In the lead up to the third season this summer, I decided to check out the fan translation for Kouji Ohji’s High Speed novel–the prequel to Kyoto Animation’s hit franchise Free!
Originally written and submitted for the 2011 Kyoto Animation Awards, it subsequently won second place in the novel category and received an honorable mention. Inspiring the television anime Free!, which follows the same characters through high school, the first volume (including illustrations by character designer Futoshi Nishiya) was published the same week as the first episode aired. High Speed is currently unlicensed in English, but has been fan-translated by a multitude of dedicated fans of the franchise. The translation I will be reviewing has been done by Nanowave Translations. You can buy a copy of the Japanese novel online: Amazon.jp — Books Kinokuniya
High Speed follows 12-year-old Haruka (Haru) Nanase, a young boy who loves swimming in his hometown of Iwatobi. In January of his final year in elementary school, a strange but familiar kid transfers into his class called Rin Matsuoka, who urges him to join a relay team as the best freestyle swimmer in the area so they can win first place as a team. For fans of the anime series and films, this book follows the starting foundation of the series’s entire start–establishing Haru and Rin’s friendly rivalry, and hinting at their dreams for the future.
Rounding out the relay team is Makoto Tachibana, Haru’s best friend and mild-mannered backstroke swimmer; and Nagisa Hazuki, one year younger with boundless energy and a preference for breaststroke. As members of the Iwatobi Swim Club all four boys form a relay team under Rin’s encouragement, and compete together just before graduation.
It’s interesting seeing the distinct difference between the novel and the anime. Young Haru and teen Haru are clearly the same person, but Ohji has given all four of the protagonists much larger range of motivations and emotions, giving existing fans some depth of character and perspective that has been lost between adaptations. Another interesting inclusion of the novel is Aki Yazaki, a female classmate and freestyle swimmer who works as a sounding board for Haru to discuss his enjoyment and trepidation of swimming–there is in fact an entire female relay team in the book, who act as a counterpoint to the boys’ teamwork and communication throughout the novel.
So right away, the novel brings us into Haruka’s thinking and reasoning–swimming is a natural state for him, and he has an intrinsic understanding with the water that most would deem odd. Interestingly to note, that while there’s no question that he’s very talented at the crawl stroke–not quite gotten to the “I only swim free” version of himself yet–Haru is also well-liked and popular with his class despite his aloof demeanor. He has good grades, he’s good at sports (other than swimming, that is) and has lots of friends in class. He also thinks himself very mature and independent compared to his peers–secretly happy whenever others rely on him, even if he complains about it. It’s an interesting dynamic of wanting to seem disaffected from the immaturity of elementary school and ‘being a kid’, whilst also being incredibly reliant on the approval of others. He constantly denies wanting to join the relay team, but puts in everything he has once he has.
Rin Matsuoka seems like the opposite of Haru in every way from his own perspective–fiery passionate and impulsive, an irritating pain who serves just to disrupt Haru’s otherwise-peaceful life. In reality, there’s also the real thread of jealousy between the two swimmers, and a competitive drive that finds them challenging each other without warning. Rin’s goal is to swim in the Olympics–fulfilling the childhood dream of his deceased father. He’s planning to move to Sydney, Australia after graduation in order to follow that goal, but first he wants to win the relay with the best team around, just like his dad had. It gives Rin a levity to his decision on moving to live with his grandmother in order to pursue the best freestylist around–Haruka Nanase.
Rin’s attentions aren’t only on Haru though, despite what the anime tends to suggest. Makoto is the bridge that brings the other two together, and is the first to offer friendship and support to Rin’s plan. Their relationship relies on how affable and friendly Makoto is, and how he brings people together–if anyone will convince Haru to join a relay if he’s otherwise not interested, it’s Makoto.
As much as the story is focused on Haru and the unexpected impact of his life thanks to Rin, the reliable, understanding and unwavering parts of his everyday are Makoto. It wouldn’t be uninformed to say that the two are a packaged deal–where Haru is, Makoto is. A sweet-hearted boy who swims for his best friend despite his growing fears of water, and who works earnestly to help Rin and Haru connect despite his worries about being replaced. His major character arc through the book is conquering his fears and moving forward with the people he cares about–swimming whilst looking to the sky, making more friends without losing any. One of the most striking and pivotal scenes in the book is his: a quiet breakdown on a bus, alone. If his fears of the ocean seemed a little arbitrary and underdeveloped in the first season of anime, this is the extra piece that explains it. It’s powerful watching our protagonists struggle with the real powerlessness of being children.
The final part of the quartet is Nagisa, desperate in his want to impress and befriend his senpai. There’s an underlying sadness to the younger boy that he relies on the other three so much for recognition and friendship, despite his otherwise upbeat and energetic nature. He joins Haru on his afternoon runs home, and needles Rin into teaching him the butterfly stroke (or as Rin jokingly calls his version, the grasshopper stroke). His slow realization of not only becoming part of the relay, but part of the team is heartwarming, and you can see how much it means to the breast stroke swimmer that he finally feels included despite his small size, girly name and cute face.
For fans of the larger Free! franchise, this novel seems like essential reading. The two don’t entirely match up, events-wise (and with regards to disappearing characters), but there is so much extra character depth that it gives even old fans of the anime more to enjoy. I don’t know if Ohji anticipated how popular his characters would become when writing this book, but reading this first novel you can definitely see the potential that it brought.
Gee’s rating: Definite read for fans, solid enough to stand alone from the franchise.