Honestly, watching more Free! wasn't a priority for me. My impressions of the second season were some of the worst-written on this site. I know the show is shipping trash, but my review sunk way too far into that.
But since then, more and more Free! has been released. I was always a little interested in this prequel movie and honestly, while it's not something I'm desperate to see, I do want to watch the rest of the show at some point. So I decided to take the plunge (ohoho) and sit through Starting Days.
To ease myself into it and to remind myself who the characters are, I watched the season 2 OVA that I'd never seen. It was indeed pure shipping trash, but hey, that's generally what OVAs are. The boys go to Rin's school for their culture festival, tease the first-years who have to dress as maids (fuel for that crack ship I said was my favourite in my trash review), have a fight with water pistols and generally follow tried-and-tested formulae for cute boys/girls doing cute things.
I'm quite pleased to report that Starting Days is a much better prospect. In fact, it's probably my favourite entry into the canon so far. It's based on an official light novel spin-off, and there's a higher writing quality on display here. While it's a bit awkward that these events - before the main series but after the childhood flashbacks that drive the main drama with Rin - are never mentioned in the original, broadly speaking they work, fitting into a void in the storyline pretty well.
And frankly, even though I couldn't get through the whole movie in one sitting, I was much more invested in these characters as young teens than I was with them as high schoolers. I never liked the condescending blank slate that is Haru, nor the hulking, slightly creepy teddy bear known as Makoto. I liked Makoto as a kid in the flashbacks, his personality making much more sense for a somewhat insecure little kid, but the flashback versions of the others were pretty annoying. Nagisa in particular, while the high schooler I liked the most, was portrayed as a very annoying little kid. He's still very annoying here, but as he's a year younger than the others, he hasn't graduated from elementary school so only appears in a few cameos.
The story here is a classic school sports story. Haru and Makoto start middle school and are reluctant to join the swimming club. Haru doesn't think any relay can match up to what they accomplished with Rin and Nagisa, while Makoto is diffident, seemingly not wanting to make a decision until Haru does. But eventually they are persuaded to try, and join a relay with two other kids - brash dunderhead Asashi and prickly emo kid Ikyua.
We get the standard formula for these movies - at first they are a mess, each having some personal issue that prevents them from giving their all and working well as a team. By the end - spoiler warning for extremely predictable ending - they pull it together, bond as a team and win the big race! Happy feelings all around. But the test of such a predictable storyline is how well the characters are developed, and how well the emotional notes are hit. And this is what goes unexpectedly well with this story.
Haru, essentially our protagonist, is much more likeable and sympathetic as a young adolescent than either a young teen or a kid, as seen in the main series. Being emotionally stunted, keeping others at arm's length and sometimes acting way too impulsively makes way more sense for a kid that age than for a young man, and I actually believe in this character much more than the main series' Haru. I believe he would get weirded out by a sudden change in his best friend and start avoiding him, even if it means eating only tinned mackarel and rice and ending up collapsing from hypoglycaemia. I can make allowances for his odd behaviour and the walls he puts up because of his age, where I find it difficult when he's pretty much a full-grown man.
Makoto is also more interesting here than in the show, getting directly confronted with the question of what his character is when Haru is taken out of the equation. Does he even have his own identity without him? Does he like swimming or just like being with Haru? It was probably the least interesting dilemma but it was probably the most development this poor lapdog ever got.
Then there's Asahi and Ikuya, the new characters. I loved their dynamic together and they were a pleasure to watch. They’re chalk and cheese but gel really well. It’s like throwing Naruto and Ciel Phantomhive together and watching what happens. I know these characters will show up in the newer seasons but I kind of don’t want to see them get messed up because they were hilarious here. And while Asahi’s personal problem was nothing that exciting, generally a confidence issue (though there’s a fun scene where a young Rei helps him out), Ikuya made his way to the heart of this movie, his conflicting feelings about his brother and his adorable overreaction putting him centre-stage and making him a catalyst for the final act.
The characters’ problems go away very easily, and it’s almost overly brief, watching the boys suddenly start gelling after a sleepover and a weird underwater sequence with Haru and Makoto that would never work in live action and only works here because the animators decide to totally ignore what water does to hair. But the core of the story wherein they struggle with them, with themselves and one another, makes for compelling viewing.
As usual, Kyoto Animation make beautiful, fluid, very cute character animation with pleasant backgrounds and generally nice water effects in spite of that one odd quasi-romantic sequence. They’re by now well established as a powerhouse of light-content but relaxing anime that’s always easy on the eyes. They tend not to know when to stop milking a series (see K-On) and I’m expecting to find the same problems with the Chuunibyou movie I’ve got lined up to watch next, but this was actually a pleasant surprise. Mostly KyoAni shows start well and get progressively worse. Free! might buck that trend, but I guess I’m mostly feeling that way because I don’t particularly like the main show. Now that I think about it, the same happened with Haruhi.