show itself I had an opportunity to meet him for the first time thanks to our mutual friend, Ko Ransom. If there is anything that stood out to me most about him at first glance, it would have been his A Certain Scientific Railgun pins adorning his clothing. The one most prominent could be seen on his chest, a chibi version of Nunotaba Shinobu, my favorite character in the Index universe. A teenage scientist with a propensity for interlacing her speech with English, Nunotaba comes nowhere near the default choices for popular characters in her series, so I knew that Umezawa was serious business.
That being said, while I was aware that Umezawa was an otaku before I saw “Empty God Core,” I would have jumped to that conclusion almost immediately if I had come in without knowing a thing. Umezawa’s works consist largely of collages of anime characters, scrambled to the point of almost losing all recognizable qualities, and then rearranged to create futuristic, apocalyptic landscapes and large, god-like figures. I say “almost,” because the first thing I spotted in one of his digital paintings was the characteristic blonde poof of Cure Peace from Smile Precure! Soon after, I spotted bits of other characters as well, but it made me realize how distinct Precure hair is designed to be, so that, even divorced from the very bodies on which they sit, one can see that, yes that over there is a piece of Cure Blossom, and down by the side is Cure Beauty. The iconic nature of anime and manga characters jumps to the forefront, and their fragments are used to construct worlds.
There is a general idea when it comes to anime fandom that a lot of its qualities arose from the perception of 1980s Japan as a kind science fictional space. Like Blade Runner, which envisioned a future city amalgamated from Tokyo and various Chinatowns, the common discourse positions otaku as products of their time, and their subculture a result of changes to the world, the economy, and the degree to which societal values crumble or ossify in response. In this environment, otaku have historically been viewed in a negative light, people who cannot confront reality, loners who can only consume their media in ways which reinforce their divorce from society, while anime and manga become increasingly shallow and lacking in any real substance. What Umezawa’s work does is flip that script on its head, and show how this otaku subculture and its inhabitants can utilize the “vapid” qualities of anime and manga and its devotion to signs and icons of cuteness, beauty, and sexuality as building blocks, as atoms to form universes. Rather than a dystopian cityscape creating the otaku, the otaku creates the dystopian cityscape. He turns lemonade into lemons.
This post is regrettably a little late, but if you’re in or around New York City, the show is running until November 15th. The B²OA Gallery is at 515 west 26th street in Manhattan, and is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10am-6pm.
Any adaptation of a folktale must inevitably face two challenges. First, in conveying a story that “everybody” has heard of, how much should the audience be expected to know, and how much should it act as an unfamiliar experience? Second, to what extent should the narrative and cultural qualities be adapted to more contemporary sensibilities? In the process of transforming the classic Japanese story “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” into Studio Ghibli’s Tale of the Princess Kaguya, director Takahata Isao (Grave of the Fireflies, Anne of Green Gables) has found it appropriate to use this 1000-year-old story to question the relationship between happiness and security, and in the process has created a film that is extremely accessible to audiences around the world.
In both the original story and the film, an old bamboo cutter finds a small girl inside of a bamboo stalk and, along with his wife, raise this girl as their own. As the girl grows into a woman of incredible beauty, the man regularly returns to the bamboo forest in which he does his daily business. There, he frequently finds bamboo filled with gold, and using this newly-acquired prosperity, moves his family to the capital. However, the film first concentrates heavily on the early period of Princess Kaguya’s humble life in the forest, during which she is shown to be a tomboy who loves running in the fields and forests, and then focuses on her struggle with the splendor, pomp, and adherence to customs that are valued by the wealthy nobility. As a result, the film conveys both the experience of watching a child grow up through the eyes of loving parents, but also life from the perspective of Kaguya herself.
Kaguya’s active personality and disdain for the formal are, at least to my knowledge, original aspects of the film, and through her character shapes the classic story into a criticism of the assumption that life is at its best when one is free of monetary worries, and that upward social mobility is worth any amount of sacrifice. Of course, this is not a new theme in fiction, nor even in anime. After all, even Kill la Kill addresses this theme at one point with the “Fight Club Mako” episode and its similar transformation of a poor family into the upper class. What Tale of the Princess Kaguya does to really magnify this point, though, is to present many of the values from the time in which the original folktale was written, and to have it juxtaposed with Kaguya’s own free-spirited personality draws attention to how much life in the capital wears on her, and indeed how much women had to do to be “proper women.” Apparently, a true lady never runs, and most of the time should not even get up while sitting, nor does she laugh or shout. A true lady does not need eyebrows because she will never sweat. Everything is about staying put, but Kaguya inherently loathes this way of thinking, try as she might to adapt to it for the sake of her parents. In this respect, the film at certain key moments carries a strong feminist vibe.
In a way, Tale of the Princess Kaguya comes across as something of a mix of Disney’s Frozen (adapted from “The Snow Queen”) and Pixar’s Brave. It gives a new sensibility to an old fairy tale, but it also concentrates heavily on a daughter and her unwillingness to bend to the rules that her society tries to force upon her. The similariities to Brave are especially highlighted at the point in the story when Kaguya is presented with five noble suitors who, only hearing of her beauty rather than seeing it (as was the custom of the time), rush to take her hand in marriage. This is also present in the original story as just a matter of course, but here the film uses it to display the cheap and shallow notions of love that pervade the capital, its people, and old notions of femininity. One difference is that, unlike Merida in Brave, Kaguya does have a love interest of sorts (also an original character to the film).
While the thematic elements are important, it would be remiss of me to not mention the visuals style of the film. Unlike most other works from Studio Ghibli which, while always splendidly animated, tend to go for a cleaner look, Tale of the Princess Kaguya looks as if it were a picture book or an old Japanese painting come to life. The style seen in the promotional posters for the film is how the movie looks, and it creates a strong ethereal quality that falls in line with the overall themes of “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.” Even most of the characters look quite unconventional in terms of more attention being paid to differentiating them on a design level, with the only character who truly looks like a Ghibli-style heroine being Kaguya herself. It was clearly an enormous task for the animators, and even looking at the credits one can see that many of the top Japanese animation studios contributed, including Studio 4°C and BONES. Tale of the Princess Kaguya may be worth seeing just to experience its aesthetics.
Most people know Takahata for Grave of the Fireflies, and in that sense it sort of feels as if he and his old Ghibli partner Miyazaki Hayao have swapped places in what might be each of their final films. Miyazaki creates the overtly political and morally challenging The Wind Rises, while Takahata tackles a classic Japanese story about a beautiful girl. However, certain qualities of the film remind me of one of Takahata’s directorial works from his pre-Ghibli days, namely Hols: Prince of the Sun. Kaguya and her struggle recall the conflicted heroine Hilda in Hols, which perhaps makes it less of a new path and more of a return to, and evolution of, established aspects of Takahata’s history, something rather appropriate for an adaptation of an old folktale.
In my previous review of the card game anime Battle Spirits: Shounen Toppa Bashin, I stated that the series is the best show of the collect-em-all TCG competition genre that I’ve ever seen. Having finished the series, I stand by that opinion more than ever. Though the climax and resolution of the series is a bit too abrupt, the overall sense of consideration for what it’s trying to convey and the continued growth and progress of its characters on both emotional and “competitive” levels was remarkably deep and a joy to watch.
In the transition to the latter half of the 50-episode Shounen Toppa Bashin, the series moves its characters from elementary school to middle school. This brings with it a whole host of changes, such as the shift to school uniforms. However, what is fundamentally different about the anime from this point forward is that the characters are beginning to be viewed as young adults, even if their designs don’t change that much.
The best example of this would have to be Episode 32. In a seemingly generic boys’ show about playing other people in card games, Shounen Toppa Bashin devotes 25 minutes to exploring the mother of the main character and her feelings of loneliness as she watches her son hit that age where boys begin to emotionally move away from their parents while also dealing with the fact that her husband is never home (he’s out adventuring). As the protagonist Bashin Toppa nonchalantly ignores his mother Hayami (a case of being oblivious in general but also taking her for granted), her sudden disappearance makes him realize that all of the little moments in which she was “bothering” him were actually cries for help and attention. Upon remembering that it’s his responsibility to look after her in his father’s absence, Toppa ends the episode by declaring that card games aren’t as important as their relationship as family.
Toppa’s mother Hayami worried about losing her little boy
The obvious joke with TCG shows (thanks in part to Yu-Gi-Oh: The Abridged Series) is that whenever there’s a deep emotional connection, it’s usually in the sense of friendship, that one’s companions give the moral support one needs to overcome any adversary. Though that also exists in Shounen Toppa Bashin to a strong extent (and is better developed compared to other series as well), the situation between Toppa and Hayami is actually a moment where the show says that its own card game is meaningless if it means neglecting those close to you who are in need. The complex emotions of a mother watching her son grow up take center stage in a genre that is more often known for actively ignoring parents entirely.
However, Shounen Toppa Bashin not only expresses this sense of change outside of the card game its purported to sell but within it as well. From the beginning of the series, each character is associated with a certain color-themed deck. For example, Toppa runs a “red” deck, which is primarily devoted to outright aggression, while his main rival Sawaragi J utilizes a “white” deck, which emphasizes healing, defense, and regeneration. Conveniently, both characters are color-coded in their designs as well. Early on in the second half of the anime, Toppa finds that while he’s continuously improved as a player, his red deck has reached its limits. When another character suggests that he incorporate other colors, Toppa’s initial response is that the red attribute is a part of his identity, implying that he thinks using other colors means abandoning his very way of being. Eventually, he realizes the benefits of mixing it up and being able to grow beyond the one-dimensionality of his old methods while still maintaining it as a mostly red-oriented deck. It’s at once both an easy example for kids to learn how to improve their strategy in this game and a way of showing Toppa’s increasing maturity.
The color-coded cast
Similarly, when J goes from friendly rival to antagonistic force in the series, he abandons the white deck that had previously characterized him in order to go for something more varied and ruthlessly efficient. At the finals of a tournament, Toppa confronts J, and at the climax of a fierce, back-and-forth match between the two, Toppa plays a card that can win, provided the opponent has no white cards with which to defend. This is seen as suicide by all of the characters given J’s propensity for that color, but then the show reveals that J’s hand is devoid of any white cards. In other words, in his desire to find the “best” way to win, J forgot who he was. Combined with the lesson Toppa learns earlier in the series about varying his own deck, the result is a greater message of being open to change but not to the extent that you forget who you are and what values are important to you. And all of this is through the card game itself!
The last example of personal and emotional progression I’d like to talk about has to do with something I mentioned in the previous review, which is the development of a character from sideline cheerleader to direct participant. This is the path taken by the character nicknamed “Meganeko” due to her over-sized glasses. While you have examples of both in TCG anime, such as Anzu/Tea in Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters and Asuka/Alexis in Yu-Gi-Oh! GX, rarely does one turn into the other, and as in strong a fashion as Meganeko.
At the beginning of the series, Meganeko is essentially Toppa’s close childhood friend, unwavering supporter, and tacit love interest. Around the half-way point of the series on their last day of elementary school, Toppa and Meganeko have a fight because Toppa just wants to go play more “Battle Spirits,” whereas interprets his behavior to mean that all of their cherished memories of elementary school and their friendship mean nothing to him. Rather than merely waiting for Toppa to realize his mistake, however, Meganeko decides to learn how to play “Battle Spirits” in secret in order to understand him better and to basically meet him half-way, thus showing her active desire to better herself.
Meganeko, from supporter to equal
The typical series would have Meganeko learn the basic rules of the game and place value on simply the fact that she tried at all while at the same time placing her on a skill tier below the “important” characters. Shounen Toppa Bashin, instead, actually defies this trend by transforming Meganeko into a formidable competitor as well. Through her training, Meganeko becomes about as proficient in “Battle Spirits” as Toppa in a lesser amount of time. Not only does she find her own identity within the card game (a yellow “spell and support” deck), but she also ends up overcoming an opponent who had previously bested J, and even meets Toppa himself in the semi-finals of a tournament. Though Meganeko loses in the end, the show presents their battle and Toppa’s reactions in such a way that it’s clear that she has firmly established herself as Toppa’s peer in the very field he so cherishes through her hard work. By the end of the series, neither wins nor losses are guaranteed for Meganeko (or any of the other characters for that matter), which further highlights her position as being equal to that of Toppa, J, and the rest of the core cast.
Overall, Battle Spirits: Shounen Toppa Bashin is able to provide characterization and emotional development at various levels, both in direct relation to the card game after which the series is named and with respect to the realistic concerns that might face children as they grow up. The former can be seen in how Toppa and J are symbolized and represented through their personal decks and strategies, while the latter is most evident in the amount of care and attention the series gives to the relationship between Toppa and his mother. Furthermore, the character Meganeko presents a mix of these two aspects while also showing how a “cheerleader” female character can transform into a direct participant in an anime, thus providing a potential template for other characters as well. The cumulative effect of these and many other aspects of Shounen Toppa Bashin result in a series that is worth emulating.
Aliases: Daigouin Pyonko (大豪院ピョン子)
Relationship Status: N/A
Origin: Hanaukyou Maid Tai
“Daigouin Pyonko” is a doujinshi artist who wears bunny ears and ends all of her sentences with “-pyon.” She is a friend of the Hanaukyou household’s maid Suzuki Ikuyo, though their relationship is somewhat antagonistic. She created the doujin Kappa Buta, a yaoi doujin about a kappa and a pig (likely a reference to Journey to the West or one of its adaptations).
Other than the unusual animal content of her doujinshi, nothing else is known.
New York Comic Con 2014 was my first in five years. I wasn’t around for the dissolution and complete integration of New York Anime Festival. I did not see the claustrophobia-inducing crowds created by people sneaking in that nearly drove some of my friends to never, ever go back. I was not around as the aging Jacob Javits Center itself expanded as best as it could to account for not only this convention but others as well. My experience with NYCC 2014 is almost that of a time traveler, as what I have to mainly compare it to is an old existence, before this convention was being labeled as the San Diego Comic-Con of the east coast.
As much as a convention should be about being a magical and informative experience where fans connect to the media they love as well as to their peers, the first thing worth mentioning about NYCC 2014 is its use of RFID badges. I was informed of their inaugural usage last year, but seeing them in action made me fully aware of the boon they provide to both the convention goers themselves and the staff running the entire thing. Essentially, attendees must use a card to check in and check out of the convention area, which not only cuts down on the number of people who shouldn’t be there but means that there are plenty of opportunities to actually relax and take in the con experience. Just having a space that is outside the convention building itself but still part of NYCC was so beneficial, as it allowed attendees to catch some fresh air if they needed it. Though I didn’t know anyone personally who had difficulty handling large crowds (and the NYCC attendance population is around a staggering 100,000), I suspect having not only the front entrance but other outside spots may have been a life saver for some.
Of course, all of this is not to say that New York Comic Con 2014 was neither magical nor informative, as I found it struck a fine balance as a convention of industries, artists, and fans in terms of activities and opportunities. New York Comic Con is a for-profit venture, designed to make money and to benefit all of those who take part in it on the industry. For one thing this means greater industry presence in both the panels and the showroom floor, and fewer fan panels where enthusiasts can analyze and discuss particular interesting angles of the things they love. However, as much as I’m used to industry panels being fairly by the numbers affairs about shilling products (not that there’s anything wrong with it), at NYCC these panels, although different from fan-run events, still carried with them a lot more meta-discussion of the industry and what it means to be “in” comics. You have to expect the sales pitch to some degree, but it was rarely much of an issue.
For example, I attended a couple of panels about women in comics (be they characters or creators or fans or anything else), and it involved industry professionals of all sorts who didn’t necessarily all agree with each other discussing an important topic in a way that encouraged further conversation instead of necessarily having as their primary agenda the sales of their own products. In the “Women of Color in Comics” panel, for instance, you had both industry veterans and independent creators. One veteran emphasized the idea that if you want to change how the big companies see women, you have to know how to communicate in their language, bring portfolios that old white men would understand, while some of the freelance artists stressed the importance of being able to work for yourself to create the characters you want.
The women in comics panels were illuminating and informative overall, though I do have one criticism for a prevailing sentiment I saw: when asked about how to deal with men who aren’t even aware that there is sexism and discrimination in the industry and its fandom, the answer I saw most often was “who needs those guys, forget them.” I understand that dealing with ignorance getting asked “what sexism?” for the 1000th time is a trying, perhaps soul-draining experience, but I do think that it’s still a group of people who need to be addressed and who might honestly just not know.
It’s actually quite impressive how supportive of female fans and creators New York Comic Con was. In addition to the panels, there were large “Cosplay is Not Consent” signs that were noticeable but not terribly intrusive which aimed to prevent sexual harassment of cosplayers by appealing to the human brain’s ability to think ahead. I hear it was largely effective, though without context I do wonder if some people thought that the signs were saying that cosplaying was not okay.
Maybe this has to do with the number of artists, writers, and creators as guests instead of marketing folks, but in a lot of the panels I attended I felt that the audience was let in on their creative processes at least to some extent. Obviously they’re not taking advice from attendees, but it seemed like the answers reflected the personalities and styles of those who gave them. Notably, when manga artist Obata Takeshi (Death Note, Hikaru no Go) spoke, it was clear that he was not a people person, and was unaccustomed to the spotlight. When he explained how he worked, his answers were muddled like so many other artists I’ve met. In contrast, at one of the Image panels, Matt Fraction could talk up a storm and really present the job of comics writer as something not so much glamorous but intense and personal. While obviously I can’t agree with their sentiments, seeing the panelists at the European Comics Artists panel thinly veil their displeasure towards manga was also similarly revealing.
Before going to the con, I received some useful advice for attending panels: always line up an hour beforehand. It doesn’t matter how small a crowd you think a panel is going to get, because more likely than not you’ll be on the wrong end if you don’t play it safe. Bizarrely, the lines felt rather relaxing. They were times to rest one’s feet, to chit-chat with friends and sometimes strangers, and in my case to play against other people in Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS. I matched my Mega Man against others and had an exciting time. More importantly, though, the fact that the lines were able to remain these fairly civil affairs (aside from The Walking Dead panel according to what I heard at con feedback) indicates how effective this year’s organization was. At Otakon one year, I had a friend from England who found it mind-boggling that a place could be so bad at queueing. While I don’t know if NYCC could hold up to his superior English line standards either, I think it would have at least gotten a higher grade.
Overall, what might be the strangest thing about my NYCC 2014 experience is that I expected a rushed, frantic time where I would feel overwhelmed to the point of some bizarre euphoria. At times, coming down the escalator and seeing the absolute mob of people in the main lobby made it seem as if I were about to descend into a pit of madness. However, what I actually got was a relaxed, comfortable experience learning about the things I love and trying my best not to spend all of my money. Now if only I didn’t have to buy four 1-day tickets because all of the 3-day tickets sold out in like two minutes, then it would’ve been a lot better.
To conclude, here are some of my convention highlights.
- Attending my first Avatar (Legend of Korra) panel only to realize that it might be the last Avatar panel ever.
- Getting Obata Takeshi’s autograph on Volume 1 of Hikaru no Go.
- Obata would have liked to draw Otter no.11 as an actual manga.
- Meeting at last my long-time internet friend David Brothers.
- Asking Juanjo Guarnido (author of Blacksad) about whether the extremely popular comics that the Franco dictatorship in Spain used as propaganda still had any influence today (his answer was no).
- Being like, maybe one of two people to cheer for Tribe Cool Crew at the Sunrise Panel. I yelled so loudly one of the panelists immediately looked at me. Also, watch Tribe Cool Crew. My review of it is pending.
- TURN A GUNDAM LICENSED (also First Gundam). I was actually repeating Turn A Gundam like it was a mantra, as if I were trying to cast a magic spell. I guess it worked?
- Seeing all of the animators’ demo reels at the Kakehashi Project (The Bridge for Tomorrow) panel. A lot of the work reminded me of the more visceral art that often appeals to me yet is rarely found in anime. I especially liked the work of Shiroki Saori.
- Watching the US premiere of the Kill la Kill Episode 25 OVA. It was a great revisit of the series, and in one brief moment during one of Mako’s speeches I swear she transforms into Baron Ashura from Mazinger Z.
- Playing all that Super Smash Bros. for Nintendo 3DS with people.
Name: Fuji (藤)
Relationship Status: N/A
Origin: Genshiken: The Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture II
Fuji is a former classmate and fellow art club member of Hato Kenjirou, Konno, and Kaminaga. She still maintains her friendship with Konno, as well as the others to a lesser extent. She is relatively calmer than Konno.
Little is known, other than that she was a part of the “fujoshi” group in her high school art club.
Thanks to the combined efforts of manga translator kransom, ANN Astro Toy reviewer Dave, and especially the very dangerous wah, I finally have in my hands the Japanese Genshiken Nidaime (aka Genshiken Second Season, aka Genshiken II). While it’s been a while since the show came out, I’m still quite happy to add it to my collection. Now I just need to get the English-language release from NIS America, whenever that’s coming out.
Now why would I buy Japanese blurays at exorbitant prices instead of waiting for a more reasonably priced US release? It’s because, at the end of the day, I am the Ogiue Maniax.
Above the bluray discs themselves you can see both a signboard from Kio Shimoku and an illustration collection. Both of these items are included because I had preordered all four volumes at Toranoana. This was available at multiple anime shops in Japan, and I chose Toranoana because it came with the Ogiue and Sue signboard, as well as an illustration collection with the two on the cover as well. Those of you who have shopped or have tried to shop from Toranoana are probably aware that they only ship within Japan, and it’s thanks to wah’s generosity that I was able to give them a temporary home first, while the other two helped traffic it over. Again, thanks to all of you, next meal’s on me.
It’s been a while since I really went in-depth about the topic of moe, but here’s me and the Veef discussing the topic. If there’s anything I’d like people to get out of it, it’s to not take such polarizing stances about the topic.
Tomorrow is the start of New York Comic Con 2014, and I for one am pretty excited. Though I’ve attended NYCC in the past, it’s actually been five years since I was last able to attend, and I’ve heard from people that it’s changed a lot. Heck, people over the past couple of years have been talking about how it rivals San Diego Comic Con now, and that is certainly not the convention I left back in 2009.
I know that at a con this big I won’t be able to do everything I want, but here’s some stuff I’m considering.
Walt Disney Studios Tomorrowland and Walt Disney Animation Studios Big Hero 6. 1-2:30pm, Main Stage 1-D
Comics – What We’ve Lost, What’s Ahead. 2:15-3pm, 1A01
Nickelodeon’s Legend of Korra: Book 4. 5:15-6:15pm, Empire Stage 1-E
“Marry, Do or Kill?” What Will it Take to Shatter Female Stereotypes in Comics? 11:15am-12pm, 1A05
Voltron: A 30th Anniversary Celebration Presented by Perfect Square. 2-2:45pm, 1A21
Weekly Shonen Jump Presents: Takeshi Obata. 5-5:45pm, 1A10
CBLDF: The Battle of New York – Creativity, Censorship & the Comics Code. 6-6:45pm, 1A18
Sunrise Official Panel. 1-1:45pm, 1A21
The Mary Sue Presents – Strong Female Characters: The Women Shining in Geek Media. 1:15-2pm, 1A01 (Conflicts with above)
Vertical Manga 2014. 5:15pm-6pm, 1A14
Kill la Kill Episode 25. 8:15-10pm, 1A06
Image Comics: I is for Inventive. 12-12:45pm, 1A10
Kakehashi Project – New Japanese Animation Talent. 1-1:45pm, 1A21
Kodansha Comics. 2-2:45pm, 1A18
The Mary Sue Presents – All on the Table. 3-3:45pm, 1A21
Free! and Free! Eternal Summer spoilers below.
Whenever Free! ends, it really knows how to communicate its core values, whether it’s the original series or Eternal Summer. Ostensibly about competitive swimming, these finales basically say that, unlike so many other sports anime and manga, that winning not only isn’t everything, but it isn’t even that important in the first place.
At the end of season 1, the character Rin joins his old friends for a relay at a high school competition, revitalizing the lifelong bond he’s had with them. They swim better than they ever have before and even win the race, but run into the issue that Rin is from a different school that’s also competing at the event. The team is disqualified, but what’s emphasized here is that getting first was not the point. Rather, what they have truly achieved is strengthening their relationships with each other.
In the final episode of season 2, the main cast reaches the nationals for relay, and during the race each character has a vision of the joy of swimming. The main character, Haruka, is the last member to race, and upon entering the water sees his teammates swimming alongside him. When he reaches the finish line, everyone cheers, and we’re greeted with images of the team smiling and hugging. By all narrative and film convention, it looks as if they had won the whole thing, but later we see that they only got 6th place. They weren’t celebrating their championsip, but their accomplishments as a group. Moreover, Haruka, who throughout Eternal Summer has felt pressure over the fact that becoming a professional swimmer means having to care about trophies and times, ultimately finds that, for him, winning is merely a way to swim more, a means to an end.
Free! is geared towards a female audience. Whether it’s the well-animated flexible and muscular swimmers’ bodies on the cast, gentle yet strong personalities, or their close and sometimes tumultuous bonds, this is an anime that provides visual fanservice in a way that not even series like The Prince of Tennis or Kuroko’s Basketball could offer. Those other series, still grounded in their shounen sports manga formulas, end up emphasizing winners and losers first and foremost, but Free! is all about the relationship known as friendship, reflecting a desire to get away from the stereotypically male desire of victory through competition.
This is not to say that manga for male audiences based in competition necessarily always emphasize winning (see the manga Touch!), nor that there is no such thing as a manga for a female audience that stresses the competitive environment (Chihayafuru). However, when looking more broadly, what I find is that series that try to draw in men and boys primarily will often use friendship and teamwork as a means to victory, while series that target women and girls will do the opposite and use competition as a means to friendship and teamwork.
Sometimes targeting a demographic isn’t wholly intentional, but this is how a fanbase is formed anyway, and other times it can be hard to tell which is which. It might even flip back and forth throughout a given series. Free! doesn’t have any of that ambiguity. It knows exactly what it wants, and in the end we have to wonder for ourselves if winning is that big of a deal.