Finally, season 2 of this criminally under-looked show is available to watch in the West on Netflix - today, April 9th 2020. It’s been a long, painful wait for these concluding episodes to arrive and I’ve been sitting on this article for months, waiting for just the right time to post it.
If you weren’t already aware, I’m significantly older than the average AniTAY contributor. Old enough that I am the target demographic for Netflix’s underrated gem Hi Score Girl, set in the early-to-mid 1990's during the golden age of arcade fighting games. It seems likely I am the same age as protagonist Haruo Yaguchi as we both survived a painful, videogame-fuelled, confusing-girl-filled mid-90s adolescence. Haruo’s story triggered visceral recall of how it felt for me to grow up in that time period, and his relationship with the titular girl mirrored my own relationship with the most important woman in my life. Spoiler alert - Hi Score Girl tore my hardened, battle-scarred adult heart into soft and squishy itty-bitty pieces, stomped on it and made me cry like an emotionally desolate sixteen-year-old boy again.
The Hi Score Girl herself Akira Oono is the most magnetic character in the whole show - as well she should be. Although she does not provide the main viewpoint, everything Haruo does is somehow related to her, even when he does not realise it. Like any teenage boy, when it comes to recognising either his own feelings or the feelings of others, Haruo is as dumb as a box of rocks. This is both extremely realistic and utterly infuriating. He lacks the emotional maturity to properly communicate with those around him and therein lies the crux of all conflicts at the heart of this story.
When we first meet our main characters, they are both in sixth grade, around age 12. Haruo is immature even for his age and is focused only on arcade and video games to the exclusion of all else. Akira is a mysterious, silent classmate who only appears on Haruo’s radar because of their shared love of competitive video games. Akira comes from an obscenely rich family - her home life experience is diametrically opposite to Haruo’s. He lives with his slightly weird but extremely loving and supportive mother, while Akira exists in a lonely mansion with her strict personal tutor - her parents are distant entities who live abroad and interact only via ominous edicts about her future.
Haruo’s life is one of almost unbridled freedom in comparison to Akira’s micro-managed and stifled existence. His mother lets him be who he wants to be, and if that is a person who spends his life obsessing over video games, then she permits him to do this (almost to a fault). Akira, however, has shouldered the burden of becoming the heir to her family’s business and considerable fortune - she has learned to internalise her desires and impulses in the pursuit of becoming the perfect, obedient daughter. The one place she can escape the prison-like confines of her home life is at the arcade, where she exercises her sublimated frustration by destroying her opponents, whether CPU or human-controlled.
Haruo and Akira bond over their shared passion, though Haruo does all the talking - even for her, as he needs to second-guess what she is thinking (something he is only partially successful at). Akira is selectively mute - it is certainly inferred that she talks at home, but never once in the show do we hear her enunciate a single recognisable word. Yes, she emits grunts, screams and cries in frustration, sometimes even physically hitting out at Haruo when he screws up, but there is never true spoken dialogue between our leads. Despite this artificial limitation, Akira is a delightful character. She emotes with her eyes, body language and (sometimes terrifying) facial expressions. As the viewers, we are rarely in the dark about her motives and feelings, even when Haruo is so oblivious it provokes us to scream at the screen. Hi Score Girl’s character designs are unusual, even for anime. They have huge heads and almost alien-like facial features, animated entirely by CGI. This odd look only adds to the charm, and the show is refreshingly different in appearance because of it. The aesthetic is faithful to the bug-eyed manga original.
What elevates Hi Score Girl over its peers is how accurately it portrays the unfairness and sheer difficulty of navigating relationships as an adolescent. Haruo barely understands his own feelings towards Akira and because she doesn’t talk, it’s easy for misunderstandings and uncomfortable situations to escalate. Soon after their first meeting, Akira is sent abroad, tearing these two soulmates apart. Haruo is completely unable to process his feelings for this and acts coldly towards Akira - he can’t even think of a goodbye present to buy. However, at the last minute when he runs after her at the airport and gives her a cheap plastic ring he won at the arcade, she fights off her minders, runs to him, squeezes him tight and blubbers loudly. Even though the characters were merely 12 years old in this scene, I felt the show’s deft fingers tug at my heartstrings. This was no mere fake-out, Akira truly is wrenched away from Haruo and they are separated for almost three years - an eternity in Young Adolescent Time. Normally, anime teenage romances don’t do this sort of thing.
In the interim, we follow Haruo as he starts to grow up, apart from Akira. A love triangle of sorts forms as we are introduced to the other female lead - the upbeat, blond, talkative Koharu, who is drawn to Haruo because of his single-minded obsession, and through him also learns to love video games and become proficient at them. Koharu is a complex and sympathetic character - you could almost imagine she and Haruo as a perfect couple, but alas the show makes it clear that Haruo’s heart will always belong to the dark, quiet Akira. He rarely sees Koharu as anything other than a friend, no matter how much she schemes in later episodes. We are never in doubt in regards to Koharu’s feelings - she tends to blurt them all out - but true to form, Haruo is too dumb to fully comprehend them. He gets even more confused when a more grown up Akira returns and struggles to rekindle their friendship. Last year’s 3-episode OVA continuation (Hi Score Girl: Extra Stage) fits very neatly between season 1 and 2 in terms of story progression, and must not be missed. It provides a lot of context to the conflict between Akira and Koharu that will come to an eventual head in season 2.
Hi Score Girl means a lot to me because I was very Haruo-like as an adolescent. Girls were a complete mystery, and I spent most of my time engaged in my various obsessions (including video games, also anime and manga...) At the age of 16 I met a very Akira-like girl and was completely unable to read her. We spent an entire summer break orbiting around one another and it was only when she plucked up the courage to ask me out (by postcard!) that I realised we had a mutual attraction. Now many years later, she is my wife, and I still can’t get inside of her head most of the time. She kicks my ass at fighting games too. Plus she has terrifying ways of emoting that don’t necessarily involve words, but may involve physical pain on my part (usually deserved). Watching Hi Score Girl is like peering through a window in time at my own adolescence. Packed full of little minutiae about the video games I used to play, like Street Fighter II, Final Fantasy, Final Fight plus details about obscure Japanese games and consoles I could only have lusted about via blurry pictures in magazines, it evokes a powerful sense of nostalgia I had not expected from an anime.
Of course I was never any good at arcade games and certainly never attended competitions like the characters in Hi Score Girl. Many of the best character moments are communicated via the medium of game rivalry and tactics, like Akira getting annoyed at Haruo for using underhanded methods to win, or the surprisingly plot-centric “secret technique” several characters attempt to use to summon Akuma in Super Street Fighter II. Haruo’s thoughts tend to be illustrated by a manifestation of SFII’s Guile, almost like a spirit animal in the way he cheers Haruo on to better himself, to reach for his goals. Even Akira has her own affinity with the wrestler character Zangief, and his appearances help to communicate her thoughts and intentions. Multitudes of famous video game characters make prominent cameos in this way, with frequently surreal pixelated montages overlaying the “real world” action. Most importantly, these apparitions fuel the emotional final episode of the series (that I do not want to spoil here). Not only stylistic whimsy, these colourful touches really help to drive the plot and atmosphere.
Helping to fill out the roster are some colourful supporting characters, particularly the other residents of the Oono household. Akira’s supportive chauffeur/butler aids her in hiding portable consoles in his car’s glove compartment and drops her off at the forbidden games arcade. Older sister Makoto is basically an aged-up clone of Akira with a diametrically opposed personality that is central to the overall plot and circumstances surrounding Akira and her situation. Terrifying tutor Moemi’s over-zealous application of rules and strictures is what made Akira the silent, serious, oppressed person she is. One particular violation she perpetrated involving a loaned games console and a bespoke RPG was so hateful I wanted to reach into the TV and wring her neck. A testament to the powerful writing is that none of these are one-note characters. They grow and develop and in some cases even completely change their outlooks in response to the main characters’ evolving relationship.
And evolve that relationship does. Towards the end of season 2, Akira and Haruo are 16 and on the cusp of adulthood, with all the extra confusion and change that brings. External and internal complications keep arising to pull them apart, and I heartily recommend sticking it out until the very end. Season 2 continues very much in the same vein as season 1 and the OVAs - really all 24 episodes should be viewed as one single continuous story, so now is the ideal time to catch up. For a show about something as ephemeral as arcade gaming, this will stick with you for a surprisingly long time afterwards, as will the fantastic, emotional ending songs. I interpret them as being sung by Akira Oono herself, and just maybe you’ll fall in love with her as much as Haruo (and I) did.
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