In general, this was a pretty solid buildup episode, highlighting Haru and Rin’s quietly intensifying rivalry, the comradeship of the four main characters, and a bit of Rin’s external motivation. Oh yeah, and it wasn’t actually a buildup episode. They literally powered through the race, something I was sure would take at least another episode getting to, with ruthless efficiency and great effect.
I don’t want to psychoanalyze Rin’s dream sequence in particular detail, but it was a good stab at depicting his overcompetitive obsession with Haru from another angle, plus setting up the reveal about his and Gou’s parents. The show’s been building the rivalry up as a theme since day one, but it was all over this episode. It helps that the sense of rivalry was clearly reciprocated in some form by Haru, whose mind was shown to be laser-focused on their upcoming race.
The minor scene revealing that Rei was doing some research on swimming, watching tapes and getting excited about what the future might hold was kind of electrifying. It puts another dimension on his character to really integrate his level of inexperience with that degree of Ippo-tier enthusiasm for what he does. Given his place as the last one to join the club, there was a risk that he’d be relegated to the role of “the newcomer”, but this show has him cast as the passionate rookie. Big, positive difference for the group dynamic there.
I also want to take a moment to praise something this show has had for a while. Namely, its willingness to go for cutaway shots to enhance the atmospheric nuances of a scene. It really hit me during the scene when Rin and his underclassman were doing situps while continuing to argue over Rin’s potentially misguided focus. There the camera was loosely panning the room for the earlier, more idle half of the conversation before going in to take a look at body language, setting the right mood for the conversation to come.
This really isn’t something that happens terribly often in shows by Kyoto Animation. I’ve seen numerous episodes in many of their shows where I can count the number of seconds where a character isn’t on-screen, or when the character isn’t moving, on one hand. I’m not saying that keeping a steady focus on the characters is necessarily bad, but there are times when that’s not the best option for the story they’re trying to tell. It’s true that animating character motion is one of their unique high-budget selling points, but motion shines the most when it’s used carefully. That’s not the same thing as conservatively, and that’s not what I’m advocating for. KyoAni should do the sakuga that they (and maybe A-1 Pictures and PA Works) have the ability to animate. I believe it benefits a show, and the fans as well, when a director understands that great animation goes beyond just sakuga. Since KyoAni’s constantly adapting novels and the storyboarding is consequentially more in-house diy than it would be for manga, it’s all the more important
I’m glad Free’s getting the attention that it’s getting for several reasons, but because of this stylistic aspect more than anything. Its stylistic departure and the way it uses the resources of Kyoto Animation so differently from the other three directors at that studio is something that deserves, if not universal praise, then at least recognition and discussion.
The most electric scene of the episode made ample use of both motion and selective focus. The tournament itself was projecting a very wide-open, electric feel, something augmented by everything from shots of the pool to the guy’s expressions as they checked all around around to the poppin’ upbeat soundtrack accompanying the scene. And the race itself, starting with the locker room faceoff with the snazzy suiting-up, and grinding down to a split-second finish with big implications for the future, was something to watch.
With the way the race ended in abject defeat for Haru, opting out of even the respected and acceptable trope of a finals rematch, I’d say we’re due for some serious exploration of his character. Odds are it’ll end with him taking swimming more seriously, but I hope that doesn’t lead to multiple episodes of angst clogging the potentially bountiful 5-episode wealth of material the show has left.