The Summer 2018 Anime Preview Guide
Free! -Dive to the Future-
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Free! -Dive to the Future- ?
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Free has never been my favorite franchise, but I've always appreciated the way it treats its characters. Sure, they're pretty to look at and charming specimens of beefcake, but the show also acknowledges that they're people underneath all the fanservice. Free! Dive to the Future seems set to continue that trend as Haru and Makoto embark on their college lives, which almost immediately brings them into contact with old friends from their middle school years who are set to both stir up emotions and remind them that people change as time passes.
That's something Haru is already thinking about as he realizes that if he was a prodigy and then a genius, something's going to have to change once he's no longer young and new. As the resident introvert and generally anxious (specifically socially) member of the group, that's something he's going to have mixed feelings about, and the upcoming reunion with his middle school swim team friend Ikuya is likely to have a large effect on it. Like Rin, Ikuya has been out of the country (America in his case), and there's a strong hint that he may see himself as being a more devoted, serious swimmer than Haru, possibly because of that. Whereas Rin and Haru were able to mend their relationship, Ikuya's likely to be trickier on that front, not only because now they're moving into a much more competitive arena, but also because we could see the hint of that sense of superiority in the middle school flashback, when he simply looks away as the rest of the boys plan to do better next year. He's being set up to stand apart from the rest of the group in a way that could affect all of his former friends, and it'll be interesting to see how Makoto specifically reacts, given that he's no long swimming competitively.
Free definitely deserves credit for not falling prey to the anime fiction that life ends after high school, and I'm also glad that it isn't abandoning Nagisa and Rei just because they haven't graduated yet. They (and Gou) aren't just moping around either; they're keeping the swim club going, and while I'm not thrilled with the large number of new characters introduced this episode, I do appreciate that there are new swim club members back in high school. The parallels (literal, in one terrific scene) between Rin and Haru are also a nice reminder that everyone is moving forward with their lives, not just the few characters the show deems to be the protagonists. It's that character respect that I mentioned before, and what's set to continue making this third season worth watching for more than just the guys in swimsuits.
Free is back with its first proper TV season in a while, and it may take a bit of work to get back into the swing of things depending on how closely you've been following the franchise. The prequel and sequel films that came out after season two do factor in here, so viewers who've only kept up with the TV series will likely spend this premiere playing the “who are you and why should I care” game with some of the characters. Having said that, this is still Free, so at some point it's easy enough to just sit back and enjoy the return of everyone's favorite swimming boys.
Based on this episode, it looks like this season will be tying all of the various pieces of the franchise into a single narrative. This means that Asahi and Ikuya, two of the guys Haruka swam with in middle school during the prequel movie, are brought in to play significant roles. At the same time, the core cast is somewhat split up: Haruka and Makoto are pursuing different goals in college, Rin is off doing his own thing, and the younger characters are carrying on in their respective high school clubs. Even for viewers who are up to date, that's a lot of storylines to juggle at once, and it has me a little worried that this season might end up dividing its focus across too many conflicts.
On the upside, this show still looks blindingly good. We get a couple of swimming scenes in this episode, and both the fluid motion and the sharp visual direction are up to the high standards of the series. If toned guys in swimsuits are your thing, this is still as good as it gets. For folks who aren't necessarily here for the fanservice, there's also some respectable character writing to dig into. Haruka's opening monologue is of particular interest, especially the last few lines where he appears to question how long he'll be able to stay at the top of his game. With the main characters looking to the future more than ever before, the fleeting nature of peak athletic performance could make for an interesting theme as the season plays out.
A bit of homework may be required to get the most out of this premiere, as it doesn't really go out of its way to offer a recap of past events. It's possible to piece together the key points from a handful of flashbacks, but reading a plot summary or two might be a good idea if you've missed one or more entries in the franchise. Aside from that, it looks like Free is still pretty darn good at what it does, and this season should be an exciting one as long as the pace doesn't get bogged down by the multitude of plot threads.
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