The Free! boys have come a long way since the halcyon days of the first season. The Final Stroke films take place directly after Dive to the Future, the third TV anime season. Taken together, they tell the story of Haru and Rin’s bid at world-class competitive swimming.
I can’t help but feel ambivalent about the evolution of Free! as a franchise. A series which started out as a goofy romp with muscly boys now has a somber, wistful tone to it, as the boys grow up and leave their childhoods behind. I can still remember like yesterday when Free! was seen as an outlier in Kyoto Animation’s catalog, but now it feels like the series has converged with Sound! Euphonium in telling a bittersweet drama about the ephemeral passions of youth. The more subdued style of storytelling is certainly a reflection of Eisaku Kawanami‘s sensibilities as a director, but while it’s a story well told, I can’t shake the feeling that Free! has sanded off its unique traits by taking this direction.
That might be an ironic thing to say about an anime which has the guts to let its characters leave high school. But that also allows the story to be even more frank about exploring the uncertainties of young adulthood and the toxic mindset that can come with it. By leaving the confines of school, Free! directly tackles the question: “Does your life really peak then?” After all, when you become an adult, nobody calls you “gifted” or “a genius” anymore. Standing at the precipice of university with your whole life ahead of you, it may feel as if taking any path at all erases all the other possibilities that your life could have taken. This fear of being left behind before they can make their mark on the world is what drives the characters in this story.
It’s a compelling conflict to build a story around, but as an adult, watching this kind of thing just makes me glum. Even if it is a story about the characters eventually finding satisfaction in their lives, the road to get there is difficult to watch, because this entire arc has been circling around the really obvious point that growing up isn’t as scary as it seems and that it sucks to ditch your friends. After an entire season of angst over not being enough of an overachiever, this film delivers yet more angst and no resolution. The story could have been reasonably wrapped up in a single film if the arc had been organized more succinctly, so it annoyed me to see this film end on a cliffhanger.
Part of my reaction is the result of betrayed expectations. As it turns out, the meet in Sydney is not the climax of the story that it was built up to be at the end of Dive to the Future. The first third or so of this film show the races in detail, but life continues even after the participants pack up and go home. The rest of it is mostly mellow, as the characters connect and reflect on their priorities away from the pool. The film takes the time to remind us that there are still several dangling plot threads and unresolved tensions between the side characters before bringing the focus back to Haru and Rin.
The climax of this film has some rather strange directorial choices. A tense and emotional confrontation between friends uses the same kind of fist-pumping track that an intense race in the pool would have. Visually, it’s rather over-the-top as well, with one of the characters appearing to have a dissociative moment while their astral projection watches in anguish. Considering that the rest of the drama outside the pool is supported heavily by subtle and delicate character animation, this moment felt tonally out of step to me.
For Free! fans who aren’t quite ready yet to say goodbye to these characters, this is a nice film that takes the time to set up an emotionally satisfying sendoff. And, as usual, the animation and the pool scenes in particular don’t disappoint. But personally, I’m ready for this story to end, so it’s frustrating to see its rhythm falter in its final strokes.
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