Even though there’s loads of half naked men…
I find Free! to be particularly problematic. It doesn’t sink (pun not intended) well with me for two reasons:
1) the anime feels like a capitalist exploitative venture in order to grab as much fujoshi cash as much as possible. Let us remind ourselves that Free! was not even originally conceived as an anime, it was a short commercial in order to display kyoto animation’s prowess at… animating things. It was solely due to the amazing response and feedback by audience that Free! has gotten the green light to develop from a lowly commercial into a full-fledged anime.
Firstly, there is little to no plot to speak of; the characters feel like typical anime character molds that has been lifted straight off tvtropes.com, there is no character progression, no plot complexity and just loads of gratuitous stripping which brings me to my second point:
2) It feels like an anime that was created in order for girls to gawk at a) delicately drawn muscular nudity and b) the bl pairings that was crafted so deliberately, it seems out-of-place and awkward to begin in the first place. In this sense, I’m reminded of Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze: basically in film, women are objectified because men are in control of the camera, in ways that are voyeuristic and scopophilic (more on the male gaze on another topic.) Wikipedia gives a good introduction: “(The male gaze) may linger over the curves of a woman’s body, for instance.The woman is usually displayed on two different levels: as an erotic object for both the characters within the film, as well as the spectator who is watching the film. The man emerges as the dominant power within the created film fantasy. The woman is passive to the active gaze from the man. This adds an element of ‘patriarchal‘ order and it is often seen in “illusionistic narrative film”. Mulvey argues that, in mainstream cinema, the male gaze typically takes precedence over the female gaze, reflecting an underlying power asymmetry.”
What is particularly interesting was that Mulvey mentioned that men can never be a subject of the female gaze, since the gaze is always already male. The females always look at herself through the eyes of man, which is why when she looks in the mirror, the female that she wants to be belong to the beauty standards that men wants. Man never wants to be made an object under the gaze, insists Mulvey. I wonder whether Free! would prove her wrong. In the name of capitalist profits, anyone and any gender can be made into a sexual object as long as there is a healthy demand in the market because I swear, few would watch Free! for the spectacular plot.
But if watching gratuitous shots of half naked men is your thing, go ahead. Free! in this case, seems to belong to a long-forsaken term that fujoshis want to move desperately away: yaoi. Yaoi originally stood for yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi which meant, no peak, no fall, no meaning. It’s used to describe a subcategory of BL manga, usually of low-quality, which depicts scenes of men having buttsex with each other just because. Manga that depicts actual relationships, actual plot and actual characterisation are called BL manga in Japan. Thankfully, Japan has largely moved away from the production of yaoi to BL but anime like Free! just crops up once in a while I guess.