Free! is the 2013 breakaway sports anime featuring the Iwatobi High School men’s swimming team and is well-loved by its largely female viewership. The anime centers around four high school swimmers trying their hardest to form a swimming team so that they can compete with their childhood friend Matsuoka Rin. Free! hits a number of important themes commonly found in sports anime, including friendship, teamwork, and rivalry, but there’s so much more to love! With bright and polished animation, Free! is full of muscular, half-naked bishounen who exercise their every right to be free!
The main protagonist is Nanase Haruka, called Haru, a second-year student at Iwatobi High School who loves water. As per the title, Haru feels the freest when he is floating in the water’s loose embrace. Haru and Rin became friends as children but had a falling out after Rin started training in Australia in junior high, but Rin is back and swims for a neighboring high school, the swimming powerhouse Samezuka Academy.
What ensues is a healthy amount of sports-centric drama and a giant dollop of the feels as Haru and Rin work through the past and endure growing pains throughout the series. Sure, there are a lot of die-hard Haru x Makoto fans and some newfound Sousuke x Rin fans after Free!’s second season, Free!: Eternal Summer, but we’re not here to talk about them. Today, we’ll be dissecting what makes Rin x Haru so darn lovable with five good reasons why RinHaru is what fujoshi dreams are made of.
1. Haru brings Rin back to swimming.
Rin meets Haru for the first time since he returned from Australia and immediately demands a race, but we soon learn that Rin has already quit swimming. Even though Samezuka Academy is a school with a well-known swimming program, Rin wasn’t on the team and never even tried to join. Rin had hit a performance wall during his training days in Australia, accented by a bitter loss to Haru during a rare trip home.
In the aftermath of their junior high showdown, Rin cried and considered quitting. Haru blamed himself and also stopped swimming competitively. For two guys who stopped training, their fateful meeting in their second year of high school is an intense battle between bitter rivals. In a close 100-meter freestyle race, Rin squeaks out a long-awaited revenge victory.
Still, something about his victory over Haru irked him: it didn’t feel like a victory. Haru’s response to losing was characteristically Haru and annoyingly calm. Upon further thought, Rin became certain that Haru was completely out of shape, and his victory was meaningless. With the knowledge that Haru would be re-entering competitive swimming, Rin is also compelled to meet him again in the pool and joins his own high school team.
Although a decent swimmer, Rin continues to struggle mentally and is removed from the medley relay, the race that connects the childhood friends. This takes a large toll on Rin, and in an emotional blowout, Rin expresses that he wants to have fun swimming with Haru and the others. With the help of Haru, Rin races in the medley relay prefectural final with the Iwatobi High School team where they take first place but are swiftly disqualified. Nonetheless, Rin rediscovers his love of swimming and soon becomes the captain of Samezuka Academy’s swim team.
2. They really, really love swimming together.
The emphasis is on the “together.” As elementary school students, Rin invited Haru to join him in a medley relay, but Haru refused. He didn’t care about trophies or winning. Rin managed to convince Haru by telling him that he would show him something he’d never seen before. Along with two other friends Makoto and Nagisa, their relay team took first place, and Haru became enamored by team swimming. As a high school student, Haru is almost overly conscious of Rin’s presence. He always seems to be looking out to see if Rin is around or not. When he does catch eye of Rin, Haru isn’t hesitant to give a full-on focused stare that Rin is more than happy to receive.
Then comes the swimming. Even though Rin’s specialty is the butterfly, he abandons the event for the 100-meter freestyle so that he can face Haru. To make sure that he would be matched up with Haru as soon as possible, Rin purposefully slowed his qualifying times so that he would be in the same heat in the lane next to Haru in Free!’s seventh episode. Rin once again claims victory and declares that he will never swim with Haru again.
This phrase ended up spelling devastation for both of them. Haru became depressed, but his teammates quickly reminded him why they created a team in the first place, to enjoy swimming with friends. Haru joins his team in the medley relay the next day. Rin watches his former relay-mates advance to the prefectural finals and becomes instantly jealous of the new butterfly swimmer addition Rei.
After Haru and the Iwatobi boys let Rin swim on this medley relay in the prefectural finals, Rin finally comes to terms with why all his victories against Haru felt so empty. Rin learns that most of his animosity towards Haru has little to do with rivalry and more to do with falling out of love with swimming. After mending his relationship with Haru, he starts to enjoy swimming again, because swimming with Haru is like swimming with a dolphin, and who doesn’t love that?
3. They’re so passionate.
As you would expect from a sports anime, the passions run high. Unlike most sports anime though, the passion isn’t for being the very best or even a spot on the podium. These boys are passionate about swimming with each other and soaking in every moment of their ultra-harmonized medley relay.
Haru tends to be unexpressive and doesn’t talk much about his feelings or thoughts, but when it comes to Rin, Haru is quick to let out his blunt opinions and can sometimes be easily agitated when talking about him. At the beginning of Free!, Rin is a tough guy with a shark-toothed smirk, but after we learn about his friendly and bright childhood personality, we see a lot more dimensionality to Rin’s character. He is surprisingly empathetic, knows how to motivate his teammates, and can be easily moved to tears.
In the final episode of the first season, Rin’s tough guy exterior is finally torn down. At the prefectural finals, Rin was removed from the medley relay and is shocked that he won’t be able to race against his old friend. Overly distracted and upset, Rin can barely even finish his 100-meter freestyle race. This public breakdown shocked Haru, who made it his mission to save Rin.
After the Iwatobi team decides to let Rin swim in their relay, Haru finds a completely defeated Rin in front of a courtyard tree. Rin is on the verge of leaving the sport for good and losing his connection with Haru and his other friends. Haru pleads that he understands Rin and wants him to remember what it felt like to swim together. Rin, still overcome with emotion, tries to take a swing at Haru, but the two tumble to the ground and have a small scuffle. But upon seeing Haru had written “For the Team” the dirt next to them, Rin has an outpouring of emotions with tears flowing down his face. Haru doesn’t stop him and just takes in all of his emotions, even as Rin’s tears wet Haru’s face.
4. Rin broadens Haru’s world.
While the first season is mostly Rin breaking through a swimming roadblock, the second season, Eternal Summer, is all about Haru. Now in his final year of high school, Haru is getting love calls from various university swim team scouts. At first he just brushes them aside, but more and more people are looking to Haru with great expectations. Overburdened by the pressure, Haru gives up in the middle of an important race in the prefectural finals. When Rin confronts him about his, Haru lashes out at him, leaving Rin speechless.
Everyone is looking to Haru to decide his future and pursue his dream. The problem is that Haru can’t seem to find a dream, especially when compared to Rin’s lofty goal to compete on the highest international stage. With only the national championship left for them, the friends are reaching the end of their high school careers, and Haru is already starting to drift apart from them.
Rin steps up to help Haru gain a new goal by showing him why his dreams are so high. In the twelfth episode of Eternal Summer, during the Obon holiday and right before the national championships, Rin whisks Haru away on an impromptu trip to Australia. Rin shows Haru all the pieces of his life abroad and reveals all his struggles with adjusting to being alone in Australia.
While sleeping in the same bed, due to a hotel error, Rin waxes about the past and suddenly confesses to Haru, “I’ve always admired you… That’s why it’s hard for me when you’re not always there ahead of me, showing me what path I should take. Without you I have nothing to aim for.”
Rin is certain Haru belongs with him on the highest levels of competitive swimming. He further elaborates this feeling by taking Haru to the national aquatic center to let him see the stage where the best swimmers in the world compete. While doing a few laps next to the Australia national swim team, Haru has visions of swimming at an international meet. Rin reveals that he will continue to pursue his dream in Australia after graduation. Haru responds that he also has found his dream.
5. Sports drama is human drama.
Many fans of Free! will tell you, “I never thought I would be in love with a sports anime.” Free! seems to have hit on a new subgenre that can appeal to a much different audience than its sporty predecessors by developing a purposefully small cast in a relatively short time. The main arcs of both Free! and Free! Eternal Summer come to a conclusion with development in Rin and Haru’s relationship.
More than what makes a good team, the series seems to focus on what makes a good swimmer. A largely individual sport that takes a lot of mental strength, a swimmer’s slump can be brutal and career-ending. Rin and Haru help each other get over their obstacles that pop up during their tender adolescent years. Beyond talent and the support of friends, the anime metaphorically reveals that competitive drive, motivation, and enjoyment of the sport are needed for an athlete to rise to top.
With no shortage of motivation, Rin dreams of being an Olympic swimmer. To him, Haru represents enjoyment of the sport, something he lost while away from Japan. Likewise, Sousuke would be competitive drive, but Haru and Rin aren’t completely lacking competitiveness in their rivalry. In turn, Rin helps Haru gain the motivation he needs to move forward. In the series’ epilogue, we see Haru and Rin competing as world-class swimmers.
Rin and Haru’s relationship is so strong and balanced, you don’t even need fujoshi feelers to know that it’s something special. Even without moving the pair to an alternate universe, romantic developments in their relationship is believable and even logically sound. Because of their wonderfully genuine connection, Rin x Haru is about as close as you come to canon without actually being canon in Free!
Love is Free!
Of course, all of the friendships in Free! are beautiful, but Rin and Haru’s relationship developments make them a truly fateful pair that are destined to be in the upper echelon of the swimming elite. Because they attend separate schools, they don’t get as much physical time together as with other boys, but that makes every moment they spend with each other that much more impactful. This amazing chemistry shot RinHaru right into our hearts.