Kevin Penkin’s score swells as Riko and Reg’s message balloon breaks through the clouds of the first layer. The balloon is battered, broken, has been mended once, and yet somehow managed to survive the four-layer journey that Riko cannot. It reaches the surface because Riko cannot.
Landing conveniently in the exact same location where Riko discovered Reg, Nat and Shiggy easily find it. They carry it back through the town of Orth as the sun sets, and the petals of eternal fortune flowers line their path home.
Through this scene, Made in Abyss visually bookends its first anime season. The petals, present during Lyza the Annihilator’s Resurrection Day in the second episode, now welcome Lyza’s daughter home in a similar fashion. Shiggy and Nat discover Riko’s message where she found Reg, effectively recalling a time when she was physically present in their lives. Made in Abyss is a series that weaves a tapestry with myriad threads, knowing precisely when to return to a specific visual frame or memory.
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.