Free! recently splashed back into public relevance with its new movie, Free! Take Your Marks, which aired in theaters across America on March 14th. I was lucky enough to be able to see it at City Cinema, an experience that involved the audience shrieking every time a character appeared on screen for the first time. Between screams, I started thinking about something that's always bugged me about Free! - how the series talks about Sousuke's shoulder injury.
Here's a little background for those of you who aren't familiar with the show. Sousuke Yamazaki is a high school athlete with dreams becoming an Olympic swimmer. Due to overtraining, he severely injured his shoulder to the point where not only can he no longer swim, he also appears to be in near constant pain. His friends try to be supportive by telling him that, if he works hard, he'll be able to overcome his injury and return to swimming.
To some degree, it may be possible for Sousuke to improve his condition through hard work. While the nature of his injury is never specified, we know he's undergoing physical therapy. Physical therapy isn't a cure all, but it can dramatically improve the prognosis of some injuries. But even if Sousuke decreases his pain and improves his range of motion, that doesn't mean he'll be able to compete at an Olympic level - or that trying won't exacerbate his injury. He may have to learn to live with a permanent disability.
For that reason, what Sousuke needs to hear isn't that he can beat his disability through sheer force of will. He needs to hear that even if he isn't able to heal well enough to return to his former passion, he is still a valuable person and his friends will stick by his side as he looks for meaning elsewhere. In a series that uses swimming as a stand-in for emotional bonding, this is especially crucial - of course swimming means so much to him when it's his primary connection to his friends.
In Free! Eternal Summer, when Sousuke's friends learn that his injury is too severe for him to safely participate in a relay, the scene focuses on how sad everyone is about the prospect of not being able to swim together - and instead of accepting that and finding a way around it, Sousuke just goes ahead and swims anyway, risking further injury. This is celebrated because the team got to have their bonding moment - the climax of the team's arc.
But Sousuke risking his health and safety because his friends are upset isn't worth celebrating. What would be truly meaningful is if his friends had shown Sousuke that they valued him for more than just his ability to help them win a race. And that means not pressuring him to hurt himself for the sake of the team.
It's understandable that Sousuke's friends don't know how to handle their friend's chronic injury - they're teenage boys who have never dealt with anything like this before. When they tell him that he'll be able to swim again some day, they're trying to be kind. The problem is that the series itself seems to believe that Sousuke's path to happiness involves his disability being cured, implying that living a happy life with a disability is not possible. For viewers who might be disabled, this isn't exactly great representation. In fact, it's pretty ableist. Disability changes lives, but it doesn't have to ruin them.
That said, Free! Take Your Marks does give viewers who care about this kind of thing some hope. Sousuke learns that character who isn't named, but who is implied to be Nao Serizawa, had to give up swimming because of a retinal detachment disorder. But he doesn't retire from swimming completely - instead, he switches his focus to the managerial side. Nao isn't letting his illness railroad over his dreams, but he also isn't forcing his body to perform beyond its limits because the non-disabled world said he should.
Whether or not Sousuke will do the same remains to be seen. Maybe he'll follow Nao and find a new area of the swimming world to get excited about. Maybe he'll give up swimming altogether and discover that he has another passion - and that could be anything from becoming a human rights lawyer to selling haunted dolls on eBay. Maybe he'll even go back into swimming with new methods that accommodate his pain and prevent further injury. These would all be fine - what would not be fine is a magical cure followed by a successful swimming career.