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.