Was this predictable?
I think the warning signs were there.
The entire 2nd TV series was building up to this moment. The moment Haruka would snap. It wasn’t easy to watch. Yet, also the entire episode was geared on it exponentially. This was episode 9.
It made me really sad. It was cathartic as a visual medium and storytelling apparatus. I was really engrossed by his mental exhaustion. So much so that I actually didn’t want to see the stretch. I decided to wait and pull into what I saw disaster coming this way and it was awful.
Like Haruka I too stared in completely amazement, as he limpidly stared into the glossy lights of the swimming arena blankly as though caught in an asphyxiating tremor, not weakness but not strength, just numbness. I knew it — he can’t take pressure. That is a flaw but not to deride him: it is the most human thing elaborated with both visuals and Haruka’s face hanging in defeat (as rinsbae in Tumblr also noted). Haruka had a mental breakdown. It was cleanly understood. He just couldn’t take the pressure. Everyone was down on his throat about his freestyle swimming and it got to him. The propensity of the pressure they gave him was too much. From his school principal, to Rin and his teammates, to teachers to random scouts — everyone was thinking that Haru was a swimming machine and they just wanted to see him perform. And it got to Haruka. He always stated that “free” even short for his style and short for “freedom” was the way he swam. It is not that in competitions he didn’t feel pressure it was still amicable pressure. It was when his entire existence was just bounded, as in being defined by others as only a thing he had to do nor else it made no sense, to his “freestyle” then it lost its freedom. It became really corrupted to him. It became something vicarious and not something that he himself understood as his own, as his self, it became a projection alone as a trick. Haruka never swam for that. To him swimming was both aesthetic, talent but also empathy and a portion of his soul transmuted. It just lost that integrity when the pressure to perform came in.
Even the genius hurts and gets defeated when encountered with such negative social icons of perfection.
Such pressure to perform to an angle that is “full” not “fullest” but rather typed on as something like technical, technicality and reduced to the methodology of technique alone made Haruka lose it. Everyone felt that he could succeed and that success is very well, only defined, by the scouts’s eyes beholding that image of excellence rather than all the emotions, efforts, energy and sweet exhaustion that prepares and is parcel to the entirety of the art. Haruka felt reduced to a mechanical image. Like a wind-up doll he felt meaning castigated, chastised his soul made into a minimal binary of “performing well” and “not performing well” — in that moment, swimming lost meaning to him as something he bonded and became bonded to; it just became a game, a series of performances. Ironically, Judith Butler would call this “performativity” and I go with that theoretical and philosophical practice. It became difficult for Haruka to process his feelings, all his life, from the first season he had a tenacity, a firmness, to love water but also be ordinary. It was crucial to him not to be determined as a prodigy. Maybe, one will say he is a loser but to him the prodigious title was encapsulated with problems. It did not make an appealing gesture, it brought an attention to him, a mechanical and detached attention rather than an enormous empathetic one. To him competition was an event that made him win affection, bonds and a sense of camaraderie-ship with his friends. Swimming was always that to him and competitions expanded that sequence of events, perhaps not chronologically yet astute and enabled his need to breathe and be calm and live a full life.
Swimming had lost that when it became only a sport. Only something that just defined him as an athlete but not a person. It became a lose and cheap term for him. He also got horribly afraid. This was not something he wanted. Not something he was prepared for; the territory and the way it was expressed was not him. He got naturally afraid and did not know this water, this water of only being a sporty person or oriented only in sports. His prodigy is not limited only to performances. So, he got tired and stopped. He was afraid and also this scouting thing made him feel less of what he was. It just made him sad.
Running, it is painfully obvious how this is getting to him:
So, he stopped.
The nightmare that Haruka had was equally terrifying and expressive of performance and what is integral. Like overactive enthusiasm and logical theory it makes him feel claustrophobic and feel wooden. It was very nicely done to explain his psychological state:
This part was a very good development of a character. It was both telling of him and telling of socio-economic and socio-cultural norms that are and should be open to critique. Is an athlete only a name, a performance and a title? To Haruka it was not. Water and understanding water is a large part of his life in fact from the Free! Wiki you can read the director say that water is a vehicle of expression for him. It was a way he communicates. He did not want his communication to be only treated as something like this; something just as a race to determine fastest or slowest. That is why he communicated a breakdown. He stood still. His watery tongue was dry and could not reach his kinesis and state of being.
Haruka Nanase had a mental breakdown.
Was it necessary? Yeah clean as day and night it was. Everyone was so excited that Haruka was a dream of potential success. No one asked if Haruka wanted that kind of success and that kind of exposure. Makoto never asked directly and sure as hell Rin didn’t either. Haruka is subtle — his face in silence makes small ripples and in those silent ripples his body language also moves and wrinkles what he feels. Haruka did not know what to feel because everyone is counting on him to make an impression. But to Haruka he doesn’t want to make one. It is tiring doing that.
In Tumblr many had made gifs, graphics out of this and I remember lingering on a set of images showing Haruka stopping and Rin blinking and interspersed with the confrontation they have at the end. It was heartbreaking to watch a genius, a human character to lose in something that he so passionately loved all because of pressure and apathetic views and intentions of treating him as a performance. It really got me.
With this I think the story wants to question if someone’s love for a sport is just a fancy consumption? Shouldn’t people ask what and why they do so elegantly a sport or an art or a science and actually be understood as whole individuals whose success is not truly always a title but rather also a universe of their own, sacred God-given right to explore and know themselves and others. It is the human element that seems to be askew or replaced by just a perfunctory need to consume brilliance. This brilliance lives short. Like a firefly or butterfly destines to die with so many probabilities of feeling incomplete coerced brilliance makes a beauty into a capital, a taxation of exhaustion and defeat. The Tumblr user yannychigi also beautifully wrote on this:
Can I just give my two cents on this one.
To Haruka, he and the water share a bond no person can ever hope to understand- intimate but based on respect.
What I’ve noticed is that the water is like some sort of mirror. It shapes into form based on the feelings of whoever enters it’s territory.
In this case. Haru.
When Haru’s mind was clear and free of any doubts or insecurities, the water danced with him. Every swish, every splash collided with Haru’s movements.
And it was beautiful.
But during the regionals…
Haru was in darkness. So the water mirrored his heart.
Because there was hesitation and fear…the water hesitated as well.
Instead of syncing with Haru’s swimming, it became the chains that binded Haru to a hault.
And so Haru stopped.
And the chains were no more.
It was almost like the water itself wanted to tell Haru…
“You’re heart is not Free”
“That’s enough, Haru”
“Don’t struggle anymore”
In the entire series, both Free! Iwatobi Swim Club and Free!Eternal Summer, you have never seen Haruka break this badly. Or get mad so furiously. When Rin wants an answer, when Rin wants to know how could he just throw away his future — Haruka just snaps some more and becomes volatile. He just can’t take this impending question of future and a potency of what might be termed as “prodigious future” because to him it feels lifeless, antagonizing and thoroughly not him.
Though we are very close to the end. This was riveting. It was very hard to watch but also very important to the narratives of everything. What do these young men want? What do they need? Rin was at failure to understand that he had trained for this challenge and this moment for almost all of his life. Haruka hadn’t. Haruka may be a genius but his life has run along pretty smoothly till now. What so-called ordinary people may not find challenging prodigies can find frustrating, bothersome and many a times defeating. Haruka did things with ease so a challenge like this was also something he never faced before. Things came to him easily enough just not this. It was very difficult for him to understand this. It was him reaching a point he didn’t before. It was scary, confusing and he didn’t know who to ask to help him. It just happens to be something that he couldn’t overcome at the moment.
It might be pathetic but it’s real. Haruka may be using a bit of escapism but I understand him. Humans are not trained for perfection. They are more inclined for error. It was egregious for everyone to heap all their little toxic bag of expectations on Haruka it was also a limit on him and a non-skill in him to not be dexterous about this. He could have just swam and not care about if he came second or third — he could have swam at his own pace and be happy that what he was feeling regularly or the feelings most intimate to him: loving the feel, heart, texture and mobility of water. But of course he did not know that. Haruka is not really prominent troubleshooter. We have seen this earlier when Nagisa showed up and he couldn’t do much or even recognise that Nagisa is feeling troubled. It is good that by showing this Haruka may have broken the “Mary Sue/Gary Stu” position he had with most people who knew him (audience included). Not to mention he seems a bit repenting about the situation as he feels he let his friends down. Maybe, he also feels he let himself down too. A situation like this is very painful.
Will Haruka get out of this? Maybe, but I had said earlier that even if Haruka did nor fully get into swimming competitively it did not mean anything because he will still be a great, prodigious athletic swimmer. In fact, he could get into professional swimming and also leave it after he felt it satisfied his cravings and be a chief or something else as the chief avatar we see him in the ending theme “Future Fish”.
What matters is that we are being broken out of the idyllic for and of Haruka’s character. All of this has made him more human and more relatable and more of a person than a frigid character. It added layers to other distinct parts of him.
For that I am happy that they took this route — it was very sad and empathetic, very heartbreaking seeing him like that vulnerable and tired and I respected that he did what was honest of him.
Haruka Nanase is growing up. Maturing into a more substantial personal character.
* I know I said I might do an episode by episode summary and analysis but it is getting difficult. I might just do a full review. However, I was writing about episode 2 individually so I might put that up. I am sorry if I disappointed anyone though.