My personal junior high experience was an awkward one. Among other things, I cut my hair short (just like Mary Anne in The Baby-Sitters Club!) and missed approximately two months of school due to pneumonia, neither of which endeared me to the popular groups. However, I’ve since learned that it’s a rare person who wasn’t awkward between the ages of 11 to 13 years-old or so. While you’re trying to figure out who you are as a person, there are so many authorities of varying merit telling you who you should be as a person. This includes outside influences like media as well as parents, guardians, acquaintances, and friends.
The opening of High Speed! — Free! Starting Days immediately — pun intended — immediately dives into this messy stew of confusion, opening with Haruka Nanase and Makoto Tachibana’s first day of junior high school. Haruka struggles with the collar of his new school uniform while Makoto blithely complains and tells him to button it properly. Later, Makoto admonishes Haruka for failing to use polite speech, to which Haruka applies an awkward, mocking “-desu” to every sentence he says to an upperclassman.
These are scenes all too familiar to a Free! viewer, but Haruka and Makoto aren’t quite comfortable with what will later become their roles in Free!. The movie visually packs them away in boxes, as if to show how they’re testing out their own developing personalities. We know what people they will become in their future — Haruka the disaffected genius and Makoto the doting team dad — but in the opening scenes of High Speed!, and many other exchanges throughout the series, it feels like they’re roleplaying to fit specific parts, still uncomfortable and unsure of who they are.
Nothing exemplifies this more than Haruka and Makoto’s struggle with what to call each other. These two have been neighbors, friends, and teammates for years already, yet the act of growing older inevitably drives a wedge between them from the opening moments of High Speed! to their fight and eventual reconciliation.
The bird of prey from Free! returns to circle in the sky when the boys are having communication problems among other visual nods to the original series, but even something as simple as Haruka’s love of mackerel serves as another vehicle of change in High Speed!. When Haruka eats only mackerel out of spite, he performs poorly and later passes out from low blood sugar. In the awkward world of physical and emotional maturation, what was once comforting can easily hurt.
High Speed! treats these feelings with care. While the boys explore their figurative emotional boxes, fight, and eventually learn to work together, High Speed! tells them it’s okay if they don’t get it right the first, second, or even third time. The fish they make together is gross and doesn’t look like the picture? That’s okay. Asahi Shinna and Ikuya Kirishima aren’t exactly like Haruka? That’s okay too.
After visually packing them in boxes or lines for most of the series, nothing is more poignant than watching Makoto and Haruka lazily swim outside the lines in their home swimming pool before finally opening up and talking about their problems with each other. The lines are still there to guide them, but they need to find their own way as well.
It’s a rare piece of media, anime or otherwise, that gets these emotions and growing pains right. High Speed! then gently prods at these feelings while allowing each character to, if not resolve their personal problems, at least study them and come out the other side learning a little bit more about themselves as people in the process.