Premiere Review: Free! Theatrical Series "Take Your Marks"

by Spencer Dakos,

Ever since the announcement program in April 2013 (and the preliminary commercial in March 2013), the Free! franchise has been a phenomenon for Kyoto Animation and their subsidiary Animation Do. AniDo were involved in pushing the adaptation of Kouji Ooji's manuscript to TV series form for two TV series and they return here to continue the franchise with a series of short pieces taking place after the second TV season. The biggest change is the director helming this “film”; instead of Hiroko Utsumi, her fellow AniDo director Eisaku Kawanami takes over for Take Your Marks. Kawanami began as an episode director on Nichijou, honing his sense for comedy that he's well known for at KyoAni and AniDo.

In contrast to the more competitive/dramatic atmosphere Kawanami used for the two recap Timeless Medley films and fellow director Yasuhiro Takemoto took for the prequel film High Speed!, Take Your Marks returns to Utsumi's comedic version of the franchise, without going as far as she did with the comedy, at times. There's little drama in this film; instead Kawanami chose to use TYM to celebrate the TV series and progress forward with the characters’ lives. It's by far the most “slice-of-life” the series has ever been with the least amount of swimming in the entire franchise, but it culminates the relationships built up through Eternal Summer to push the characters forward into their respective futures.

Take Your Marks is for fans of the TV series and those who did see the unlicensed-in-English High Speed film. There's tons of little references and changes to the normal series of events. One great example of this is the opening scene with Haruka and Makoto; usually it's Makoto offering a hand to lift Haruka up calling him “Haru-chan”, while this film opens with Makoto being lifted up from a shinkansen seat by “Haru-chan.” The spirit animal references return, especially with Momotaro's sea otter being shown several times throughout the film. And for fans who complained about her lack of screentime in the second season, there is much more Gou in this film, including a great scene with her interacting one-on-one with Rin as brother and sister.

Story-wise, the film works with four plots intertwined throughout four “episodes” for lack of a better word. The first “episode” features Haruka and Makoto scouting for an apartment in Tokyo. Upon discovering their difficulties, Coach Sasabe recommends a realtor that he knows in Tokyo, however it turns out to be a very familiar face. After searching some more, they find an apartment, along with a local boy who adored the swimming coach that previously lived there. This tale was a great way to show Haruka calming down the overly panicy Makoto in a completely new setting. Episode director Naoko Yamada did a great job showing another side of Haruka that we've not seen before.

During this time, Rin moves out of the Samezuka dormitories, prompting Aichiro to want to give something as a farewell present to him and Sousuke for their efforts. Through some luck, he and Momotaro end up winning tickets to an onsen resort and gift them to Sousuke for him and Rin to go in the second tale of the film. It happens that Rin's mother has two more free tickets to the same resort, so Rin invites the two to go along with them. By quirk of fate, there happens to be a rival swim club participating in a training camp at the same resort. This leads to some hilarious hijinx as Momotaro never backs down from a challenge. There were times in this short where Momotaro's energy could be a bit much, but it conveyed the respect that Aichiro has towards Rin and Sousuke in a truly wonderful piece. Part director Yasuhiro Takemoto did a wonderful job bringing together the Samezuka team in a way we hadn't seen previously right before their parting.

While Haruka and Makoto were in Tokyo and the Samezuka team were off at the resort, the three remaining Iwatobi High swimming club members were figuring out how to draw new students to the club. The third short highlights their attempt at making a movie to show the new students during the club exhibition session. During this time, Haruka, Makoto, and Rin have returned and assist in the filming of the movie near a beach. The fans present at the event enjoyed some similarities with the movie costumes and the ones worn in the first season's ending animation. Similar to the second short, episode director Tatsuya Yamamura does a lovely job having Rei remember what drew him to the swimming club, along with his and Nagisa's bond with the departing Haruka and Makoto.

Finally, the film culminates in a fantastic fan-service festival where the Iwatobi club decides to throw a surprise farewell party for Rin before he heads to Australia. They bring in the members from the Samezuka team because they can't think of anything that would top a sakura pool from the second season. Their meeting prompts a Gamers-level misunderstanding, beginning with Rin thinking that Gou has fallen for Momotaro. To settle the cause and ensure his little sister will be taken care of, he challenges Momotaro to a race. Director Eisaku Kawanami sends off the film with a wonderful gathering of everyone from Iwatobi and Samezuka at Rin's party.

Visually, Free! Take Your Marks! is the same as ever. The color pallet is bright with hardly any scenes of darkness due to it being a celebration of events. With only a few swimming scenes, there aren't many great scenes of animation that stood out above the others. Yamamura storyboarded the first three shorts and Kawanami the last one without much visual flair; one of the more visually distinct scenes was a car race between Rin and Ms. Amakata. Regardless, the series looks as great as it always has. It's not quite “movie”-level animation, but it definitely looks better than the TV series.

Audibly, there were three vocal tracks for the film: an opening and ending sung by Style Five and a second ending song sung by the Iwatobi and Samezuka casts. The opening is a great mood-setter following the opening scenes with Haruka and Makoto while the closer is an energetic melody to finish the film. Tatsuya Katou returns to compose the soundtrack to the film, which has some good background music, but nothing that stood out for me personally.

As I got to see this at the 3rd KyoAni & Do event, there were a significant amount of female fans present during this premiere. Hearing the sheer joy when certain High Speed! characters returned grown up and the laughter at some of the antics from the Samezuka side was a true joy. I could feel the anticipation when the costumes in the third short were shown and the camera moved to Rin. This was truly a film for Free! fans and the ones in the audience that night were truly appreciative of the film they received.

If I'm pressed to call this a “movie” the answer would be “no, it's not a movie.” However, the way the stories are intertwined make this more than just “four episodes played in a theatre”. It's somewhat similar to four OVAs, but bundled together into one package as Kawanami referenced in his stage greeting address later that night. Regardless of the format, Take Your Marks is a fantastic addition to the Free! franchise for fans of the TV series. Fans who prefer the story and drama in High Speed! will be disappointed that this doesn't go away from Utsumi's comedic styling too much, but it's a fantastic love letter that reminds us why we enjoyed the TV series in the first place. After seeing the highly emotional and dramatic Violet Evergarden earlier that day, Take Your Marks was a good comfort film to enjoy and rediscover the fun that anime can bring. In short, if you enjoyed the TV series, find a way to watch this film if it's licensed. You won't regret it.

Also, the final bit of the movie said “See You Next Stage.” When prompted about it during the stage greeting, character designer Futoshi Nishiya could only reply in English: “See You Next Stage.” We'll have to see what the next stage is now!

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