The two biggest unresolved plot threads of Free going into the final episode (Rin’s suspension from the relay team and the effects on his and Haru’s burgeoning rivalry) closely shadowed one of the show’s bigger strengths (its strong cast) but weren’t exactly playing to the show’s big strength; its kinetic visual sense. Given that, the direction the ending went wasn’t a huge shock. Though it was admittedly not one hundred percent something that I had anticipated, it still went down the right pipe.
Rin taking his benching as hard as he did, with his subsequent Rich Tenenbaum-esque meltdown, set the stage for Rei to decide things and get everybody on the same page. It was very big of him to let Haru and the others know where things stood between them and Rin (i.e. a rivalry rather than a cold war), even knowing he was losing his chance to race this time. That explanation makes what the guys did next, running out into the streets to look for Rin and get him in their lineup so they could be dq’ed together, work as a plot point.* It’s the right sentimental 80s sports movie decision, but it needed that degree of justification.
Once the four got to the blocks, it was all whipped cream for Hiroko Ustumi and staff, who’ve already done good swimming scenes without having excess Kyoto Animation last-episode budget to blow. Not much to say about the race, which combined smooth, high-quality animation with split-second enhancement cuts backed by a narrative blowout win, except that it was a thing of beauty.
With everything now forgiven and the battle lines of the rivalry drawn, I think the stage has been set for a second season (the one hinted at in the credits) that makes use of the cast and their relationships, rather than a rival out of nowhere. All the more reason to look forward to a year from now. Here’s to sports anime that sell like hotcakes.
Character Designs: 1/1 (Characters have expressive faces that display a wide range of emotions, from embarrassment to anguish to joy. Too, each guy has muscles that makes him look every bit the athlete.)
Soundtrack: 2/2 (The beats in Free are best described as a athletic, pump-you-up music that belongs in a stadium jockey’s default set. Oh, and add this to the growing list of modern shows that properly understands the conditional value of silence.)
Writing: 2/3 (There were times when the plot got a tad melodramatic, but by and large it’s a believable sports drama with a likeable cast.)
Direction: 3/4 (Succeeded visually at both delivering fancy when it needed fancy excess and delivering understated emotions when it needed understated emotions.)
Overall: 8/10 (If you like sports anime, Free is a solid one, with a likeable cast and more kinetic acumen than you can shake a stick at. If you’re purely into anime for school-life comedy, you’ll find it scores on that front as well.)
*Even if it is improbable how quickly they were able to exit the arena, locate him, and make it back in time for the race. Small potatoes compared to, say, Wild Tiger’s Hundred Power, but stuff like that does irritate me.