Free! -Dive to the Future-
by Lauren Orsini,
How would you rate episode 5 of
Free! -Dive to the Future- ?
What genre is Free! Dive to the Future at this point? Characters swim all the time, but rarely since the first season has an episode centered around mastering a particular swimming technique. Now, after weeks of emotional turbulence, Free! Dive to the Future has gone back to its roots with a sports story. With the entire A part focused on the new Iwatobi swim club, and the Hiyori drama sequestered to a couple of minutes near the end, this was the most focused episode in a while. By giving the club the spotlight, new characters were around long enough for me to not only remember their names, but really care about their stories.
In “An Ominous Workout!”, Free! uses visual storytelling to deepen each character in the new generation of Iwatobi swim club while developing their rapport. This starts right away with everyone's varying reactions to Ama-chan-sensei's driving. Along with the returning Nagisa, Rei, and Gou, we get to know Ayumu as a timid but hardworking manager and Shizuru as a soft-spoken backstroke swimmer with lots of feelings. We especially focus on Romio—an excitable but slightly neurotic freestyle swimmer. Even though an oversized ensemble cast is quick to appear (at a three-school swim camp because we just can't hold all these characters), the focus remains on our six Iwatobi members. Having this core group in the spotlight centralizes the story and makes the massive cast a little more manageable. By contrasting these characters against each other from all angles, we get to know them better.
For the first time in a while, the episode's plot is about swimming. Recalling a false start in middle school, Romio is still nervous about diving in on time. Through the support of his teammates, a well-timed mock relay race, and some guiding words from Sousuke, Romio manages to get over his fear in the course of an episode. This feels more like a sports plot than a melodrama because Romio's trauma is treated with a mix of sports psychology and technical suggestions. That's why Romio is able to overcome his issues in one episode, while it's probably going to take Ikuya the entire season. If characters treated Ikuya's inability to play well with teammates more as openly as a performance issue and psychological hangup (and Hiyori wasn't in the way), maybe he'd already be feeling better.
Outside of Iwatobi, we see scattered bits and pieces of everyone else's stories. Sousuke and Natsuya (an easy new fan favorite even with limited screen time) talk indirectly about Rin. Makoto becomes a swim instructor and meets a new-to-me character from High Speed! -Free! Starting Days-, which gets a North American release later this year. There is a blissfully brief check-in on the Hiyori and Ikuya horror show. For me, it's been worth watching each episode multiple times to keep all of these characters straight. It's all going to make a lot more sense in a future binge-watch when I don't have to go a week between one glimpse of a story thread and the next. The Free! franchise has evolved immensely during its three seasons and multiple OVAs, but a bigger cast does not always mean better. This episode showed me a lot of what I've been missing—a team dynamic in which characters grow stronger through mutual encouragement.
Free! -Dive to the Future- is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
Lauren writes about geek careers at Otaku Journalist.
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