Note that this review contains spoilers for the first Free! The Final Stroke film.
The first Free! The Final Stroke film ended with Haru and Rin symbolically parting ways, as they struggled to reconcile their dreams of world-class swimming with their humble desires as friends. After losing to Albert in Sydney, Haru in particular has been distancing himself from others in order to reach his rival’s level—embracing loneliness in the process. The second film gives closure to the lingering plot threads and brooding angst in the first film. Nothing about the plot is surprising, but the best thing about it is that it feels like a mercy: it doesn’t wallow long in tedious drama before it starts wrapping things up.
Before we can get to that sweet closure, however, the film starts with an approximately 15-minute long recap. Even if you don’t strictly need the refresher, it makes sure to keep your attention by bookending itself with original scenes artfully portraying Haru’s mental state. These scenes introduce some of the main visual motifs in the film, like Haru’s physical inability to confront the ghost of his past and characters watching themselves in a cinema as a way of illustrating the helpless experience of being a passive observer of other people’s lives.
Once the film begins proper, the good news is that there’s never any doubt that Haru and Rin won’t patch things up. In fact, their friendship is the first among the plot threads to get resolved, in a sweet and wonderfully tender scene at a hotel pool. While not quite an anticlimax, the rest of the film builds its conflict more around typical sport drama clichés, like the character who hides the debilitating effects of their “special move” in a way that eventually culminates in a sacrifice. Given how emotionally grounded the rest of the story is, these plot beats come across as pure contrivance, artlessly wrenching the narrative in order to conclude it in the most orthodox way possible.
It’s not completely out of the blue. Eternal Summer, after all, went through the same motions with Sosuke’s subplot. But I always did find the dramatic side of Free! tedious rather than affecting. It also doesn’t help that this particular arc has been excessively drawn out; between Dive to the Future and the Final Stroke films, it’s the equivalent of two anime seasons. Watching the same narrative device employed in an already bloated story kills its impact almost entirely.
The closure almost makes the frustrations worth it. Healthy rivalries and friendships culminate inevitably in the centerpiece swimming format of Free!: the relay race. On a thematic level, it might be the least surprising ending imaginable, but it’s still satisfying to see writ on the Olympic stage. The true relevance of the High Speed! characters also manifests here, and it’s a reasonable way of tying together all the dangling character arcs across the franchise‘s generations.
Still, it has to be said: it’s not quite the same feeling as watching Haru swim with his pals at the Iwatobi Swimming Club. Even if this film makes the argument that their spirit of camaraderie shines as brightly as ever, I left the screening not feeling fully swayed by it. You can’t just demote the Iwatobi boys to cheerleaders and expect their roles to have the same impact. You can’t just age up characters from a prequel film, who were never even mentioned in the anime’s first two seasons, and expect them to slot in seamlessly. It’s not a surprise that this film mainly centers on Haru and Rin’s relationship, because it’s the only one that works exactly as intended.
In the end, this arc was a mixed bag. It has scattered moments of artistic and storytelling brilliance, and the closure should be satisfying to everyone who has stuck with the series through its highs and lows. But even at the very end, I don’t think it managed to fully justify its own existence. The closing words also left an odd note: “It’s okay to not be special, but I’ll keep being special for just a little longer.” What? The characters went through a young adult existential crisis, and those are the pat words this film decides to end on? I can’t help but feel that this arc’s themes were forbidden by pursuing the conventional fairytale ending. Most of the characters got a good sendoff, but my lingering impression of this arc is that it’s an extended after-story that never quite made up its mind about what it wanted to achieve.