Free! has reached the heart of this season’s drama with Haruka’s career dilemma. It’s a difficult struggle to watch, as swim-freak Haruka feels confused and unsure about his place in the water for the first time. Reality is backing him into a corner, and a confrontation with Rin reveals just how deep his insecurities run.
“Forming a Standstill” focuses almost entirely on Haruka’s feelings concerning his future. While the other members of the Iwatobi and Samezuka teams confidently prepare for Regionals, Haruka becomes increasingly distant. The pressure builds as more and more people express their high hopes for Haruka until he finally cracks and throws his match.
Haruka’s apathy usually tends to grate on me, but I feel for him here. It can’t be easy to be pressured over and over to go down a certain path, especially one Haruka isn’t sure he wants to go down. Haruka doesn’t get why people seem to think they know what’s best for him, and that idea irritates and frightens him to the point that he feels like he’s trapped, even when in the water he loves so much.
Haru’s fight with Rin busts open a whole nest of issues. It’s not just that he doesn’t care. It’s that he doesn’t seem to think he has a future. He doesn’t have a dream. He’s completely lost, and seeing Rin act so sure about his future makes him lash out even more. It becomes clear that Haruka’s cold attitude is more or less a front for his emotional insecurities.
Rin and Haruka have switched places from last season. Rin, happily reconciled with his friends, sees his future clearly. He wants to swim with Haruka, especially since he’s only just reunited with him. But Haruka has been in a downward spiral ever since the matter of his future was brought up. His anxiety manifests as a truly terrifying nightmare in which everyone he knows forces him to swim and shames him when he tries to run away. It’s a perfect depiction of his troubles, and it portrays the gravity of the situation from Haruka’s viewpoint.
The thing is, everyone struggles with figuring out their future, as shown by Makoto and Rin’s aborted conversation about Makoto’s swimming plans. Haruka seems to think that he’d be letting everyone down if he chooses not to go pro, but his friends would be loyal to him regardless. They’d never want him to be unhappy.
While Haruka struggles with the idea of swimming professionally, Sousuke struggles with the idea of not being able to do so. Sousuke’s injured shoulder makes him the perfect foil for Haruka, who can’t make the choice about his future. With his shoulder as it is, Sousuke may not have much of a choice to make. Despite there being little said about his injury, Sousuke’s character suddenly makes a lot more sense. His attitude toward Rin, and especially Haruka, stems from the possibility that he may have to let go of his dreams. Through Rin, he can live vicariously, which is why he pushes him to be the best. And to Sousuke, Haruka must seem like the most selfish person alive. He has the whole world at his fingertips, but he dithers at the idea of taking advantage of it. If Sousuke’s injury is truly keeping him from swimming at his full potential, then he must feel incredibly spiteful toward Haruka.
Ultimately, I think professional swimming is the right choice for Haruka. We’ve seen how he is when he’s racing Rin or the Iwatobi members and there’s no pressure. He gets fired up. He gets excited. He loves competing, even if he doesn’t care much about times. What he needs to realize is that being free and being a professional swimmer aren’t mutually exclusive. Rei’s peptalk from a couple episodes backs expresses it best. Haruka will always be free if he remains himself.
And if he really doesn’t want to go pro, he need only say so. His friends will have his back.
See you next water time!
Images are copyright of Kyoto Animation