Another installment in the series that is basically K-On!, but with guys in speedos.
When Free! originally aired, I felt that it was a good example of the strengths of sports anime. Sure, there were hints of what the series would eventually become toward the end, but much of the first season was dedicated to self-improvement, teamwork, and, perhaps most importantly, competitive drive. In the installments since (Free! Eternal Summer and High Speed!: Free! Starting Days), it has become increasingly obvious that Free! was never really a show about competitive swimming. Instead, it focused more and more on intrapersonal and interpersonal problems, and success in swimming came essentially automatically with the resolution of those issues.
With Haruka, the show’s main character, and his friends graduating from high school, there is a lot of shifting of characters from the previous TV series. Rin has moved back to Australia, and the remaining members of the graduating class are now in Tokyo for college. If you watched High Speed!, you will recognize many of the new faces in the cast, which are almost all from Haruka’s first year in middle school. While initially it seems that the primary contribution of High Speed! to the series is to offer a past that ties all of these new faces together, I am confident that some of the personal drama in the movie will come back to be a central focus of the current season.
Free! Dive to the Future stays faithful to its predecessors, in particular Free! Eternal Summer and High Speed!. The cast of Free!, the first season, was fairly small, but both Free! Eternal Summer and Free! Dive to the Future have added to it substantially. In the current season, it seems that the parts of the cast that are still in high school will stay out of the limelight, giving the new characters in Tokyo and Australia their time to shine.
Once again, the core conflict of this season seems to be set up to involve reconciling with a former teammate and further embracing the team aspect of swimming via a medley relay. In previous seasons, the targets of reconciliation were Rin and Sousuke, and in Free! Dive to the Future, the target seems to be Ikuya. In the middle school year covered in High Speed!, Ikuya got together with Haruka and company to form a strong medley relay team, but in the time since then he has trained to become an excellent individual medley swimmer.
While there is something comforting about Free! sticking to a formula it knows works, especially with a new director taking the reins, it is frustrating seeing how little seems to change between seasons. After the end of Free! Eternal Summer, where we get a glimpse of Haruka and Rin racing on the world stage, it's depressing to see Haruka and company return to worrying about ex-teammates instead of dedicating themselves to the training that will eventually carry some of them into the professional swimming scene. That leaves me to wonder when the latter will happen, if at all. A couple short scenes hint that maybe this is the season where Haruka decides he doesn’t want to be ordinary, but the momentum driving the series toward a medley relay with Ikuya leads me to believe that will be nothing more than an afterthought.
A more specific gripe about Free! Dive to the Future relates to the scenes set in Australia covering Rin’s training. A lot of the dialogue for these scenes is in English, and the lines by the Japanese characters are accordingly poorly pronounced. Additionally, the lines done by actual English voice actors for the native Australians are also poorly acted. The result is a couple long scenes in every episode with awful stiff dialogue that hurts to listen to.
For me, there is a single bright spot in the current season, which is the relationship between Ikuya and his older brother, Natsuya. While this relationship hasn’t received and probably won’t receive the attention I’d like in Free! Dive to the Future, it is one of the holdovers from High Speed! that seems to have potential. Even if the Natsuya-Ikuya relationship doesn’t see much development, Natsuya’s time in Australia with Rin might turn out to be the most interesting thing this season has to offer.
At its core, Free! is not a sports anime, but a slice of life. You should expect that after the first couple episodes, the remaining time in the season will be filled with a couple short arcs where the focus is one or two characters’ personal issues, with the season culminating in a few big races where the focus is on the idea that the resolution of the issues that weighed down the relationships between the characters allowed them to perform well. Free! Dive to the Future is as much about competitive swimming as K-On! is about writing music. If watching the relationship dynamics and day-to-day concerns of a social network of teammates and ex-teammates appeals to you, then give it a shot. However, you should not expect competitive drive and self-improvement to be given the amount of attention that you might expect from sports anime like Haikyuu, Prince of Tennis, or Hajime no Ippo.