Free! -Dive to the Future- brings Kyoto Animation's beloved swimming boys back to the small screen, but is the show still worth watching nearly half a decade later? This week, Nick and Jacob plunge back into this summer spectacle.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network. Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.
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Jake, it's finally summer time, and you know what that means! The sun's shining, half the country is melting, and we all need to get WET AND WILD.
minus the 80, of course
Yeah it's been a good long while since we saw the chronically shirtless boys of Free!, though I suppose people who searched out the recap movies or the one where they're in middle school didn't have to wait quite so long.
Right. I reviewed
the Take Your Marks movie back in March (it was little more than an advert for this season to be honest), which means I refreshed myself on the adventures of these summer boys pretty recently, and my feelings on Free! have definitely changed since it first aired half a decade ago. When it first came out, I remember just being really happy that we were getting a high-end manservice show for this woefully under-served demographic in anime fandom, even if the story wasn't anything to wax rhapsodic about and the manservice in question wasn't to my particular tastes.
Looking back at it now, even if no other manservice anime has near this level of swimming sakuga...
...well, that market is more than catered to these days. But I find myself more enamored with the story and the ideas it was trying to convey about the scariness of growing up and turning your passion into a highly competitive job. Even if the solution to that fear is FRIENDSHIP, it's still a nice sentiment that was expressed well.
(Still not my preferred flavor of beefcake tho.)
(Gou Matsuoka's opinions do not reflect the views of
This Week in Anime.)
It's just better to have some motion in the ocean, let's leave it at that.
I'm in a similar boat with regards to Free!—I originally just enjoyed it as a novelty in the much sparser anime landscape of 2013, but Eternal Summer did a lot to get me invested in these boys. And while the fanservice wasn't directed at me, there's an infectious playfulness to it that I could get into nonetheless.
Plus Makoto's back is something to behold no matter what team you're batting for.
Alright, I'd hit it.
But enough about the past, this is all about diving to the future after all. So let's jump into the deep end to address the most pressing question of this new season:
YEAH SO enough time has passed that our central cast is split up across three separate locations, (Haru/Mako in college, Rin in Australia, Nagi and Rei still at Iwatobi), which means they need new teammates, which means I hope you can tell all these jerk-offs apart because I am already struggling.
I'm actually alright with most of the new people. The Iwatobi crew has so far just been there for occasional comic relief, and Rin's new Australian teammates all speak surprisingly American-sounding English so you can't get them confused.
And then there's Rin 3.0, I mean Ikuya.
First it was Rin, then it was Sousuke, and now it seems like it's time for this little grouch from the Starting Days movie to learn the True Meaning of Friendship.
Which is a bigger problem because unless you booked an international flight three years ago to see High Speed...
Fortunately, the series itself has told us basically everything we need to know about his problems stemming from those middle school days. So it's not so much confusion about who he is and what he wants as it is a potential lack of emotional attachment since we've spent a couple fewer hours with him than expected.
Holy christ you guys, it was middle school. You are in college now. THIS SHOULD NOT MATTER TO YOU ANYMORE.
Yeahhhhhhh. So far DTF (that's what I'm calling it and nobody can stop me) has been much further on the sad and contemplative side of Free!'s usual spectrum. That wouldn't necessarily be a problem, but it does feel like something's missing when we're three episodes in and nobody's enthusiastically stripped yet.
I'm not saying you need to blow the doors off with cheesecake, but this is a season where we have actual shots of arguing boobs in other shows. You could stand to zoom in on some abs.
It's important to mention that there was a major staff change heading into the movies and season 3, as Hiroko Utsumi went on to direct Banana Fish at MAPPA instead. To be honest, this change showed to me immediately. There was a really specific tone of playfulness and summer comfort even in Free!'s most intensely dramatic scenes, and that contrast worked really well for the humble story material.
These boys have moved on with their lives, grown and changed in so many ways, which was what made the finale of season two so powerful, like I didn't think they needed another season after that at all. But now they spend most of their time tiptoeing around feelings they had when they were like 12 years old.
It's definitely a turn I wasn't expecting going into DTF. Eternal Summer spent so long building up to Haru and friends taking the next step into their future, facing the vast ocean of the unknown, but so far the biggest emotional conflicts have all been about middle school.
It's even affecting Rin because COINCIDENTALLY, the guy who's most interested in challenging him in the pool happens to be Ikuya's big brother. And we've barely met any of Nagi and Rei's new teammates, because they spend most of their scenes wondering how Haru's doing and talking about Ikuya like he's Voldemort or something.
Rin's bits are still my favorite. Eternal Summer basically made him the best character in Free! and it's still cool to see somebody who's got their shit together confidently going after his goals.
It was kind of heartbreaking to see him cheating on Sousuke tho.
Leave him alone Natsuya, he's clearly living his best life. This is the breakfast of champions right here!
That said, on its own the material with Ikuya isn't bad. It's a solid enough conflict to explore for a story that highlights how much Haru's changed now that he's actively trying to apologize and make amends for people he's hurt. That's not something he'd have done at the beginning of the series! It's just...y'all it's so middle school.
For god's sake if it was HIGH SCHOOL I'd be telling these bitches to move on. And so would Mikoshiba.
It's still a gorgeous show, and I can't deny that I've missed these boys, but story-wise, the bloom is off the rose for me right now. While Haru's position relative to this "swimming relay as metaphor for opening up and trusting others" theme has changed over time, it's still the same theme, and I'd like it to be explored with a little more levity and breadth than this. Maybe we'll get there.
Also the new ED was a disappointment to me in the manservice department. Past seasons gave us this:
and season 3 has uh...
the beastie boys...?
It's a different flavor for sure. It's still pretty cheeky, but it does feel a little lacking too. Overall I still mostly enjoy DTF, but it's just not hitting the same buttons that the first two seasons managed so effortlessly.
There's plenty of room to improve though, and I do hope Free! can find a way to get that spark back.
Maybe they can start by letting Rin play the field in peace!