April 20, 2023
By Andrew Osmond.
Free! The Final Stroke is the three-hour long finale to Kyoto Animation’s franchise about male competitive swimmers. This conclusion was released in Japanese cinemas as a two-part movie, with the first part in September 2021 and the second in April 2022.
Back at the start of the franchise, Free’s first two TV seasons were directed by Hiroko Utsumi. She’s since moved over to other studios: MAPPA to direct Banana Fish and Bones to direct SK8 The Infinity. Most of the later Free anime have been directed by Eisaku Kawanami, who wrote and directed The Final Stroke films.
In the days when Utsumi directed Free, she memorably summed up the anime with the tagline: “Swimming, Friendship and Torsos.” Indeed, at the time Free had the reputation of being a fanservice anime about boys in trunks, and even now the anime won’t disown that image. The first film begins with some of the younger characters discussing their hero, Haruka or “Haru,” on video. One of those characters, the cutesy Nagisa, promises to tell the audience a secret about when Haru takes a bath.
However, if you’ve only seen the early Frees, it’s advisable to catch up before watching the films. A great many characters and relationships have been added to Free over the years, and The Final Stroke doesn’t make allowance for newbies. Fortunately, the other main Free anime are streaming on Crunchyroll as of writing. The first two series were subtitled Iwatobi Swim Club and Eternal Summer. They were followed by a prequel cinema film, High Speed! Free! Starting Days!, which showed younger versions of Haru and some of the other characters; it was set before the first TV series. That film was directed by Yasuhiro Takemoto, who also made the series Hyouka; he died in the Kyoto Animation fire in 2019.
Starting Days! wasn’t just a spinoff. Whereas the earlier series had highlighted the fraught relationship between Haru and his shark-toothed friend-rival Rin, Starting Days! established the character of Ikuya, another of Haru’s other swimming partners in his early days. Ikuya would return in the next Free TV series, subtitled Dive to the Future. This pushes the story forward to when Haru is a university freshman, still pushing his swimming to the limit. The Final Stroke films follow on from there, with the differences and baggage between Haru, Rin and Ikuya all sorted out (maybe), and the trio competing on the global stage.
I won’t spoil much about Final Stroke’s story, except there’s a clear division of tones as the first film starts. There are scenes in Japan with a lot of light goofball antics – I’ve already mentioned Nagisa’s bit, while Rin and Ikuya both learn that some sartorial mistakes in earlier days never fade with social media. However, Haru’s always taken his swimming with frightening seriousness. Now that he’s at a world level, that gravity seems to consume him completely. Is there any place left for friendship, for fun, for innocence? There are a multitude of glimpses of the characters as kids, and an especially poignant flashback to when Rin met Haru the very first time. Rin was elated he had a new pal to swim with… only for Haru to vanish on him almost immediately, poisoning their friendship from the start.
Now these champions are in Sydney, a place with special significance for both Rin and Haru, limbering up for their first global event. Haru has an especially fearsome rival, the Swedish swimmer Albert, who was previously seen in the Dive to the Future season. (Even in the Japanese version of Free!, Albert speaks English as well as Japanese, and is played by Jeff Manning, an American actor who lives in Japan.) Albert seems to have been built as a sports victory machine. Even if Haru could match up to him, what would be the cost?
Meanwhile, Rin and Ikuya find themselves together in a night-time scene, reflecting on their different histories with Haru. They’re like two sides of an unusually stable love triangle (though of course there are many other characters devoted to Haru). They find that they’re still asking, at this new pinnacle in their sports career, what they truly, really want. But might they realise, terrifyingly, that the person beside them wants something irrevocably different?
Andrew Osmond is the author of 100 Animated Feature Films. Free! The Final Stroke is available in the UK from Anime Limited.