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‘Free! -Take Your Marks-‘ Review: A Decent Love Letter to Fans

While Free! -Eternal Summer had a decent amount of closure to it, fans love these characters and want more. Four years later, director Eisaku Kawanami is here to give the people what they want.

Picking Up Where It Left Off

Free! Take Your Marks the Iwatobi Swim Club

Free! -Take Your Marks- picks up where the anime left off in 2014. Makoto helps Haruka search for an apartment in Tokyo. Rin prepares to leave for Australia, but not before Aiichiro and Momotaro can properly thank him and Sosuke for their help.

Meanwhile, the remaining members of Iwatobi’s swim club work on a plan to attract new members to the team. Despite having placed 6th at nationals, Rei, in particular, worries that their welcome video won’t attract enough members to keep the club going — thanks to a foreboding dream.

The Problem With Multiple Storylines

'Free! Take Your Marks' Samezuka team members

If it sounds like this is a lot for a single film to take on, that’s because it is. While ambitious, the multiple storylines in Free! -Take Your Marks- (which are closer to four separate episodes than a movie) often detract from the characters themselves.

The need to set up each storyline takes priority, which results in cardboard-cutout-like characters. Their actions don’t move the plot forward. Instead, the plot drags them along without stopping to ask if they were ready to go. As a result, we lose much of the emotional depth and heartwarming moments that we’ve come to expect in the anime.

Sure, interesting moments come up. But the payoff is often either unsatisfying or non-existent. For instance, we see that Sosuke’s shoulder injury still bothers him. (The injury that may prevent him from ever swimming again.) While the movie continues to point the injury out, we never learn Sosuke’s plans for the future.

Sosuke in Free!

Is he seeking special treatment? Will he go into sports medicine? We can only assume that he’s going to continue to pursue swimming, but the idea is never explored. Leaving that bit of info out is kind of strange when you consider the entire film focuses on these characters preparing for their futures.

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Another missed opportunity occurs when Rin returns home. Although Rin appears happy to spend time with his family, he also makes it clear that he doesn’t spend much time with them. His sister and mother appear to have a bond that rivals the one he has with Haruka. In fact, for a second, it appears that he’s been left behind.

In a sense, this works. Rin will soon pursue his big dream in Australia, so this shows that he doesn’t quite fit at home anymore. But this scene goes by so quickly that the movie misses an opportunity to deepen his character even more.

When It Works, It Works

Free_Take_Your_Marks muscle poses

Despite these missed opportunities, Free! -Take Your Marks- still manages to weave in a few heartwarming moments. When Aiichiro and Momotaro thank Sosuke and Rin with a trip to a spa, we finally get to see Sosuke in a new light. His brooding nature melts away as he has fun with his teammates one last time.

Rin tickles him to get him to smile for a picture and that smile stays on his face for the rest of their trip. It’s a lovely moment for fans of the show who know that Sosuke’s swimming career is over. However, this moment leaves those unfamiliar with the show in the dark.

Haruka and Makoto hunting for an apartment in Free! Take Your Marks

Another slice-of-life moment that works happens during Haruka’s apartment search. Overall, the filmmakers underplay Haruka’s dry yet humorous line delivery. His ridiculously specific expectations and need to remain in his comfort zone are what made him a standout character in the series.

During his apartment search, Haruka turns down several apartments because they don’t meet his unique needs. While other students would be happy with a place that fits their bed, Haruka needs a large bathroom and a grill.

Fans in the know will chuckle at these strange requests. Haru spends much of the series soaking in a bathtub in his swim trunks and cooking and eating grilled mackerel. Moments like this, when their individual personalities come through, are where the movie truly shines.

Pacing and Repetition

Free! Take Your Marks Makoto and Haru

It’s too bad that the film’s slice-of-life moments between the characters fall flat here and drag down the movie. In the series, these scenes helped us to learn more about a member of the team. For instance, when Nagisa ran away and wouldn’t tell anyone why, or when Sosuke decided to coach Aiichiro to help him make the relay team.

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These moments didn’t necessarily move the plot forward, but they did serve the plot. Learning that Nagisa’s parents were going to kick him off the swim team and that Sosuke watched over Aiichiro to prevent him from injuring himself as he did, helped us understand why these characters were so motivated to swim.

Haruka and Rei in Free! Take Your Marks

In Free! -Take Your Marks-, heart-to-heart scenes serve a different purpose. They are a gateway to nostalgia. We don’t discover anything new. Instead, these scenes simply reaffirm what has already happened.

We see this when Aiichiro tells Sosuke that he wouldn’t have made the relay team without his motivating words. Aiichiro has already thanked Sosuke in other ways. Telling him this doesn’t serve any purpose other than being a nice thing to say about the past. It won’t motivate Sosuke to solve his current problem, at least not by the time the film ends.

Swimming on Dry Land

Rei and Nigasa swimming on dry land in 'Free! Take Your Marks'

For an anime about swimming, there isn’t much in this movie. Of course, the focus of the anime wasn’t solely on swimming either, but it was always present. In fact, it was so important that it felt like it was its own character. This is why it’s so surprising for Free! – Take Your Marks- to basically eliminate swimming from the equation.

The series spent two seasons telling us how swimming relay brings people together, forging bonds that transcend time. However the characters, now forced to walk separate paths, don’t seem all that concerned with swimming together. It’s a bit of a letdown when you consider how central a focus this is to the show.

Rei in Free! Take Your Marks

Sadly, the lack of swimming led to a lack of drama and competition. As a result, the animation suffers. Not for lack of skill, but lack of opportunity to showcase what the animators could do.

Don’t misunderstand, the film looks great. The backgrounds are vibrant and the characters look like they could leap off the screen at any moment. But the shots of Haruka diving into the water, legs moving like a fish, are sorely missed. We get teased with it here and there in order to build up the big ending. Unfortunately, it isn’t enough to satisfy our need for dramatic, spirit-animal-led races and glorious muscles.

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A Fitting Love Letter to Fans

The cast of 'Free! Take Your Marks'

Free! -Take Your Marks- may not be a perfect film, but it is a perfect love letter for fans of the anime. Throughout the movie, fans will find special moments that were included just for them.

We see the return of Hayato, Kisumi’s little brother who was afraid of swimming until Makoto became his coach. We get to see Haru desperately strip down to his swimming shorts to leap into the water. In addition, there are running jokes that carry over from the show, such as Gou‘s obsession with muscles and Momotaro’s obsession with Gou.

He even gifts her a value size bag of stag beetle food after meeting with Gou and the others to discuss a surprise party for Rin.  Their meeting leads to a hilarious misunderstanding that builds like a game of Telephone and ends with Rin and Haru competing against brothers Momotaro and Seijuro.

So, yes, we finally get to see a race.

Is ‘Free! -Take Your Marks-‘ Good?

Yes, and no. Fans of the anime will enjoy getting to spend more time with their favorite guys. However, they may miss the drama and competition that was present in the series and previous films.

In addition, where the second season tied up all of its loose ends, by revisiting the same timeframe the film introduces new plot elements and characters without any resolution. Season 3 will likely pick up where the film left off, but leaving so many questions unanswered is unsatisfying in an anime that claims to be a film.

Aiichiro coaching team Samezuka

However, we do finally get to see each character become comfortable with life apart from each other. They know they will meet again. It’s just a matter of when. Despite its shortcomings, Free! -Take Your Marks- captures the essence of the anime (although imperfectly): bonds formed through swimming last forever.

Unfortunately, this sentiment is lost on those who come into the film with little or no knowledge of the anime. If you’ve been following the series, then this movie is a must-see. Even with all of its flaws, it’s still a feel-good story about friendship that will tide you over until season three starts. For those unfamiliar with the anime, we recommend binge-watching the series first.

‘Free! -Take Your Marks-‘ Review: A Decent Love Letter to Fans

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