Warning: This article contains spoilers for FREE! DIVE TO THE FUTURE

FREE! DIVE TO THE FUTURE, the third season of hit series FREE!, finally became irredeemable after its September 26 finale. Struggling under the weight of its large cast, FREE! DIVE TO THE FUTURE lost track of its characterization and pacing. As a result, the story felt drawn out and dull for most of the season. This was a slap to the face, as FREE! first attracted a large fan base for its storytelling and great characters. And with the end of the season and a promise of more to come, FREE! DIVE TO THE FUTURE proved to be one long, sad trailer for the series’ next addition.

FREE! DIVE TO THE FUTURE sees old protagonist Haru pursue professional swimming at college in Tokyo, joined by his best friend Makoto. Rival Rin returns to Australia for his swim training, while Nagisa and Rei continue running the high school swim team. These stories and others progress separately until converging at the end of the season.

Too Many Fish in the Sea

Alongside the anime, FREE! released several other media forms. The most well known among these are its three movies and two light novels. The two novels are part of the HIGH SPEED! series, which tell the story of Haru and Makoto as they take part in their middle school swim team. There, they meet characters who appear again later in FREE! DIVE TO THE FUTURE and some of the movies.

Often, an expanding cast can bring new conflicts and storylines. But having too large cast means that every character may not receive the time and attention they need to have personality and growth. Usually, shows divide screen time by importance of the character, with a central main character group and then a cast of side characters. However, in each version of FREE!, the main characters changed. While Makoto and Haru were always central, Rei, Nagisa, and Rin disappeared and reappeared thanks to the timing of the media. Once all the characters came together in the DIVE TO THE FUTURE, the show no longer had a small, central group to focus on. Many previously central characters suddenly had to share the screen with one another, as well as with newly introduced characters.

As such, FREE! DIVE TO THE FUTURE couldn’t balance the stories of all these different faces. Still, it seemed intent on keeping a large cast, adding new side characters to the season all the way through to the very last episode. Though these characters may not be as important as the primary cast, they still distracted from the focus of the series.

FREE! Left Nagisa and Rei to Drown

A shot of the majority of the main cast of FREE! on an aquatic background.
A good chunk of the cast of FREE! DIVE TO THE FUTURE. | Image: Crunchyroll

Rei’s and Nagisa’s personalities got lost in FREE! DIVE TO THE FUTURE. In an effort to portray the two as more mature, the writing stripped them of their individuality. The season wanted to display their progress through competing well in nationals. However, the races wound up feeling hollow.

When Rei first appeared, his preoccupation with beauty and technique made distinguished him from the rest of the main cast. Watching Rei learn to swim evolved into a major emotional journey and yet provided a lot of FREE!’s comedy. Meanwhile, Nagisa started off as the glue that kept the swim team together. While he enjoyed partaking in mischief, Nagisa’s cheerful, friendly demeanor shown through his every action. In contrast, Nagisa barely spoke in season three. He hung back while Rei and Gou handled most of the club activity, even though he kickstarted the club in season one. Most notably, his bright attitude and talkative nature vanished in and out. Rei, too, rarely had his characteristic moments of silliness or passion. He never even mentioned the beauty or intricacy of swimming.

The last-ditch attempt to make the audience feel something culminated in a montage of Rei and Nagisa before they went off to their races. It felt just as hollow as everything else. Instead of highlighting the strength of Rei and Nagisa’s bond, or the amount of work and heart they both put into the club, the montage consisted mostly of the two standing next to each other. As much as this might have intended to imply the closeness of their relationship, it didn’t invoke memories that actually impacted their characters. It simply brought an end to their minimal involvement in the season.

Ikuya’s Little Mermaid Should Have Stayed Under the Sea

Ikuya and Hiyori from FREE! standing off in the park
Ikuya showing off one of his many sad faces. | Image: Kyoto Animation

Ikuya’s season three story arc just rehashes Rin’s plot from season one. Both Ikuya and Rin had one-on-one interactions with Haru that profoundly affected them. Then, they both left for another country. While there, they worked to get better at swimming. Then, they return to Haru’s general vicinity, where they deny their desire to be friends again in favor of their continued angst. Eventually, after swimming with Haru, they remember that which inspired them to swim in the first place and reconcile.

The main difference between Rin’s arc and Ikuya’s was the pacing and activity in the interactions. Races, run-ins with Haru and the others, and internal reflection punctuated Rin’s arc. On the other hand, Ikuya spent most of his arc avoiding his old friends. Even when he came into contact with them, there was very little active communication or action. When Ikuya finally swam with Haru, he worked through his entire trauma in one long, exposition-filled swimming monologue. Because of that, Ikuya’s arc is far less interesting to watch.

If only Ikuya’s main plot had been about his relationship with his brother Natsuya. Their relationship touches on previously unexplored themes in FREE!, like mutual admiration between brothers and sibling rivalry. Their scene together in the season finale had a lot of great themes. Unfortunately, it wasn’t nearly as fleshed out as it should have been. While you could argue that Natsuya has been an underlying influence in Ikuya’s life the entire time, the show doesn’t make it a major feature of his arc. Refocusing on their relationship would have distinguished Ikuya’s arc from Rin’s and given Natsuya a defined purpose in the story.

FREE! DIVE TO THE FUTURE’s Plot Arrived Late to the Party

The season started looking up around episode nine. Here, Ikuya’s plot finishes and the focus shifts onto the other characters. Primarily, we have the introduction of Haru’s new rival, Albert. Suddenly the viewer sees sides of Haru never seen before: his desire to win and a newfound inability to keep up. Haru is facing off against a better version of himself and finds himself confused about his own future. We also see Makoto finally work out the implied issues he had at the start of the season. He starts off on a new path. Then, of course, episode nine brings the promise of an upcoming race between Haru and Rin. Not only does this bring Rin back into the spotlight after having him in Australia, but it provides a lot of nostalgic value. The original rivals, Haru and Rin’s races always profoundly impact the characters.

Albert, Haru's new rival in FREE! DIVE TO THE FUTURE
Albert enjoying some mackerel just like Haru. | Image: Kyoto Animation

The fact that this secondary plotline didn’t start until after Ikuya’s is disappointing. The content is much more compelling than a slow retelling of Rin’s story. Had the Ikuya arc been condensed in favor of expanding this second plot line through the entire season, the show would have felt much better thought out.

The ending also felt cheapened from the cramming of plot into the final few episodes. Rather than a conclusion to the season, FREE! DIVE TO THE FUTURE’s ending seemed like a step into a new world. Or rather, FREE! season three was more like a short movie and the first half of a new season rather than one whole season.

Can FREE! Turn It Around?

Although I had a lot of problems with the pacing and the characterization this season, there were some things that I think could make great future points if they’re handled well. The first and most obvious are Haru’s continued path into competitive swimming and Makoto’s plans to be a professional trainer. Ryuuji’s past also has a lot of mystery. Delving more into whether his opinions have any basis in reality or if he’s really just a jaded ex-swimmer could be a big deal for both Haru and Ryuuji’s characters. Nagisa and Rei should have their time to shine, too. As third years, they’re supposed to be figuring out what to do with their lives, and we haven’t seen that so far.

There are a lot of characters who need to have a purpose if they’re going to continue being a part of the series. If people like Asahi, Kisumi, and Hiyori don’t find a place in the story, it might be better for the show to sideline them. Rin almost falls into this category as well, though I don’t they could remove a consistent main character like that. The show does, however, need to find something for Rin to do. And although Sousuke likely falls into this category as well, I would personally love to see updates on his physical and mental condition. Sidelining his athletic injury plot would be just another waste of potential.

The new content from FREE! is teased for 2020. Until then, you can catch up on all three seasons of the anime on Crunchyroll. Did you watch FREE! DIVE TO THE FUTURE? Let us know what you thought about it in the comments below!

Featured image from Crunchyroll.

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