Free! and the anger of the Otakus

By Kristie Thai

Who would have guessed that a thirty second commercial with little or no information, other than four hot guys doing, of all things, swimming would disrupt the entire anime industry and community? At the center of this revolution is the anime series Free! and manning the counter-revolution are the Otakus, who are in revolt against the revolt. The questions are infinite: is Free! an assault on Otakus culture? Yes. Is Free! a part of a new revolution in Anime? Maybe. Is Free! little more than gay porn for straight girls? Like everything else, it depends on how you look at.

Before we even look at Free!, we have to understand the Otakus. At the heart of the Free! revolution is an overturning and upsetting of the culture of anime as practiced and understood by these boy-men of the great Japanese recession. An Otaku is the American equivalent of the socially inept 40-year-old video game nerd living in his parent’s basement with his mint edition merchandise. The perfect analogy is the Star Wars nerds and the Bronies, only the Otakus are worse. Otakus spend all their time and money on anime, and how they look at anime is more than a little disturbing and the porn-y overtones should be of concern to most normal people. In fact, the anime industry has catered to these men’s needs in much the same way that the porn industry keeps pushing the base level of what’s appropriate.

If you are thinking, “it’s a cartoon, how bad can it be?” Well then, try this. How about extreme close-ups of a women’s breasts and panties or girls from ten to seventeen performing sexually arousing tasks, such as wearing wet clothes, rubbing their bodies against older men, fondling themselves and other girls. And, keep in mind that in anime most women’s bodies are more exaggerated than Barbie dolls. Or how about the idea that “it’s okay for a guy to feel entitled to do anything he wants to a girl regardless of what she thinks?” It’s essentially a rape culture.

My friend told me an anecdote involving her friend and little cousin that occurred at Fanime, a convention that takes place in San Jose dedicated to Japanese anime. A twelve-year-old girl went with her older cousin to the convention. She wore a skirt and short tight pants underneath. Unfortunately, there is a practice called upskirt photos in which guys take photos up a woman’s skirt. Sadly, this happens at anime conventions and apparently guys take upskirt-photos of 12-year old girls and then complain that their wearing non-revealing shorts.

Even Kiki
But this is in keeping with the anime world, which is deeply and at times disturbingly sexualized. Every anime has either a Loli (underage girl) or women with enormous busts and butts, sometimes both. In the popular anime, One Piece, practically all of the women are drawn to have the hourglass curve, whereas the men have the whole spectrum of different body types. Also, with every busty or underage girl, there will always be a half-naked girl scene. The manga, Fairytail, never fails to dedicate a third of a chapter to a woman wearing salaciously provocative clothing or having her completely naked with bubbles covering her nipples and groin. Even in Miyazaki’s films, there are panty shots. In Kiki’s Delivery Service, Kiki flies around proud as everyone stares up her dress.

So this is the cultural world that Free! enters and the question is what makes this new anime so incendiary. Now we have to understand one more thing about anime culture. The films are difficult to make, they’re time intensive, and the studios have a limited amount of resources for the best of them. When Kyoto Animation released the thirty second spot for Free!, the Otakus saw this commercial in a myriad of ways. First of all it was about quasi-naked boys instead of quasi-naked girls and then, maybe more importantly, it was clearly going to take a lot of resources to realistically render all those six pack abs and all those swimming matches.

Kyoto Animation studio is famed for their art style, animation and their cute girl characters. Some of the animes produced by Kyoto Animation include K-On!, Lucky Star and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, even the movies of Doraemon, Inuyasha and Pokemon. Since Free! is about five shirtless guy swimmers with nice builds, many Otakus saw this as an attack on precious resources. It wasn’t just an aesthetic attack, but a political and economic one as well. Outraged, the Otakus filled online forums of Sankaku Complex, Twitter, and YouTube banding together from their disgust of Free! to protest against Kyoto Animation. And as well they should. What’s interesting is that they aren’t misreading the situation. In a weird way, they’re right. This is an attack on their precocious Lolita culture.

Free! is directed by Hiroko Utsumi and is based on Koji Oji’s novel High*Speed! It’s about four boys, Haruka, Rin, Makoto, and Nagisa, who were originally elementary school swim teammates. After winning a tournament, they all went their separate ways. Now, in high school, Rin challenges Haruka. Struck by Rin’s new prowess and his change in personality, Haruka, Makoto, and Nagisa form the Iwatobi High School Swimming Club to challenge Rin. The storyline, itself, stands extremely far from the overdramatic plots of saving the world or being trapped in a video game found in most animes. The characters simply swim to challenge each other and to have fun. As a sports anime, the characters don’t only concentrate on the sport, but they are also emotionally engaged with each other. They cope with their insecurities, talk about their dreams and in season 2 even consider their future.

Free! is the opposite of what the Otakus want. Generally, sports animes are about living in the now and the team manager, always a girl, is there for sexual entertainment. However, in Free! the girl, Gou, behaves like a manager and is never sexualized by the team. Ironically, Gou acts like the fan-girls of the show and objectifies the swimmers. This drives the Otakus mad. It calls into question the gender roles that have been codified into the anime community for years. The Otakus are incapable of handling this change and their reaction might be even considered violent. For instance, lurking behind all this controversy is the Otakus sad and passive heterosexuality and Free!’s unstated but hard to miss gay sexuality. These two models are in real opposition here and the Otakus know it and so do the girls.

They know it and we know it
Free! switches the act of objectifying and fetishizing from women to men. Still, compared to the depictions of women in most animes, it hardly registers. So, there are two ways to interpret Free!’s portrayal of people and both seem designed to aggravate the Otakus. One, Free! is at the very least highly homoerotic, a charge most Otakus would fear; and two, the characters are realistic or try to be in a basic way. Remember, most of the Otakus live in their parents’ basements: they are not fans of reality. So what happens when an anime forces the most loyal anime users to face reality? Otakus become so ridiculously pissed because they are reminded about aspects of reality that they don’t want to face like finding a job and becoming more appealing to the opposite sex. Then the Otakus flood the online forums to cluster in their groups, ranting about how terrible the anime is because it is an offensive attack on the Otaku heterosexual male population.

I can’t come even close to show you the full of these comments and their hatred. It would take a thousand-page book. But I want to share these as examples of how sick and disgusting and crazy these people are.

Objectifying and fetishizing women is basically a norm in the anime community. It’s a degrading fact to women, but it is what Otakus love most about anime. Furthermore, top studios will service to the Otakus because Otakus buy lots of merchandise and, most disturbingly, love pillows. A love pillow is a picture of a character from an anime and usually the character is half dressed or posed in some kind of sexual fashion. And boys are going to be the heroes of the show and will either enjoy or experience the special joy of objectifying the female characters.

Free! steps into this community and slaps the Otakus in the face by reversing the gender roles. Not only is the plot, settings, and personalities realistic, but also the finances invested in it, the animation, the plots and the characters are undeniably amazing. Of course, characters are everything that the fangirls have been desperately waiting for. Basically, Free! disrupts the “standards” in anime and presents new and more dynamic ones.

Swim hard!
Free! is a revolution in anime. Its popularity has been amazing—at the Yaoi Con 2014 artist alley practically every booth sold Free! fan-art. With the success of Free!, other Japanese studios are aware of the fact that girls watch anime and will spend a great deal of money on anime merchandise, especially if it involves handsome guys with homoerotic undertones. Free! opens the door for animes to target female audiences and that has destroyed the precious and limited world view of the Otakus.

©Kristie Thai and the CCA Arts Review

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