Having begun their first year of college in Tokyo, Haru and Makoto cross paths with old friends from their Iwatobi Junior High School swim team during a swimming tournament. While it is a warm reunion with their old teammate Asahi, it is much more difficult to make amends with Ikuya, an extremely talented swimmer who has closed off his heart to his old friends after a broken childhood promise. Back in the town of Iwatobi, the now senior members of the Iwatobi High School swim team, Nagisa, Rei, and Gou, are training up the new members of the swim club and meeting up with their Samezuka academy rivals for joint practice in preparation for nationals. In the meantime, Rin prepares for his international swimming career by training in Australia with his new coach and a new team. Although much has changed since their Iwatobi swim days some things will always remain the same, and the boys throw themselves into preparations for the upcoming All-Japan Invitational and their chance to compete on the international stage.
Free! Dive to the Future is the third season of the Free! series, perhaps best known for being “that swimming anime”. You can check out Saphras’ review of the second season, Free! Eternal Summer (which I also weighed in on), and we both agree that Free! is generally a well-polished, fun show with a strong cast, containing exciting and flashy swimming segments that showcase Kyoto Animation’s excellent animation skills. Free! Dive to the Future retains plenty of this charm, but struggles under the weight of being a third season with a bloated cast and choosing to revisit familiar story arcs from previous seasons copy-pasted onto different characters. This means that while a lot of the elements that made the first two seasons are still present, the overall season feels a little less polished, and overcrowded with characters and subplots that over-complicate the series to its detriment.
The Blu-Ray release of Free! Dive to the Future includes a previously unreleased OVA episode, which begins the series as ‘episode 0’. I found this a rough introduction to the third season, as it contained many characters I was not familiar with since I had not seen the prequel film High Speed! Free! Starting Days (which I did not know existed until doing some research for this review) and it jumped around multiple scenarios and characters to the point where it felt like multiple new characters were being introduced in every scene. I acknowledge that this probably wouldn’t be an issue for fans of Free! who have seen the film, but for newcomers or casual fans like myself it felt like an obstacle to enjoying the show.
After the initial rough hurdle of episode 0, the series is essentially split in two arcs, with some side episodes spent in Australia with Rin and in Iwatobi with the new Iwatobi Swim Club. The first half follows Haru, Makoto and friends in Tokyo as they compete in races and train for the All-Japan Invitational, all while trying to reach out to their old friend Ikuya. In my opinion this is the weakest half of the season, as Ikuya’s insecurities and issues echo Haru’s own issues from the second season, and it makes Ikuya seem like Haru-lite rather than being his own character. Free! Dive to the Future definitely picks up in the second half of the season when the focus of the story becomes the All-Japan Invitational rather than Ikuya, who has by this point been slotted neatly into the ensemble cast.
The series is still solid and definitely more than watchable – its light-hearted and low stakes approach with a bit of young adult swim-related drama is fun and results in cute moments. The episodes with Rin in Australia in particular deserve a shoutout as they were my favourite parts of the series. This is partly due to the fact that as these episodes were in Australia and removed from the rest of the cast in Japan, it felt like they had room to breathe, and partly due to the amazing English cast and Aussie accents in the Japanese version. Watching Rin go about his training, meeting with Ikuya’s brother Natsuya, and discussing their two very different approaches to swimming and competing was fun and I wish more of the series had been like this.
It’s also worth noting that for the third entry in a sports anime, Free! Dive to the Future lacked clarity in depicting its sport. Rules for competitions, their structure, and why some people passed their swim heats and others did not were rarely touched upon and it was often hard to follow exactly what the result of a race was. This isn’t a deal breaker obviously, as generally speaking swimming can be broken down as the person who touches the wall first wins, but I found myself confused about the outcome of a race multiple times, which is odd given this is the third season of an anime all about competitive swimming.
Although Free! Dive to the Future buckles a little under the weight of its predecessor seasons and a large ensemble cast that unnecessarily complicates what is supposed to be a fun anime, it maintains a steady pace that picks up in the second half and makes for a solid entry into the series. The series finale also ends on an interesting note, with the promise of continuing the boys’ competitive swimming journey, and I can’t help but be excited as new rivals enter the fray to compete against Haru, Rin and the gang. Despite the rocky start, I’m keen to see what the future brings for Free!, and hope that future is filled with more scenes of Rin in Australia surrounded by great Aussie accents.
A review copy was provided by Madman Entertainment to the author for the purpose of this review.