Dive!! and Free!
Comparing Two Watery Sports Anime.
Usually, today would be reserved for my review of the second episode of Dive!!, that new diving anime that's airing currently, and in a way, it still is, but we're taking a bit of a different tack this time by comparing Dive!! to another overly moist sports anime that's preoccupied with exclamation marks: Free!, the wildly popular 2013 anime by Kyoto Animation.
Since Dive!! is only on its second episode, we are exclusively comparing their opening two episodes: Anything from episode three onwards is absolutely not fair game, and either way, this is really about how each waterlogged anime tries to draw viewers in and keep their interest.
On paper, Dive!! and Free! start in pretty similar ways: We see the protagonist as a child as they encounter the character who will function as both deuteragonist and rival, and we explore in monologue their love of their respective damp sports.
Free!'s first scene is easily one of the weaker parts of the first episode, mostly establishing character relationships that are established again and better later on, but what it has going for it is a strong sense of character-building: By the end of those two minutes and thirty seconds, you know what Haru, Rin, Makoto, and Nagisa are like as people, at least on the surface, and that sets you up for when you see Rin again later on and see how much he's changed. We get a timeskip punctuated by some clever contrast (going from a small child in a swimming pool to a much larger teenager in a bathtub), some thematic notes about freedom and adulthood that will run throughout the show, and even a few minor comedic beats.
Stronger opening scenes definitely exist, but Free!'s opening definitely isn't bad.
Dive!!'s first scene is superficially similar but has an entire different goal -- the object of its first scene is to establish exactly why the protagonist, Tomoki, wants to dive, and to introduce us to the person he's striving to surpass, Yoichi. The scene's set up more to establish a sense of awe than anything else, to create the idea that this is some numinous and special event, and it falls completely flat because I don't give a single heck about any of these people.
I mentioned that Free! sets up four of its characters and lets you know what they're like as people -- well, Dive!! doesn't. By the end of that introductory scene you know as much about Tomoki and Yoichi as you did before the episode started, because the only thing you know about them is that they're divers.
Like Free!, Dive!! then moves ahead in time, but it does so clumsily. Instead of creating contrast, it gives you a chunk of exposition and then basically just rehashes the same scene but with slightly older characters. The overly moe animation style means that you can't easily identify how much time has passed just by looking at the scene, and, perhaps more importantly, nothing has changed. Tomoki is still in awe of Yoichi, Yoichi still has no personality, everyone still loves diving.
Again, Dive!! and Free! have pretty similar central conflicts that they use to propel their characters into a variety of soggy situations, although they approach them from entirely different directions.
Dive!!'s central conflict revolves around keeping the diving club open, something that can only be done if one of the divers there joins the Olympic team (as I was reading this to Reecey, she interrupted me to let out an incredulous cry of 'whaaaat? Nani? Nani the heck?'). That's not a terrible conflict, but it lacks a certain amount of colour -- there isn't really any kind of antagonistic force at play, and while the central characters are invested in wanting to avoid the club being shut down, the threat isn't immediate and they're mostly just responding to outside forces.
Free!'s central conflict is basically the same idea in reverse: They want to revive the Iwatobi Swim Club and race Rin, who's joined the Samezuka Swim Club. Again, there aren't really any antagonistic forces at play, Rin is an anti-hero even on his worst day, and there's no immediate threat, but that's countered by the fact that there's a goal the characters want to achieve in the short term, and the fact that they have to jump some (figurative) hurdles to get there.
What sets Free!'s conflict several notches above Dive!!'s, though, is that it's tied up in character conflict: Haru wants to revive the swim club in large part because he wants to mend his relationship with Rin; Makoto wants to revive the swim club because he wants Haru to swim again; Rin is torn between wanting to beat Haru and wanting to swim with him, and his decision to join Samezuka Swim Club and become a direct competitor to Haru drives that.
In Dive!!, the divers want to save the diving club because it's where they dive, and their attachment to it begins and ends there, which means that we have no emotional attachment to their struggle. There is character conflict in Dive!!, in the form of Tomoki's ambivalence about his sort-of-girlfriend and his brother's jealousy, but that storyline has only the tiniest overlap with the main plot.
Free! has a surprisingly fast pace, especially in its early two episodes, cramming in what could easily be three episodes worth of content in another show (especially if, say, one of those shows was Dive!!) into two episodes. It's far from no-frills, but it doesn't take its time getting to the point, and as a result scenes tend to be short and snappy as opposed to long and drawn out.
The first two episodes especially also make a lot of use of jumping around in time, setting the audience up to believe that one thing happened before jumping back to show that something different happened -- it does that less and less as the show goes on, but in those early episodes, it works surprisingly well for pacing, building (without much fanfare or really lingering on it) to twists in flashbacks that translate to emotional pay-offs in the present.
Dive!! is ponderous.
Its first two episodes have about twenty minutes worth of content, not so much strung out over forty-five minutes as they are played on loop and in various shades of remix. Like Free!, it makes liberal use of flashbacks, but unlike Free!, these flashbacks have almost zero bearing on the plot of the present day, unless it's for expositional purposes. I cannot stress enough that nothing actually happens in the first two episodes of Dive!!, because it's stuck in an eternal holding pattern that it seems unwilling to even try to escape.
Free!'s characters are archetypes, and ones which are common to anime at that. While later episodes flesh them out and add more depth to them, in those first two episodes they fit firmly into their archetypal roles assigned to them, with only Haru and Makoto really showing even the tiniest smidge more depth than that archetype entails.
They're colourful and caricaturish, and that makes them fun to watch even if nobody could really call them interesting, layered characters in those early episodes. Their development later works in part because it builds on the audience finding these characters endearing (as opposed to necessarily relatable).
Dive!!'s characters are bland and uninteresting. They lack any kind of colour or interesting character quirks, and it's decidedly not because the show is trying to take a more realistic approach: It wants its characters to be over-the-top caricatures that play into industry archetypes, it's just not very good at it. The one good thing you can say is that the characters are arguably more human than the ones in Free!, but they swing too far the other way -- if Free!'s characters are far too colourful and over-the-top to be real people, Dive!!'s characters are just a few shades too beige to be someone you'd encounter in real life, or at least somebody you'd want to encounter in real life.
Dive!! really wants you to find its characters endearing, and to that end it has completely forgotten to give them personalities at all.
First episodes are always a little awkward, since they have a veritable laundry list of demands on them: They have to introduce the cast, the setting, the plot and any salient subplots, and catch the audience's interest, all while telling a semi self-contained story. Second episodes tend to be a little more representative of the series as a whole.
Dive!!'s second episode is nearly identical to its first. Its main difference is the presence of Kayoko, a new coach, but her addition to the cast doesn't really change the dynamic -- or lack thereof -- in any way. The episode meanders down the exact same paths as the first episode: Tomoki is in awe at Yoichi, Tomoki doesn't have time for life outside of his diving, etc, and so on.
It even has several moments which are literal carbon copies of moments from the first episode, like Tomoki being annoyed by Yoichi joking about him liking girls, a gossipy scene in the locker rooms that's interrupted by Yoichi, and a scene where Tomoki and his brother sulk at each other as Tomoki returns home.
Free!'s second episode veers the storyline off in a slightly different direction than its first, shifting the emphasis from Haru being unhealthily unenthusiastic about swimming, to him quietly regaining his love for it, while at the same time paralleling that by having Rin become more bitter and resentful. The story ties into the first episode, but it's a very long way from being a carbon copy of it, with less time spent establishing characters and more time spent building up the main conflict of the series.
Dive!! is boring and I'm going to stop reviewing it.
If this conclusion doesn't seem worth the time spent reading this comparison, then congratulations, you know how I felt at the end of the first two episodes of Dive!!.