Free! -Dive to the Future-
Episode 4

by Lauren Orsini,

How would you rate episode 4 of
Free! -Dive to the Future- ?

It took three seasons, but the Free! franchise finally has its own proper villain. This week on Free! Dive to the Future Ikuya's friend-turned-bodyguard Hiyori served a cartoonishly evil role. This claws-out conflict easily eclipsed the rest of the episode, which was mostly glimpses of the show's oversized cast wherever they could fit. Like I predicted last week, this Ikuya arc is not going to go away soon, so I hope you like angst with your swimming boys.

So do you hate Hiyori yet? Previously, antagonist characters like Rin and Sousuke remained likable since we knew they were dealing with their own struggles, but that's not the case here. Though a private conversation makes it clear that Ikuya accepts his best friend's gatekeeping, Hiyori makes sure to be the biggest possible dick about it. “I keep my promises… unlike you,” he says, referencing the way the swim club broke up and gave Ikuya an abandonment complex. Somehow, Hiyori manages to be offended about middle school slights that didn't even happen to him despite now being in college. He takes it on himself to decide who deserves to be in Ikuya's life, even as characters point out that this should be up to Ikuya himself. “Why do you keep butting in and speaking for Ikuya?” Asahi asks. Hiyori's response is that Ikuya is too fragile at too pivotal a moment in his career to afford any sort of distraction. His concerns are reasonable but sharpened with insults. He's far too aggressive over such old wounds for this drama to ring particularly realistic, like this anger is a mask Hiyori is wearing for the plot's sake. I'm confident that Hiyori will eventually get reformed somehow.

That all depends on Ikuya, though. Last week, I predicted that Ikuya's suffering wasn't over yet because these things come in threes. And sure enough, Ikuya had a near-drowning experience once again. (By the third time I wasn't too worried, just marveling at how great the water animation continues to look.) Ikuya's sensitive situation feeds Hiyori's fear, turning him from overprotective into a straight-up jerk. That said, we see very little of how Ikuya actually feels. The biggest clue is The Little Mermaid book he's reading over the course of the episode. Could it be an indication that he's still thinking about Haru, who was depicted as a mermaid in the “Future Fish” ending from season two? There's every sign that Haru is going to get roped into this more and more as the arc continues. “Everyone who swims with you ends up suffering somehow, huh?” Hiyori says to him. It's a low blow toward the cast's most socially anxious member, and it hits its target hard. Haru is about to go through some serious mental turmoil.

This is great for the melodrama, but none of these events in the main conflict have enough time to shine. Even though Makoto is the one who competes against Hiyori, it's obvious that this is Haru and Ikuya's story instead. Makoto gets his own small development when he has a reunion with Misaki, a young swimmer from Free! Starting Days that most English-language fans won't know much about until the Funimation release later this year. Later, the gang meets a scruffy guy in the cafeteria who doesn't look like a student. Could he be the coach that will magically reform Haru, teach him to swim other styles than free (gasp!), just in time for a stunning reunion with Ikuya during an Individual Medley competition? Just a guess.

It's hard to believe there's going to be a new character considering how little screentime we have for Free!'s legacy cast. This episode gives us glimpses of Samezuka and Iwatobi characters we have barely seen so far (like Ai and Momo!). It also gives speaking roles to basically every guy on Haru's college swim team, which I found totally unnecessary. The central drama is gripping but the urgency fades as soon as the story pans elsewhere. Just how long is it going to be able to keep up this juggling act?

Rating: B

Free! -Dive to the Future- is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.

Lauren writes about geek careers at Otaku Journalist.

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