High Speed Discourse III: Free is not High Speed, High Speed is not Free

I love KyoAni but I think this poster encapsulates my frustrations? disappointments? that I’ve had with them lately. Now, I’d like to think I’m not dumb; I know that this has been their “thing” since the beginning of time. It’s just that I’d just begun to hope that things would change a little with Free!, but four years later…

Anyway, this is why I yell about High Speed all the time. It shows that they can make a fairly serious/grounded work about boys. Free! has tonal problems where it’s wacky hijinks like their comedies but they also tried to shoehorn some drama that didn’t really fit; High Speed resembles Sound Euphonium, where it’s more quiet, coherent, and less gags or melodrama. That’s not to say that Euphonium wasn’t funny or didn’t have drama, but the style is very different.

So it’s really difficult not to conclude that a lot of Utsumi’s decisions harmed the coherence of Free! and that she needed to hold back more. This is more clear now that we can directly compare to, say, Takemoto’s High Speed or even Kawanami’s Free!. Watching High Speed and Free! Timeless Medley Kizuna has made me wonder what a more focused and less wacky TV Free! or High Speed adaptation would’ve been like. An immediate objection is that it’d be boring or something, but the movies show otherwise. Of course, it’s also hard to say because Kawanami was really tied down by the Free! that already exists, but I liked his original parts in Kizuna and I hear that Promise has even more new material.

My hot take is that if Takemoto had done Free!, a lot more people would be talking about it in the same way as Hyouka or Euphonium. Again, someone is going to object and say that’s bad, but here’s the problem: everyone’s biggest problem with Free! is the drama. As I mentioned earlier, Free! tries to go down both the comedy and drama route and it’s worse for it, especially since the original High Speed novel was never a comedy. This sort of points to a pretty clear alternative adaptation strategy: that the Hyouka/Euphonium route would probably have been the best direction to go in, which is exactly what the High Speed movie does. And it’s a much stronger work because of it.

One final note is that Timeless Medley is ostensibly a recap/summary but it completely skips over season 1. Is it because Free!’s first season is bad or hard to square with the rest of the narrative? Who knows? But it’s evidently not important enough to include. Meanwhile, explicit callbacks to High Speed! the movie are incorporated into the new Free! movies, so good fucking luck if you haven’t watched it.

High Speed Discourse II: Takemoto and the boys

I remember a while ago someone was freaking out over something Takemoto said in an interview about his understanding of Makoto. Basically, he said something like he found Makoto incredibly deep and hard to grasp as a character. The one who was freaking out took this to mean that Takemoto didn’t know what he was doing. That’s not what I want to get into.

What I find interesting now is how Takemoto’s view of Makoto is quite different from a lot of people’s I’ve seen. The conventional view of Makoto from Free was that he may be hot and kind but his character is ultimately boring and shallow. But look at what Takemoto said about Makoto. He obviously saw and understood something about Makoto that a lot of people didn’t.

This isn’t the first time he’s done this. My favourite example of this is in an Amaburi interview when he’s asked about Kanie. The interviewer asks about Kanie’s depiction and describes him as a cool, detached narcissist, as most of us would see him. Takemoto says well actually, I think he’s cute and he acts that way because he’s not used to dealing with people, so I tried to bring out that cute part of him because it’s very important to his character.

Part of the reason I found Makoto much more interesting in High Speed is because he’s not already everyone’s anchor. Obviously, this is a setting issue: middle school Makoto is obviously going to be more unsure and vulnerable. Makoto second-guesses himself because of his new environment and new people and alters his behaviour because he feels like he needs to change. Haru notices these slight changes, which escapes everyone else, and it becomes a source of tension between them. It’s a very different relationship dynamic from the one where Makoto’s stopping Haru from jumping into fish tanks.

I think this is one area where the comedy/drama splitting the difference hurt Free, since in making everyone else in the Iwatobi swimming club weirdos, they sort of forced Makoto into being the straight man. This is okay if you want to make it a comedy, but if you want a deeper exploration of the characters, like Free wanted to do sometimes, you end up not being able to do much with Makoto without making it seem overly dramatic.

In both High Speed and Free, he’s a nice boy who feels a sense of responsibility. His attempts to change in High Speed are a reflection of that. But Makoto also has space to be vulnerable in High Speed, since Nao and Natsuya are around to shoulder being the responsible ones. Of course, Nao and Natsuya have their own things to deal with but it doesn’t come off as weird, since High Speed isn’t trying to be half a comedy.

But even then, it’s not like Takemoto can’t write male characters that aren’t lame in his comedies. Everyone loves the Maidragon bits about Takiya and Faf-kun and they could’ve been super gimmicky characters.

You can see the same difference between the High Speed and Free versions of Haru. I’m a fan of the High Speed Haru in large part because of Takemoto’s characterization, or what Takemoto called Haru’s pure convictions and being unshakeable. There are moments in High Speed when he doesn’t back down and stares down whoever’s challenging him and we get these great shots of his look of determination.

For instance, when he says “I only swim free”, at first it’s like aha, he said the thing! But the weight and context of the line here is different from in Free. In Free, he says it and it’s the kind of thing that an eccentric prodigy does. In High Speed, he has to actually back it up since it means defying Natsuya. In this case, it’s a deliberate action that he’s taking because it’s something he believes in.

This also touches on something that we don’t really see in Free, which is Haru’s sensitivity and perceptiveness. In Free, he’s always doing shit like jumping into bodies of water and everyone’s trying to stop him. In High Speed, Haru notices things like the changes in Makoto’s behaviour and the tensions between Ikuya and Natsuya.

It’s this emotional perceptiveness that he has in High Speed that changes his character. The things he does go from being the whims of the weirdo genius to something that he chooses to do because he thinks it’s the right thing to do.

High Speed Discourse I: Thoughts on the work of Yasuhiro Takemoto

Once again, Yasuhiro Takemoto took a show, Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid, that I had absolutely no reason to be interested in and made me like it. It’s well known that Everyone likes The Disappearance of Suzumiya Haruhi and Hyouka because they are “Good” (and they are). I liked them too, so it was easy for me to conclude aha, Takemoto is a good director because he directs things that are good and things that are of interest to me. But then, when they announced he was directing Amagi Brilliant Park, my reaction was like “Uh ok? That’s kinda weird but we’ll see, I guess?”

Of course, it turned out to be good too and I started to realize that maybe he’s good, as in he could direct anything and I’d like it. I mean, AmaBuri is not something I’d probably have enjoyed if it was in the hands of anyone else and in retrospect, that’s how I felt about Hyouka before it started airing. Remember, that back then, we were still in the whole KyoAni means moe slice of life with girls mode, so a very natural reaction was kinda like “What the heck is this thing? Why, KyoAni?” When it was airing, Maidragon confirmed that feeling that Takemoto could direct any random shit and I’d enjoy it, because his style is so attuned to my sensibilities.

And yet, even though everyone thinks Disappearance and Hyouka are amazing it feels like he’s still incredibly underrated. My guess is that it’s because everything he’s worked on is really different from each other, so it’s hard to pinpoint his style, in the superficial sense. That is, while you can watch something and go, “oh that’s a Yamada kind of work”, it’s not quite as clear what a “Takemoto work” would be about. And so you can watch a show and go “oh it’s good” but there’s no obvious theme or motif that stands out for you to connect with his other works.

Obviously if you know to look for it, you can see his influence. They’re obviously not going to be 100% the same but the stylistic difference between Utsumi’s Free! and Takemoto’s High Speed make this clear, since unlike the other things he’s directed, this is something that’s really easy to directly compare to. But that’s something for another day.

Because this is obviously a pitch for you fuckers to watch High Speed. If you enjoyed Hyouka or Maidragon or AmaBuri or whatever, then chances are good that you’ll like High Speed too. After all, if you’re weird enough to have Takemoto as your favourite KyoAni director instead of Yamada, you understand what I’ve been talking about. Or even if you’re a general KyoAni fan, if you like Takemoto’s style, do yourself a favour and check out his take on Free!, especially it’s so similar in style to Hyouka and the last thing that made everyone rave about Takemoto was Hyouka.

Guiding Principles on Megane and Character Design

Megane is a powerful tool that can be used to enhance the moe of a character. However, unlike many devotees, I can’t agree that you can just throw megane on a character for a quick and easy improvement. In fact, I’d argue that a character that is designed as a megane character is often less powerful with megane than a character that isn’t a megane character who wears glasses occasionally. How can this be? There’s some stuff going on underneath the surface here.

The most obvious answer to why there’s this gap is the gap moe explanation: a character who normally does or does not wear glasses and then doing the other thing means that they’re in a different mode of operation and this gap adds to the moe. This is a reasonable explanation, particularly for when the mode switch occurs within the media. However, this doesn’t quite capture why it still works in fanart or official art, which is typically outside of the context of whatever the character is doing.

I think the difference is that when a character wears glasses all the time, the glasses are naturally considered part of the design of the character. You’d think that this would mean that this means that the glasses will always add to the moe of the character, but it’s actually the opposite. Because it’s a regular fixture, it becomes part of their design, much like a character’s, say, ribbons often becomes a part of the character rather than something that enhances.

However, with the non-megane character, we have a character who is already complete in their moe. The artist who wants to give them glasses then selects the right glasses to enhance the non-megane character. It usually works out great because in this case, we have the ability to select the glasses rather than have it be prescribed. Or maybe they didn’t make the right choice and it’s not so great. But that’s okay because then in this case the glasses are transient.

This points at the other pitfall in giving a character glasses all the time. This is the trap that a lot of megane enthusiasts fall in: the belief that all glasses are good. This is wrong. For example, half-rims are fucking awful. If you’re a person who wears half-rims in real life, I’m sorry, but I think you’d look better in other glasses. When Sound Euphonium first got announced, everyone was showing me Taki-sensei and I was like, uh no thank you, because I hate half-rim glasses. Bad. Now, I know what you’re thinking. But your son Kyosuke Aoi wears half-rims! And you’re right, he does, but it turns out bottom half-rims actually work decently (top half-rims are bad). However, what’s more important is that this goes to my above point: he doesn’t wear them all the time!

Anyhow, in summary:

  • Megane is most powerful when used sparingly and in limited quantities.
  • A character who does not usually wear glasses wearing glasses is more powerful than a character who usually wears glasses wearing glasses.
  • A character who does not usually wear glasses wearing glasses is more powerful than a character who usually wears glasses not wearing glasses.
  • A character who usually wears glasses is at a disadvantage because they could be given bad glasses.
  • A character who doesn’t usually wear glasses can get away with wearing bad glasses because they don’t do it all the time.
  • Half-rims are bad.

High Speed! is my anime of the year and you’re all dumb fucks for not watching it

Swimming × Friendship × Coming-of-age story

High Speed! is Free! with the aesthetics and direction of Hyouka and the character drama and conflict of Sound! Euphonium. No anime this year has kept pulling me back to it the way High Speed has. When I was planning my 12 days posts this year, I kept thinking about it and kept having to remind myself that I already wrote about it last year. Maybe it’s because it’s really only been one year, but it still feels like something that’s been holding onto me throughout the year.

All of this just makes it even more baffling to me that no one seems to have anything to say about it. I mused a few weeks ago that every KyoAni production has trolls swarming out to shittalk KyoAni and whatever they’ve done, but the release of High Speed came and went with nary a slur being tweeted. Phantom World came out and everyone gnashed their teeth about it, followed by six months of silence, and then everyone came back out for a second round of shittalking Sound Euphonium. But in fact, nothing was said about High Speed, good or bad. The only piece discussing the movie I could find was an Otaku USA review from last year, when the movie was in theatres.

Basically, no one’s seen it except for the hardcore Free fans, which you might expect. However, I know that there’s a bunch of people out there who generally enjoy KyoAni stuff. There are also people who I’d say casually enjoyed Free, in that they watched it that season and liked it but aren’t into it like the people buying doujin and dakimakura and figures and stuff. What happened to them? It’s a mystery.

Pure blue starting

One question that I’ve gotten is that we’ve already seen all there is from Free once we get to the end of Eternal Summer. The obvious answer to this question is duh, it’s a prequel, but that doesn’t really quite capture what’s different about High Speed. Because of the way that Free and High Speed came about, High Speed doesn’t really function like a typical prequel does in that it doesn’t try to set up or illuminate anything in Free. In this way, you can consider it a story on its own.

That story is about the beginning of Haru’s middle school days. We all know about that amazing relay that Haru and his pals did and now Rin’s gone off to Australia, Nagisa’s still in elementary school, and so it’s just Haru and Makoto going to middle school. Haru has to get used to his new school and surroundings, but most importantly, this movie is about the relationships he forms with his new teammates at his school’s swimming club.

Now, this seems kind of unremarkable for anime. This is the story of literally every sports and club anime. In fact, it sounds a lot like Free. What’s different?

Remember, High Speed is set in middle school. There are a truckload of shows that are about high school clubs every season. There aren’t many shows that focus on middle schoolers, and certainly not many that attempt to tell a relatively serious story aimed at adults. The characters in High Speed are made to face problems and conflicts that middle schoolers have to deal with and these are different than the ones that we’re used to dealing with in high school anime.

You can see this difference fairly early on in Haru and Makoto, since we already know them from Free. Haru’s got the same cool, quiet nature that he has in Free, but his younger self is a lot more uncertain about the things that are changing in his life. This is even more obvious in Makoto, who shows a vulnerability that we never see in the steady and reliable person we knew from Free. And both Asahi and Ikuya have similar struggles and vulnerabilities, although we can’t contrast them to their older selves. It’s been mentioned before in staff interviews that depicting middle school boys is sort of like having to tread a thin line between child and teen.

This setting also leads to a new dynamic from Free, where the swimming club doesn’t exist. In High Speed, a swimming club exists already, so we get to see a new dimension to Haru: his relationship with mentors. In Free, the swimming club is basically running the show on their own and Haru gets to be the free-spirited individual that he is. High Speed’s depiction of Haru’s relationship with his senpai, Natsuya and Nao, added an aspect to Haru’s character that I wasn’t aware was missing and it made me wish that those kinds of characters and relationships were also present in Free.

This is where High Speed resembles Sound Euphonium more than Free. You have four middle school boys suddenly having to learn to work together while trying to navigate and make sense of their own issues and grow up at the same time. The fun is in watching them grow closer and trust each other, helping each of them through their struggles and ultimately working towards their goal as a team.

Pure blue scenes

The other big difference between High Speed and Free is in the staff at the top. Free’s director, Hiroko Utsumi, wasn’t involved in High Speed’s production. Instead High Speed is directed by Yasuhiro Takemoto, the director of such works as The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya, Hyouka, and Amagi Brilliant Park. This led to some noticeable aesthetic changes, shifting it more towards Takemoto’s other works.

Because the movie is focused on the story of the boys, there isn’t much time or space for random visual gags or diversions, and so there aren’t many cartoony visuals. Instead, lighter moments come from character interactions or quick shots. For instance, Haru’s love of mackerel doesn’t ever come up as a recurring gag; rather, you’ll notice it when it shows up silently to make the callback.

Other stylistic choices seem to stem from the director change. The way the hair is drawn resembles the hair that you’d find in Hyouka more than Free. And the fashion choices for the boys are more conservative than they were in Free. An in-universe explanation would be that their moms still choose their clothes for them and they just let loose when they got into high school. But again, the fashion wouldn’t be out of place in Hyouka.

All of the changes are rather small on their own, but taken together it’s hard not to notice that it feels and looks rather different from Free. I don’t really have the vocabulary to describe it well, but I guess that serves to emphasize the point that it simply feels different. That’s not to say it’s jarringly different and that Free fans would feel uncomfortable (that’s clearly not the case). It’s more like, it’s an alternate version of Free that’s not hard to imagine, where the tone was slightly more serious and had a bit more focus.

Best swim, best team

Just as I’ve described at the very beginning, High Speed feels like it’s a sort of triangulation of a lot of stuff that KyoAni’s worked on. One of the reasons I keep on harping on KyoAni and male characters is that I think they’re really good at depicting male characters in a way that very few other anime do and I wish they’d do more of it. On a personal level, Takemoto is able to hit all of the right buttons for me, through his directorial style, his visual sense, and his touch when it comes to male characters.

I know that there are ~reasons~ why comparatively few people have bothered to take a look at High Speed. It’s part of a series so it feels like a known quantity. Everyone was waiting for the BD to come out and then waiting for subs. And so on and so forth. But if you’re reading this even now, you know all of those excuses are bullshit, especially when I’ve been tweeting about haruchan this movie for an entire year.

In case you’re worried about my personal opinion of you if you haven’t watched High Speed, I mostly just wanted to note the interesting disparity between High Speed discussion in comparison with all the other wonderful KyoAni discourse, which I mentioned a few weeks ago. I also wanted an excuse to write about High Speed this year and to write something longer now that everyone can watch it and also because I waited until the end of the year and realized no one else will.

But if you’re still worried that I think you’re a bad person, just go watch High Speed just in case.