“A genius, huh? What does that mean? ‘Genius?’ So I was not born with a whole lot of natural talent, not gifted like Neji… but I work hard and I never give up! That is my gift; that is my ninja way!” -Rock Lee
Few characters in anime have endeared themselves to me in such a way that I find myself quoting them whenever I’m in a funk. Rock Lee from Naruto (arguably the most famous anime to come out of the 21st century so far) is one of these. He’s fashionably challenged (this is coming from a fashionably challenged person), his caterpillar eyebrows never fail to scare the crap out of me, and his insane workouts reliably make us all feel like perpetually inadequate whiners who can’t handle a bit of “real” hard work.
Rock Lee embodies a core theme present in many fighting/action/competition-based anime–the sentiment that through sheer perseverance and passionate hard work one can transcend to the higher heights of success previously only enjoyed by the talent-endowed elite. It’s an encouraging, familiar ideal, one undoubtedly echoed by doting parents and indulgent teachers.
Although I wouldn’t go far to say it’s a lie, it’s a sentiment that describes an incomplete picture, as research and common sense tells us that while hard work can certainly win out against squandered talent, it can hardly hope to hold a candle to true giftedness. So while we can hope to beat a complacent genius, no amount of sheer effort is going to win out against a genius who’s putting in the same amount of hard work.
That’s actually a pretty depressing conclusion to arrive at, not to mention it’s a message that Free Eternal Summer douses (pun intended) you in the face.
“We’re All in This, Together!” Or Are We?
Free Eternal Summer neatly bookends the more childish, light-hearted first season. If the first season was focused on rekindling the spark of laughter and friendship from childhood, the second season tackles the onerous subject of dealing with limitations and conforming to societal expectations to pursue a career path.
illegenes from Isn’t It Electrifying wrote a fantastic reflective piece on how competition can put a damper on one’s perceived options in life and uses examples of how the Iwatobi members cope with this.
Every Iwatobi member has his struggles, but I found Makoto’s arc rather poignant. Because out of our merry band of spandex-clad swimmers, he’s the one most strongly connected to Haru. The show seems to be pushing on Haru dealing with the pressures of arriving at a crossroads, a potential life-changing turning point as he deals with the big daunting question that every high school (and college) senior deals with–what are you going to do with your life?
It seems unfair that society expects us to already have an idea of what we want to do for the rest of our lives at the tender age of seventeen or eighteen. Teenagers have a tough time as it is with trying to “find themselves” and sort out the hormonally-induced dramas one’s inevitably thrown in (cough, cough, Rin from the first season) while maintaining some semblance of sanity.
Makoto’s struck to me as the self-sacrificing sort, the guy with the not-so-enviable position of being the glue that holds the group together. Although Haru is arguably presented as the emotional center of the Iwatobi team (ironic, considering that he is the least emotive out of the group), Makoto is the shadow that looks after everyone’s health, especially Haru’s. He’s so in tune with Haru’s emotions that he picks up on Haru’s issues before anyone else, including Haru himself.
In contrast to Haru’s nonchalant passiveness in regards to his lifetime goals, behind Makoto’s soft, indulging smile is an undercurrent of concern and self-doubt. The fact that Makoto himself repeatedly asks Haru several times throughout the season about his lifetime goals, iterations of “What are you going to do after graduation?” does not slip under our radar and indeed, contributes to the slight anxiety and perhaps even exasperation that Haru is adamant in holding off on making a decision that we recognize as an inevitable quandary. Haru may be perfectly content with swimming “free”, and his friends may accept that as him simply being “Haru” but will society be as kind? Obviously, Haru and Makoto can’t stay in high school forever and their days of swimming with Iwatobi will eventually come to an end. Regardless of their wishes, time flows onwards, languidly sometimes but ever relentlessly forward.
“If you’re not there…then it’s meaningless without you!” -Makoto to Haru
For all of his gentleness and sweet mannerisms, Makoto’s always struck to me as a manipulative person. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing–and in fact, is more common in friendships that one might presume. Makoto, as the most level-headed member of the team and the one who understands Haru the most, represents the bridge between the whimsy of childhood and the sensibility of adulthood. A surprisingly thorny path to walk. On one hand, Makoto provides a space for Haru to freely be himself, unfettered from societal expectations of normalcy. On the other hand, Makoto feels the urgency of having Haru arrive at a more concrete destination than “free”.
By no means his first instance of manipulation, but definitely his most obvious, Makoto secures a promise from Haru to go all out in the 200m freestyle, propelled by the desire to have a “real race” with Haru before graduation.
Makoto’s loss was not surprising, but the manner in which it happened did baffle me. 200m freestyle is obviously not Makoto’s specialty but Rin helpfully points out that Makoto’s made the amateur mistake of going full speed ahead straight from the get-go rather than pacing himself. For such a level-headed and experienced swimmer, I find it hard to believe that such a mistake was due to Makoto’s nerves.
Hindsight is 20-20, and with the outcome of Haru being scouted afterwards, Makoto’s demand make more sense. Despite Haru’s lack of interest in swimming professionally, Makoto seems to be of the opinion that Haru should consider all of his options. Swimming “free” is all and well, but the world isn’t so kind as to make that an acceptable “career choice.” You have Rin and Haru, who are naturally gifted swimmers with real shots at making it in the professional swimming world. With such talent at their disposal, it’s hard to fathom not going after the gold. We might find ourselves a little exasperated that Haru has no plans for the future.
“Wasting your talent” is a common phrase that we hear. We have expectations for those who are uncommonly gifted, endowed in talent we can only dream of. How many times have you heard someone cluck their tongue in disapproval at the straight-A student who becomes a barista, at the mathematician who becomes a traveling, no-name guitarist, at the Olympic athlete who settles to become a kindergarten teacher instead of going for gold? Because we’re so settled in our normalcy, we sometimes take for granted the value of the mundane.
The outcome of Haru and Makoto’s match is more transformative for Makoto rather than Haru. Swimming with the desperation of a man who has realized the limits of hard work, the limits of his innate ability, Makoto realizes for himself the distance between his swimming and Haru’s. It’s something that he’s known all along but one that he still feels with waves of bittersweet acknowledgment, a quiet pride for having Haru showing everyone the true depth of his swimming prowess and a subdued sadness for the impending parting of ways.
Because as much as we want friendships to last, it’s unrealistic for things to stay the same. Which is why I find Makoto’s story arc so powerful. By serendipity, Makoto is asked to help out as a part-time instructor at the local swimming club and whether he knows it or not, from the outcome of the little kids’ smiling faces, we know that Makoto’s stumbled upon to a path that perfectly suits him.
As someone with a fear of water, it’s strangely appropriate that Makoto’s love for swimming in spite of the fear be developed into a profession that helps encourage that passion in others. Makoto himself is surprised at how attached he grew to his time at the community pool, though Haru and we look on with the eyes of someone who sees a friend find a potential passion that will last a lifetime.
While societal constraints (specifically the educational system) won’t wait for long, Makoto’s arc indirectly eases the pressure off of our invested interest in Haru’s future (Will he swim competitively with Rin? How will he pull off swimming “free”?). Like the measured pace of the ocean’s incoming tide, change is inevitable, and will sweep across the landscape, drawing those who are less grounded out into the vast depths of the world. The day when Haru crystallizes what exactly he means by “free” will come, but it will be a moment that Haru decides, and will come when it comes, free from any predetermined deadlines. Rather than be hurried by the impending storm that is “accomplishment”, Haru has already found a safe and steady harbor for himself and will leave it when he is ready.