I personally think that the relationships between characters is Free!’s greatest asset.
The friendships between the 4 boys, the rivalry between Haruka and Rin, the relationship between the club members and their manager, the relationship between the club and their adviser, all of these relationships are great.
One relationship that is not so great though, is the one between the lonely Aiichirō and his cold senpai, Rin.
There are various reasons behind this suckage. Let us examine three of them now.
Note: When I say relationship, I mean that in the most generic, not necessarily romantic form. But you can chose to believe otherwise if you so wish….
1. The love is single sided.
It is quite obvious that Aiichirō’s totally platonic feelings for Rin are one sided. That is to say, he likes Rin a heck of a lot more than Rin likes him.
For Aiichirō, Rin is the senpai to idolize, but for Rin, Aiichirō is just a kouhai who follows him everywhere. Rin is far too busy thinking of Haru to pay attention to Aiichirō.
Now, a relationship where one side is more fond of the other isn’t necessarily a bad relation. You can still get some great moments out of such a relation, but the Aiichirō x Rin relationship is far too one sided.
It is like watching a monkey play tug of war with a mountain. As exciting as that may be at first, it gets quite boring fast and to be frank, that simile is far more entertaining than the the actual relationship.
2. It feels fake.
Good relationships exist because there is either no reason for them not to exist or the characters involved want them to exist.
Other relationships exist because the writer wants to advance to advance the plot using the relationship. These relationships tend to suck.
Aiichirō x Rin exists not only because the writers use it to advance the plot but also because they use it to explain the plot. That latter point makes it suck quite a bit more.
When is Rin most troubled/anxious? When he is thinking about Haru of course. When is he thinking about Haru? When he has recently encountered Haru, of course. When does Rin encounter Haru? When Aiichirō alerts Rin of Haru’s presence of course.
That cycle has happened several times in the present time frame of the anime.
Free! uses the relationship between Aiichirō and Rin to inform Rin of Haru. It is a rather cheap reason for a relationship to exist but it gets even cheaper.
This relationship is also used to explain things. It was used to get Rin to talk about the past and it is often used to try and explain Rin’s current motivations.
I can understand the need for both the plot advancement and the explanations, but because of that requirement, this relationship feels incredibly forced and weak compared to the other, much better relationships.
3. Aiichirō sucks as a character.
You could take the hottest, coolest bishie and tie a string from him to a can of sardines, but you’d still only have a bishie tied to a can of sardines.
That is to say, relationships that have a lame character tend to be lame to.
I like pretty much everyone in Free! and while I don’t hate Aiichirō, I see nothing worth liking in him. He is just a plain box with fixed dialogue options. Sure, he makes a cute face now and then but that is really the extent of what he does.
Even the captain of Rin’s swimming team is a more entertaining character and he hardly ever makes an appearance.
p.s. Here is an awesome, somewhat relevant gif by Kiriska that you should definitely see.
Now, just for fun, let’s compare Nitori Aiichirō x Matsuoka Rin to other good relationships in Free.
Mako x Haru
I absolutely love this relationship. These two are such wonderful friends. Makoto is always on the lookout for Haru and he really only swims because he enjoys swimming with Haru and the others.
This relationship might seem one sided at times what with the aloof Haru paying Mako little heed but that isn’t true at all. The episodes involving the sea proved as much. Haru showed a lot of concern for Mako.
He even showed up to pick Makoto up in the morning which was quite extraordinary because it is normally Makoto that is waiting for Haru.
God, these two are such good friends! They clearly understand one another and nothing about their interactions ever feels forced or out of place.
Nagisa x Rei
It is tempting to claim that Nagisa has romantic feelings for Rei and Rei is simply too bashful to accept, but if anything, it is Rei who has the feels for Nagisa but Nagisa has bro-zoned Rei much too far to notice.
Regardless, the two polar opposites get along quite well and the screen always lights up when Nagisa is toying with poor Rei. This is quite a fun, if not outright sadistic relationship. I like it!
The Four Boys x The Four Boys
Between the 4 of them, the group dynamics of Iwatobi Swim Club is fantastic. It never feels weird to see them hang out with one another nor do any of them feel out of place. Things just work and all of them just want to swim with one another.
It is a great group and one that functions like a well oiled machine. It would feel quite incomplete if one of the guys was to just disappear.
Gou x Everyone
Gou’s relationship with the boys is perhaps not as well developed as the relationships between the boys themselves, but she never feels out of place either. Her existence is important, her enthusiasm is necessary and the quality of her current interactions with the group far exceed those required of a club manager.
Interestingly enough, she often plays a similar role to Aiichirō in that she informs the guys of Rin’s nefarious schemes but she, and by extension her relationship with the guys, is much, much more likable than Aiichirō or Aiichirō x Rin.
Rin x Haru
This is the rivalry that spurns this show on. It’s reason for existence is never totally clear but it isn’t quite a straight forward rivalry. Haru and Rin have both only recently realized it, but they don’t just want to compete with one another, they want to swim with one another.
These developments and confused feelings might be detrimental to the health of those involved in this relationship, but they make this relationship enjoyable. All in all, it is a pretty strong relationship (from the viewer’s perspective mind you).
I could go on and talk about the other remaining relationships to, but I think I have made my point.
The Nitori Aiichirō x Matsuoka Rin relationship kind of sucks and is most definitely, the least entertaining relationship in Free!
As for this post as a whole, please don’t misunderstand. This wasn’t actually a rant per say, but just a minor complaint.
Free! is a great anime. It has a solid soundtrack, occasionally good animation (sometimes the animation quality drops a lot and that kinda sucks), great characters (except for Aiichirō) and great character relationships (except for Aiichirō x Rin of course).
It is really great but I didn’t really have much to say about its shiny, nice things, so I just said bad things about one of its blemishes. Heck, I don’t even dislike Aiichirō that much. I just think that Aiichirō and his relationship with Rin are rather boring.
Thanks for understanding ( I hope!).