Free! -Dive to the Future-
by Lauren Orsini,
How would you rate episode 11 of
Free! -Dive to the Future- ?
There are shows that tell a story and shows that share a highlight reel, and right now, Free! Dive to the Future is the latter. Like flipping through an old school yearbook, this episode distills its story down to the casts' highest highs, lowest lows, partings and reunions. After a season in which everyone has been scattered around Japan and beyond, “Streamline of Unity!” united the full cast (or close to it) in Tokyo. With a lot of deep cuts for fans of the franchise, this episode was heavy on continuity. However, it was light on substance, reminding us that when push comes to shove, this is a story about relationships first and a swimming anime second.
After nearly three seasons, a movie, and several OVAs, Free! has a lot of material to rely on, and this episode took full advantage of that. Viewers might remember Rei and Asahi meeting for the first time in middle school, or they might not. Either way, there's a flashback just in case. Viewers might remember in season two when Momotaro saw Rin's chest muscles and thought they looked like cleavage. If they do, his sister Isuzu's comment to Gou about her brother's chest won't seem to be entirely out of left field. If viewers happened to watch Free! -Take Your Marks-, they'll recognize why the current Iwatobi members react to meeting Makoto and Haru the way they do—they remember them from the Arabian Nights-style recruitment video. The viewer certainly remembers Rei and Nagisa's three-year friendship, so that particular highlight reel is just nostalgia. In general, this is all capitalizing on the character and relationship development that Free! has been cultivating for years—precisely so it can make tiny nudges now for big viewer payoff. If you're a diehard fan, these moments are imbued with so much significance that it feels at least a little less low-effort.
Swimming is the reason the cast is once again united, but it's not the source of the action or the drama. Rei wins his race and Nagisa loses his, but it doesn't seem to have any point in the grand scheme of things. I have questions about how Rei can come in first in his race at the national tournament but still not advance, but I'm no high school swimming expert. We don't really find out about anybody placing nationally, and the plot indicates that it doesn't matter. What does matter? The power of friendship. See Rin and Haru hang out, minus the angst! See Rin and Sousuke hang out, also angst Free! Ditto for Nagisa and Ai, Nagisa and Rei, and so on. Forget about Albert, the other rival guy in the newspaper, and anything to do with Hiyori and all that drama. This was almost story-Free!, just a montage reel of beloved characters.
Overall, this reflects the same thing I've been saying all season. The cast is huge. There's tons of material to build on. Sometimes the series gets halfway cohesive by becoming more myopic, centering on just one swimmer and his relationships to other people in the cast. (We've seen this when both Makoto and Ikuya got episodes.) But most of the time, it's a potpourri of glimpses of your favorite swimming boys in seemingly random order. It's still cute and sometimes even heartwarming, but it's only because there's so much great stuff in the canon already that this show can afford to coast on.
Free! Dive to the Future is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
Lauren writes about geek careers at Otaku Journalist.
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