Hi Score Girl

I’ve written a lot about nostalgia this year. Part of it is due to the recent surge of 80s pop culture nostalgia in movies and the like, and part of it is my own nostalgia brought upon by a rather shitty year that’s seen me looking back to avoid the malaise of my personal life.

The thing with most of this nostalgia, at least from my perspective, is that it all hearkens back to a very nebulous period. That neon-drenched, cyberpunk-infused, synth-scored, New Wave vibe that a lot of this stuff goes for isn’t really something that existed back in the day. Movies like Mandy are weird fantasies of a time we wanted to see at that time– it’s all Heavy Metal covers, prog rock lyrics, and fantasy novel dreams. Even more grounded stuff like Summer of 84 are going for what it was like in the movies at that time more than what it was actually like to live in the year 1984. That’s what it all feels like to me, because like I said when I was talking about She-Ra, it’s mostly a haze of elementary school development and pre-move otherness. The world this strain of nostalgia pines for is some sort of Neverland or Eden where I briefly lived before being cast out– I can almost touch it, but it’ll always be outside of my reach.

That’s where Hi Score Girl comes in. It takes place in the early to mid 90s, and it tracks the adolescence of a few kids who are really into the newly-formed fighting game scene in Japan that grew out of the Street Fighter II phenomenon. Other than the post 89 Batman movie comic book boom, the fighting game scene was the first real pop culture moment where I was actively present. Yeah, I was a kid and kinda-sorta aware of a lot of the stuff that went down in the 80s, but at best I was a witness and not a participant. There’s only so much a pre-tween can do other than watch Saturday morning cartoons and wish he owned Pee Wee’s Playhouse.

While the particulars of Hi Score Girl don’t match up with mine– the nature of gaming in Japan and the US just aren’t the same, and there was no awesome rich girl who whupped everyone with Zangief at any of the arcades I frequented– the general premise really hit close to home.

The main dude in Hi Score Girl, Haruo, is thoroughly obsessed with video games– fighting games in particular. It’s about the only thing he’s good at, as he neglects his school work and isn’t much into social situations. His mind is constantly thinking about the hows, whats, and whys of video games, and there’s little room in his life for anything else. Even when he becomes fascinating with the aforementioned Zangief master, Akira, his entire relationship with her is focused around their “rivalry.” He clearly likes the girl, but his gaming mind doesn’t allow him to process his feelings in any other way. Rather than putting her on a pedestal like his classmates, she becomes the Ryu to his Ken. He’s the hotheaded overachiever (when it comes to games at least), and she’s the stoic master who knows no other way to live.

It’s funny that their relationship plays out in that way when their preferred characters are Guile and Zangief. The characters perfectly match their personalities– he often being the kinda petty type who carries grudges and can be “cheap” the way old school Guile was and hers being cool, calm, and patient the way Zangief requires– but their relationship is more like the “main” characters in the Street Fighter cast.

But yeah, this guy’s entire life is focused around gaming. The inner voice he hears in his head– that running narrative where he reflects on life and whatnot– takes the form of video game characters cheering on, mentoring, and criticizing. Guile becomes his spirit animal of sorts, and Akira’s Zangief almost becomes a specter haunting and oppressing him. It’s a perfect way to capture the way these games could capture the mind of someone just the right age to be developing that sort of connection/obsession. I could totally relate to how his entire thought process was wrapped up in all of this. I was that kid. I was playing Chun-Li instead of Guile, but I was that kid.

All of that comes to a perfect “conclusion” at the end of the third episode. Akira’s moving to the US and Haruo rushes to the airport to see her off. It’s one of those classic moments in storytelling, where you have someone going to extremes to show their feelings, but it’s all done following Haruo’s thought process. In order to build up to the “confession” you’re expecting in such a scene, he leads off by talking about how SNK’s going to release their version of Street Fighter soon: Fatal Fury. Even when his emotions are overflowing like this, his first inclination is to ground their relationship in fighting games. He wants to share this knowledge with her, and it’s that sharing that allows him to give Akira the ring he’s been saving since their excursion to a cheap arcade (that was probably haunted). In any other story, it’d be the gifting of the ring that would be the central point of that scene, but I really do think it’s his talking about Fatal Fury that makes the scene work. Without that thought process, he wouldn’t get the courage to go that extra step. It’s a really cool moment thoroughly wrapped up in Haruo’s characterization.

Haruo’s probably the most relatable character I’ve seen in an anime since Fumiaki in Occult Academy.

If Hi Score Girl was just those first three episode– and if it looked a little better (the 3D animation is wonky at best)– it’d probably become one of my all time favorites. It’s a perfect time capsule of a specific time period, and it’s mine in a way other nostalgic things aren’t. The problem is that it keeps going. A new girl is introduced. Akira returns from the US. The resulting love triangle isn’t conventional, but it doesn’t quite gel. The series is at its best when things are expressed as a parallel with gaming trends. That continues throughout the rest of the series, and it’s all pretty good, but in trying to create actual drama it doesn’t quite maintain the same vibe. It’s less about being in the moment and more about creating something relatable outside of that moment.

That probably works for most peeps, especially those who weren’t living this stuff at the time, but for me it starts to drift away from that initial appeal. My life as an arcade rat didn’t get that kind of drama, so it starts to turn into just another anime rather than something hitting close to home. That appeal’s still there, but it can get sidelined at times. I’m still looking forward to an inevitable second season, since we get something of a cliffhanger. I just won’t see as much of myself the second time around. Call it selfish, but I kinda feel like being selfish when it comes to this sorta thing.

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