I’ve held off on my review of the dub of Free! Eternal Summer/Season Two because, to put frankly, I was disappointed. Now that I’ve let myself calm, I feel I can speak without sounding super irrational.
This series is near and dear to my heart, so I probably took things too personally. There’s always an adjustment period when you watch a dub of something you’ve already watched subbed. Sometimes I grow more attached to a Japanese cast than others, and sometimes I don’t care all that much. It really depends on the series. I enjoy supporting the dub industry as I admire a lot of the talent and work that goes into it and have been a fan for many, many years, I’ll always watch the dub of something I’ve already watched and anticipate on buying. Often it’s like watching it all over again for the first time, and then others times, the tone and writing seems to make it a completely different series. That was Free!ES for me.
Six months prior to the “premier” on Funimation’s site, and English cast member was announced each week. Some roles I agreed with immediately, others not so much. I could see what was happening; going with Veteran, Popular voices for quicker, quality recording. Shrugging, I got a trial period of Funimation’s Elite Subscription just so I could watch the premier. I’m sure my initial impression was just “culture shock” but I wasn’t all that impressed. But this is normal for me, usually takes 3-4 episodes for me to get used to a new voice and/or the actor settles into it. By the end of the 13 episode run, I loved 2 choices (I actually loved these two the moment they were announced), the rest were Mostly Okay choices, and 1 that just didn’t fit at all no matter what. It’s not a slight on any of the actors, I love them in other titles, I just didn’t feel they fit their roles.
I couldn’t have asked for a better Sousuke and Rei (Ian Sinclair and J. Micheal Tatum). Of the cast that was announced and I watched perform, I loved them all the way to the end. Greg Ayres as Nagisa was a shoe-in and he did a good job. Jerry’s Momotarou was really ridiculous, but it fit him somehow. Ai’s voice being deeper than Rin’s was awkward, but Josh Grelle brought a unique innocence to the character. Johnny Young Bosch’s soft voice was a decent match for Makoto (more on this later). I wasn’t happy that Vic Mignogna got cast as Rin due to a lot of backlash he has gotten over the years, and being familiar with his work, I didn’t feel he was a good fit, overall. By the end of the series I was fine with him. Todd Habberkorn as Haruka, though? Yeah, that didn’t work for me at all. It’s not just about matching the voice actors side by side, his cadence was off and he came off more as a giant nasally brat than stubborn and aloof.
The first episode was zany all on its own in Japanese, but the English dub came off as a joke. The trailers and spots and taglines didn’t help things. Yes, Free! has some funny moments, but it’s not something I’d ever market as a comedy. Funimation was selling it as the superficial series most viewers thought it was going to be at the beginning.
I realize that the need to localize a title is to make it more understandable to the fans that don’t relate to the Japanese culture or care, but I feel there too many aspects were tampered with. While I’m used to honorifics being removed in most dubs, in cases like Ouran Highschool Host Club, they were left in tact as they were integral to characterizations and story. Free! omitted these, despite that. It’s unfortunate.
Nagisa calls everyone with -chan attached to a shortened version of their name. In the dub, he comes up with names on the fly, or just sticks with the shorthand version of their name. Rei speaks very formally and uses honorifics to address his friends and superiors, using full names with ‘senpai’, ‘kun’, or ‘san’. While he did end up using everyone’s full names, he went back and forth of addressing Haru as Haru or Haruka – super contradictory to his character who find importance in consistencies. Then we get to the OVA episode and Makoto calls Sousuke ‘Mr. Yamazaki’ which, while sort of correct in terms of Japanese with calling him “Yamazaki-kun” before Sousuke asks him to call him by his first name, it doesn’t make sense in relationship to how Rei refers to everyone. In this case, wouldn’t he call Rin, “Mr. Rin” or also use “Mr. Yamazaki” instead of just Sousuke in which does happen? Sousuke refers to everyone via their last name as he should, however. Rin switches back and forth between calling Aichirou Ai or Nitori for no explainable reason. Their teacher, Amakata, randomly stops calling the boys by their last names and uses their first names.
The biggest issue I had in context was that Makoto calls Haru Haru-chan out of sheer endearment and habit. Haru asks him to not call him that, and he eases off for a bit. In the dub, he calls him Haruka. This wouldn’t be a problem if /he didn’t hate that name/. Haru hates his girly name and doesn’t like it when people call him by it. Makoto, above all, knows this. The dub ignored the history and context and made the biggest cute joke of the series and their relationship non-existent.
When you dub something and you say it in an English tongue, the pronunciations are always going to be off. I get and understand that. Some names/words fared better than others in translations. Some were decided to be more ENFORCED than others. There are plenty of characters in the anime world named Rin. And, if I’m not mistaken, they have always been pronounced “Rin” like “tin”. In the dub they pronounce it “Reen”. I still am not entirely sure if that’s correct, cause I suppose it sort of sounds like that in Japanese, but. Then you take names like Nagisa and they emphasized the correct syllables (Nah-gesa, instead of Neh-geesa which I thought would happen). Then you take Makoto and they didn’t. Mikoshiba and Samezuka also suffer from some weird pronunciation that confuses me. Holding out the ‘O’ in Mikoshiba, rather than softening it. And Samezuka, I can’t even figure out how to type it. Took me a while to figure out what they were talking about in the show when I was first watching it.
Another localization thing that happened was the dudebro speak. This wouldn’t have bothered me cause hey, it does happen in casual settings, but it was used way too much. The first episode was especially bad, and turned many people away before they could give the English adaption much more of a chance. In some cases it worked due to the character. Like when Rin and Sousuke talked and said “dude/bro/man” it seemed natural for them, being the most masculine of the main cast and their history with each other. Doing it with Makoto and Haru, though, felt so wrong. Strangely, Rei never once said these words. Or not strangely because it’s not in his character to do so. Nagisa did it so few it didn’t bother me. Probably because I was too perturbed that Makoto was saying it so often it started to sound like a dirty word. Also to note of his mischaracterization are the instances where he swore or spoke harshly towards Haru, something he’d never do in the original.
Now, I know this series is not actually about gay swimmers, but for the fanservice appearance of it, The dudebro thing came off as aggressively stressing a “No Homo” vibe, rather than leaving a soft, ambiguous air. There are a lot of tender moments and it takes me out of it when they are like “Don’t sweat it, bro!” while tears stream down their faces.
Other than my complaints above, the script was fine and cohesive and sound with the source. There were a few groan worthy jokes, but that’s to be expected in localization. The actors acting was great, despite my disagreement on the general sound and characterization. There were a few scenes that I really liked how they were handled: When Rei is encouraging Nagisa in the episode Nagisa was feeling stressed, Sousuke’s confession to Rin about his shoulder and somehow being sadder than the original (other than the “I knew it’d make you cry’ being removed:), and Makoto and Haru’s fight being even more painful (though also made me upset cause Makoto swearing, but yeah), and the flashback scenes.
The sound and picture quality on the streaming service and blu-ray are fantastic and I’m glad I can own one of my favorites in the last few years. I purchased the Premium edition and am pleased with the extras that were included (postcards that were part of the Japanese release. Artbook with end card and promotional arts. Stickers and a towel! A bit pricey, but worth it if you like more merchandise).
In conclusion: If you are a big fan of the series, I recommend you tread cautiously when you watch the dub. Perhaps I am a bit sensitive due to my love of the series, But when the dub removed a lot of the heart of the source, I find it a little hard to forgive. It’s unfortunate because I find 90% of FUNimation’s dubs are fantastic. I was really looking forward to Free! but I ended up being disappointed.
Honestly, if you didn’t watch the series in Japanese, the dub is probably great! You won’t have anything to compare it to. But then I’d suggest you watch it in Japanese because of everything you’d missed. There may be even some that don’t care that much and won’t have issues like I did, and that’s also great.
In the end, FUNimation licensing and bringing Free! to the states is the best way to own it legally. Not buying it because you “don’t want to support a bad dub” is a poor argument when you can have good quality video and subtitles.