「Dive to the Future!」
The All-Japan Nationals
Here it is everyone! The moment that this season has been building towards — the All-Japan Nationals. We’ve been seeing payoffs across the boards for all the blood, sweat and tears that went into training. Rin qualifies for the 200m Butterfly, and Ikuya finally surpasses Natsuya to qualify in the Individual Medley – a fact that Natsuya is extremely proud of. However, just as we receive closure on these things, a new storyline emerges in full force. Kinjou Kaede takes to the stage as a formidable freestyle swimmer. KyoAni take various liberties in demonstrating that Kinjou is cut from the same cloth as Albert – the one consisting of world beaters. That deep, synth track they share is something I’ll never get tired of, and it really conveys the unimaginable depths of their talents. He brushes aside Asahi and Hiyori like they’re nothing, exhibiting a blatant disregard for his fellow competitors, and nonchalantly sets a tournament record in the process. But irrespective of the similarities he possesses in dominating fellow competitors, Kinjou is fundamentally different from the calm and measured Albert. He has this frenetic intensity and maniacal disposition about him, and through the screen, I felt overwhelmed by the sheer presence he was exuding. Although his introduction came late, his introduction was absolutely delightful. For me, he joins Albert in raising the bar to excitement levels that are unprecedented within Free! and I look forwards to seeing him feature more in future instalments.
Haru’s Mental Block
And then we come to Haru. We’ve seen how Haru has put in more practice than ever, and I’m certain that a lot of us wanted to see the fruits of his labour. His friends all show up and offer their support, and he isn’t going up against anyone extraordinary, so everything’s going to be alright, no? Unfortunately not. Witnessing Kinjou’s swimming shatters his mentality. Not because Kinjou’s raw talent vastly exceeded his, rather because Haru realised that to reach Kinjou and Albert could require a sacrifice he’s not willing to make. They don’t really make it clear what specific sacrifice that Haru is scared of – casting aside his friends to become a world beater? Whatever it was, his doubts caused him to falter and ultimately fall out of contention for World Championship qualification. Not even a podium finish, at fourth place too. I’d understand why many viewers would have felt robbed by such a devastating loss – this is not the kind of payoff anyone who is emotionally invested in Haru would want. No one wants to see someone they care about falling short. Ryuuji pointed out that Haru’s top speed exceeded Albert’s mid-race, but that is hardly any kind of consolation to quench any disappointment. That he had the capability of attaining qualification generates so many uncomfortable ‘what-if’ scenarios, gut-wrenching speculations as to the tiny things he could have done differently (e.g. better start).
But you know, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Free! has done a remarkable job of eliciting strong emotions from me. Building up these stakes into emotional rollercoasters is exactly what a competitive sports anime should be about, and you can’t get to those highs without any lows. Seeing Haru at his absolute lowest brings out the most human element in him that we’ve seen thus far, a testimony to his significant development as a character. There was a vitally cathartic moment where Haru showed that in spite of his doubts, he still possessed a conviction to overcome everything coming his way. In my opinion, screaming his intent to take on the world was such a powerful way to wrap off the season – a declaration signifying that he finally has a definitive goal he’s actively striving towards. I’m sure that Haru will bounce back and when that happens, it will be extremely gratifying. Plus, he has one more shot at redemption in another freestyle event. Looks like we will have to wait though, and I can’t be the only person who is hankering for that S4.
From the very start, I got the feeling that the series will largely focus on Haru + Co and their foray onto the national and international levels, which is totally understandable. After two seasons of focus, they’re the undeniable protagonists of this franchise. As always, the masculine interactions were pleasing to see, especially the addition of childhood friends like Ikuya, Asahi and Kisumi. I’d imagine those who didn’t watch Starting Days or Take Your Marks might have felt out of their depth, suddenly being introduced to so many new characters without proper explanation. But I thought it was a fantastic means of branching beyond the original cast, without needing to greatly interfere with existing relationship dynamics. Assuming you’d seen the movies, prior familiarity would take its course in helping you accept the new characters. Asahi and Kisumi fit in without any problems, exhibiting high chemistry with the rest of the cast. Some might consider Ikuya’s issues to be melodramatic and over the top. But I felt he an essential catalyst in Haru’s progression by being a source of regret due to past events, and the resolution where they swam the Individual Medley against each other was a sight to behold.
But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have bones to pick. They had to raise the bar to make us aware of the world beyond university level – only we weren’t provided with proper closure since Albert and Kaede remain largely unaccounted for. The coaches were mentor figures that we’ve had yet to see in this series, and they had charming personalities for the most part. But the proxy conflict through their students ended up being lacklustre – we didn’t even get to see the conclusion of the race between Haru and Rin! Also, it’s a real shame that KyoAni didn’t delve into similar depths with Romio and Shizuru. In my opinion, it couldn’t have harmed KyoAni to give more focus towards a compelling cast of likeable characters in Iwatobi Generation 2.0. That said, when you only have 12 episodes and an endgame in mind, it makes sense to work towards that goal. Had there been more focus on Iwatobi Generation 2.0, that would likely have come at a cost, be it Ikuya’s Arc or the All-Japan Nationals. I’m chuffed that we’ve arrived at this point with vim and vigour, and the pacing has been fantastic – nothing was abrupt and nothing overstayed its welcome. Sometimes we’ve just got to accept that there will be imperfections throughout the process, as well as in the finished product. To me, the shortcomings of Dive to the Future are more than permissible if one considers what they achieved in the context of inevitable limitations. However, it is hard for me to objectively rank this particular entry. While I personally think this is the best entry so far into the franchise, there’s too much unfinished business to the point where this felt half-baked (albeit fantastically so) — I’m left wanting and expecting so much more.
Sadly, there’s not much I can speculate about in ascertaining possible results. However, the future looks bright with S4 confirmed for 2020. With two years to work on it and with 2020 being an Olympic year to boot, my expectations are running high and I’d be sorely disappointed if KyoAni didn’t knock their ball out of the park. And that’s about everything I wanted to talk about. I’m sure there’s more discuss, so let your thoughts be known down in the comment section. As always, thanks for reading my posts and following me on this swim-tastic venture till the very end. Take care, and hope to see you back in 2020 for some more certified Free! goodness!