December 8, 2022

The Final Stroke Part 1 is an amazing and compelling new entry in the Free! franchise. A celebration of our beloved characters that will make you cheer, laugh and cry.”

Free! The Final Stroke Part 1 is the beginning of the end for the Free! franchise. I think we can all agree it’s going to be hard to say goodbye to these beloved characters. Even though, they will continue to live on in our hearts, they deserve a great farewell. Because of that, I did have a lot of expectations for Part 1, so is it really up to the task?

SHIFT IN FOCUS

Free! The Final Stroke Part 1 focuses on Haruka, Rin and Ikuya as they enter the world stage of swimming in Sydney. It’s a shift in the storyline but it does make sense as it’s where it was going with Dive To The Future and Road To The World. Makoto, Sousuke, Asahi, Natsuya, Nao, Kisumi and Hiyori are still co-leads, they get a great amount of screentime.

However, I do find it disappointing that once again Rei and Nagisa are relegated to secondary characters. They were once part of the main characters. Plus, I’m not really sure where the story is going with these two. Most of their scenes are linked to what is happening with the other characters. And the one scene that really is about what Nagisa, Rei and Gou plan to do is cut short to something else. I do get why they don’t want to reveal just yet what Nagisa and Rei plan to do for the future. But, they could have given us a scene with them swimming instead. Because they are here and I am not sure why.

It’s even worse for Momotaro and Aiichiro who are even less than secondary characters. Do not get me wrong, I am happy to see these four in the movie and I would be mad if they weren’t. But, I think they deserve better than this. They deserve their own storylines to be concluded. And I do hope they will get the same amount of screentime as the other characters in Part 2.

CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

Free! has always done a beautiful job with character development. Everytime they introduced an opponent for our favorite swimmers, they have developped him and made him more than just an opponent. We do see more of Kaede this time. We get to understand who he is. He is so vulnerable behind his cocky manners. And he does have a shared past with Hiyori.

Speaking of Hiyori, it’s so good to see him happy and surrounded by his new group of friends. From the moment, he first joined Free!, I loved the character. Now, he is one of my favorite characters. He is a complex and multi-layered character who was so often lonely. Which does explain his actions in Dive To The Future. There is so much good in him, he just wanted to have friends beyond Ikuya. And now, he does have a great group of friends. I love his interactions with Asahi and Kisumi. They form a wonderful trio (and quartet with Ikuya). Let’s be honest they are the real MVP of The Final Stroke Part 1. And maybe, he has found more than just friends. Indeed, just like in Road To The World, Kisumi flirts a lot with Hiyori. It’s just so sweet. Before it all ends, I do need to see Hiyori and Asahi play basketball with Kisumi, it has to happen!

DECISIONS

The Final Stroke Part 1 is the beginning of the end. Thus, it leads our beloved characters to make some important choices. Haruka, Ikuya and Rin have to face the aftermath of the competition in Sydney. Ikuya and Rin actually spend some time together in Sydney. They share similar feelings and they also take a similar approach to the competition. Both decide to change their focus in their swimming career. They work hard to achieve their goals but they make sure their lives are not sacrificied in the process.

This acts as a contrast with Haruka. Indeed, unlike Ikuya and Rin, Haruka slowly looses himself in the competition. Even though we see him happy at times, you can see he is drifting away and feeling more and more lonely. The other characters don’t understand him. There is a parallel with Albert, they both face the same challenges and are drowned by their desire to always be better. It’s truly heartbreaking to see Haruka like this.

And the ending takes it even further. Indeed, Haruka completely looses who he is. I understand what they did with the “Harubert” scene. At first it looks weird but upon rewatch, it makes sense. Because it highlights even more Haru’s distress. It’s going to be interesting to see how it goes in the final chapter. How can Haruka return from this? And if he does, will still be able to have a swimming career? I have so many questions right now.

WORKING HARD

The three leads are not the only ones working hard. Sousuke works with Natsuya, Nao and Makoto to get back in shape to swim as a professional. I think it’s the logical decision for him. He is a gifted swimmer who is just as worthy as Ikuya and Rin. I love to see Nao and Makoto working on their dreams. They are trainers now. And they are great at what they do! I am so glad Makoto chose that path because it does suit him afterall. He is not made for competition, he is made to help people. Not only they train Sousuke, but they also help Asahi, Hiyori and Ikuya. It’s so sweet to see that. Natsuya, Makoto and Nao are the training team everyone needs! All of the characters work hard to achieve their goals.

SLICE OF LIFE

Free! has always been more than just a sports anime, it’s also a slice of life anime. And I think that’s also part of the appeal towards this franchise. This and the endearing characters, of course. The Final Stroke Part 1 is divided between the competition in Sydney for Haruka, Rin and Ikuya and the slice of life for all the characters. It feels so good to spend time with these characters as they are having fun and also facing drama. The beginning features an event at the university and it’s one of the most entertaining scenes of the franchise. It’s as delightful as the OVA of Eternal Summer. And there is actually a link to that episode. Kyoto Animation needs to share that full picture of Rin because now we all want to see it!

One of the other highlights is the big gathering of all the main characters in Tokyo. It’s such a sweet moment because they all get to be together. But it’s also a poignant moment for Haruka, Sousuke, Rin and Makoto who get to talk about what happened in Sydney.

There is a lot to love about The Final Stroke Part 1. Indeed, there are many delightful scenes that just show us the lives of the different characters. And since it’s taking place during Christmas, it’s even more cheerful. Oh, do I love Free! I actually watched the movie twice before writing this review. Most of the characters get to swim, they all share the same passion together. I always love seeing Makoto’s backstroke. Makoto, Sousuke and Hiyori swimming backstroke together is something I have wanted to see for quite some time!

VISUALS

Free! has the animation that other anime wish they had. No one does it like Kyoto Animation. From the character designs to the smallest object, it’s all so well drawn. And the scenery is breathtaking. At times, I was wondering if the sky was actually real and not animation. But the most impressive part of the animation is the water. And considering it’s an anime about swimming, it’s important to have a water that looks good. Though, good isn’t the word here, it’s beyond good. It’s perfection. Whenever I watch Free! I’m always in awe at the work that’s done with the animation.

SOUNDTRACK

The score is once again composed by Tatsuya Kato. And I have to say it’s probably his best work yet. It’s cheerful, poignant and powerful. Indeed, it conveys all the emotions needed for the story. Unlike previous Free! installments, OLDCODEX doesn’t sing the theme due to some personal issues. So obviously, it does feel weird not to hear a new OLDCODEX song. Though, we do get a new song ‘We Could Be Free.’ And it’s pretty good!

VERDICT

The Final Stroke Part 1 is an amazing and compelling new entry in the Free! franchise. A celebration of our beloved characters that will make you cheer, laugh and cry.

Free! The Final Stroke Part 1 is now available on Cinépolis Klic in some countries and will be available on blu-ray in Japanese (online) stores on April 20. 

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