Fangirls (and boys) rejoice! High☆Speed! – Free! Starting Days – has just been released on the big screen in Japan and we’ve got an exclusive review just for you.
Fans have been anxiously waiting to see the pubescent versions of their favorite swimmers on the big screen since the movie was announced during the “Free! Eternal Summer: Iwatobi x Samezuka Joint Cultural Festival” Seiyuu Event released on DVD and Blu-ray earlier this year. Based off the second volume of the light novels entitled High Speed, the movie follows the television show protagonists Haruka Nanase (Nobunaga Shimazaki) and Makoto Tachibana (Tatsuhisa Suzuki) as they start their first days of junior high school and their new swim team.
High☆Speed! – Free! Starting Days – begins at the start of Haruka and Makoto’s first year of junior high, where the boys discover they are in separate classes for the first time ever. Alone in his new class, Haruka meets the ever-enthusiastic Asahi Shinna (Toshiyuki Toyonaga), who is trying to recruit more freshman to join the school swim club with him. Haruka, against his will, is pulled into friendships with Asahi and Ikuya Kirishima (Kouki Uchiyama), the quiet younger brother of the swim team captain.
Meanwhile, Makoto deals with the growing distance between him and his best friend Haruka and overworking himself to prove his love of swimming. As Haruka finds himself unmotivated to swim to with his new teammates, Asahi tries to overcome a mental block in his technique, and Ikuya struggles with relying on others. The four boys learn how to work as a team in order to win their first regional relay race.
While the movie focuses on these four boys, Free! fans get cameos of their favorites including pink-haired Kisumi, perpetually grumpy Sousuke, and Iwatobi High’s future members Nagisa and Rei. Both are far too cute, by the way.
Despite being a prequel, the film was able to generate a rather fantastic air of suspense and anticipation. For fans that have read the light novel, the suspense comes from finally seeing the characters in action. However, for the many fans that have not had a chance to read the novels, the film entices the audience to worry about and empathize with the characters – especially with the new characters of Asahi and Ikuya. Even for those who know the ending Haruka and Makoto reach at the end of the television series, the backstories and trials of Asahi and Ikuya are a mystery.
Fans of the show will notice that Starting Days is set before the race between Haruka and rival/friend Rin (Mamoru Miyano) which causes Haruka to eventually quit swimming before entering high school where the first season of the television series begins. The knowledge that Haruka’s junior high school happiness will eventually die out gives the movie a bittersweet, almost nostalgic, tenor.
In true Free! Iwatobi Swim Club fashion, Starting Days is chock full of fan service. Yes, budding bromances (or pubescent sexual tensions if you so please) between the boys and their swim mates are nearly as rampant in the film as in the show. But unlike the series, markedly absent from Starting Days are full body shots or conversations about muscles. This wasn’t a bad thing: I mean, they’re only 13 years old, guys! Starting Days’ fan service, if anything, is both pure and over-the-top, making you giggle at the pure cheesiness of it all.
Fan service aside, Kyoto Animation lived up to its standards of beautiful art with deeply-colored background scenery and fluid animation of the characters in action.
But I found the real beauty of the film to be the atmosphere created by the script and fantastic voice acting. This is, and has always been, one of the defining points of the entire series. The characters go through a myriad of emotions and trials that we all went through as we grew up. The loss of comfort Haruka experiences as he transfers to the new, jarring environment called junior high school, the awkward process of making new friends, the loneliness of drifting away from old friends, the heartbreak of discovering yourself – by the end of High Speed! Free! Starting Days, you can’t help but reminisce about your own starting days.