On the sixth day of anime, an anime studio sent to me…
…six Iwatobi swim club members.
Friendship is hardly an unusual theme in anime. It’s the bread-and-butter of shonen action , sports tournaments, and slice-of-life. Friendship is a wonderful thing that should not be taken for granted–a message often done too heavy-handedly or not at all. Some friendships are portrayed as “fated,” others by mere circumstance, and others still more naturally by diffusion of association (your friend is my friend is her friend.) No other show in 2013 captures the ebullience of young manly friendship quite as well as Free! You’ve never seen a closer, more tightly knit network of bonds between boys connected by swimming in the same swim club during the tender years of elementary school.
The crux of the conflict in Free! is the mending of the friendship between Haru, Makoto and Nagisa with Rin, who is suffering through a “Friends-Or-Dream” crisis (as if friendship and lifelong dreams are mutually exclusive anyway, but try telling Rin that). It’s suggested that Haru’s going through a similar struggle as well, though his problem is more existential: “Why do I swim? What does it mean to ‘swim free’? Why do I feel upset when my ex best friend doesn’t want to play with me anymore?
One motif that stood out to me were the animals associated with each swimmer. Fitting the theme of swimming, most of our guys are associated with sea animals.
Which of these doesn’t belong? (Hint: It’s not the missing shark). The sea animal scheme becomes less cute and more ominous when you realize it’s more foretelling of the relationship Rei has with the others than we might think. Rei might be a member of the Iwatobi swim team, but he isn’t the one that’s stirring their hearts. Rei’s junior status as a “new friend” as opposed to a “childhood friend” clearly set him apart from the others, who are connected by a history that he doesn’t have.
We feel you, Rei. It’s rough being the new friend in a tight-knit group, especially if said group is still dealing with the loss of a prickly, but irreplaceable friend. The heartwarming cuteness of “Remember when we did this?” and “I’ll never forget when” reminiscing has an expiration date–and even if it’s completely unintentional, these stories quietly reaffirm the fact that you weren’t there. Which is hardly fair and it only makes you feel crummy and self-conscious of your “replacement” status whenever your friends sigh and think about how great it would be for things to return to the good old days.
In my quest to assign our bespectacled, butterfly swimmer a more appropriate sea animal, I happened across this lovely, short poem from a relatively obscure poet called Richard Brautigan. It’s eerily appropriate for Rei.
If I were to live my life
in catfish forms
in scaffolds of skin and whiskers
at the bottom of a pond
and you were to come by
when the moon was shining
down into my dark home
and stand there at the edge
of my affection
and think, “It’s beautiful
here by this pond. I wish
somebody loved me,”
I’d love you and be your catfish
friend and drive such lonely
thoughts from your mind
and suddenly you would be
and ask yourself, “I wonder
if there are any catfish
in this pond? It seems like
a perfect place for them.” 
Just a teensy bit of close reading, nothing too scary as it’s a very straightforward poem. It’s about a person who wants to be “a catfish friend” for someone in need. It’s a conversational, reflective piece that muses on the nature and definition of a one-sided friendship.
Why a catfish? Why not just a friend? First of all, it’s a metaphor. Second, it’s hypothetical, “If I were to live my life/in catfish forms.” A catfish is a kind of a odd creature to pick but I’ll explain why it works well, at least, for Rei. In Japan, catfish (namazu) are symbols of natural disaster, specifically earthquakes . Rei’s no earthquake, but his presence does serve as a catalyst for Rin to pick a fight with Haru and the others and his earnest, straightforwardness goads Rin to confront his feelings.
Also, it might interest you to know that, according to the Aboriginal lore, catfish are connected to “food, water, birth and rebirth and are regarded as infused with ‘rainbowness’ or life-force.” 
Color overloading aside, the tone of the “catfish” is wistfully longing. The catfish awaits for a chance when someone who wants to be loved and appreciated, feelings that the catfish is only too willing to give. In return, the catfish hopes that the friend will appreciate his presence and acknowledge the catfish’s rightful place in the pond (literally) and by the friend’s side (figuratively). “I wonder/if there are any catfish/in this pond? It seems like/a perfect place for them” parallels Rei’s desire to truly belong with the other Iwatobi club members.
It’s really more of a slap in the face, when Rei realizes that regardless of earning his place on the team, in despite of his hard work at learning the butterfly, there’s still remains a sense of distance and lack of fulfillment. Haruka may have resolved his feelings about his purpose for swimming (which is really another metaphor for life), but Rin hasn’t and because of the redhead’s floundering (pun intentional), none of the others can move forward without it being resolved.
Not unlike the catfish waiting ever patiently in the pond for a friend to notice him, Rei makes a tremendous sacrifice by giving up his spot in the relay to Rin. It’s a testament to his character, considering he arguably wants to race in the relay more than anyone else on the team. Because prior to his joining the swim team, he’s never experienced the rapture, the thrill of competing as a team (pole vaulting may be exhilarating, but when you fly, you’re flying solo). One of the benefits of being a beginner is that everything in the sport is new, fresh, and a good deal more exciting.
While everything does work out in the end and everyone makes room for Rin (fivesome, anyone?), I only did wish the price for the happy ending didn’t end up being as high–or that Rei had to pay the price at all. But the ending did ascend Rei’s status from comic relief guy to amazingly considerate, comic relief guy is not a bad consolation prize. With the friendship drama past, perhaps Rei will get a chance to shine and make some new memories, some new golden days with the rest of the gang.