Reviewby James Beckett,
Hi Score Girl
Episodes 1-12 streaming
The year is 1991. Arcades are all the rage in Japan, Street Fighter II has taken the competitive fighting game scene by storm, and young Haruo Yaguchi is convinced that if he dedicates all of his free time to practicing his moves, he can become the next great arcade master. Enter Akira Ono, a rich girl from Haruo's class who harbors a skill for gaming that even Haruo can't match; she's confident, she's bold, and she never ever speaks. Though their relationship begins as an intense rivalry, eventually something more tender begins to blossom between the two. As life becomes more complicated for these kids, and another rival for Haruo's affections named Koharu comes into the picture, Haruo comes to learn that no matter how many combos and finishing moves he memorizes, he still has a lot to learn about mastering the game of life!
Hi-Score Girl immediately sets itself apart with its surprisingly sophisticated use of CG animation. J.C. Staff has been experimenting more and more with integrating CG into their work, but the technical merits of their shows have been inconsistent in my experience, so I was surprised to see how well an all 3-D approach worked for this one. The animation still suffers from some the choppiness usually associated with a television series animated in CG, but it is consistent and fluid enough to work about as well as a 2-D series with a modest budget. The character designs and art style work well with this approach – the characters' faces are suitably expressive, which is especially important when you consider that one of the show's central characters literally never speaks. If Akira's emotions couldn't come through via her character animation, the entire foundation of Hi-Score Girl would collapse; thankfully, this isn't the case. There are also plenty of scenes where sprites from famous games like Street Fighter and Final Fight pop into the action to act as the guardians of Haruo's conscience, and the 3-D art makes those cameos feel visually at home.
Even more surprising to me was the depth and range of the pathos Hi-Score Girl reaches, especially in its beginning and ending chapters. I had gone into the series assuming it would be more of a slice-of-life comedy, but the show goes out of its way to emphasize the passing of time and the growth of its characters first and foremost, which left a much stronger impression on me than I expected. We meet Haruo and Akira in the early nineties, when they're just finishing elementary school, but the first season covers many years of their lives, following them all the way through middle-school and into the beginning of high-school. Through it all, we see Haruo grow from a petulant and awkward little boy to a slightly-less-petulant but still awkward young man.
That might not seem like much, but it makes sense that his growth would be gradual. In becoming friends with Akira and later forming a bond with the love-struck Koharu, Haruo matures in the small but meaningful ways that mark so many children's path into adulthood: Given that he's a kid, it's often a matter of Haruo taking two steps forward and one step back, but Haruo's subtle growth as a character remains one of Hi-Score Girl's chief pleasures.
His relationship with Akira is the show's second major victory. It's only natural to be skeptical of a romance where one of the two players only expresses herself through pantomime and violence, but Hi-Score Girl manages to build something truly charming and sweet out of Haruo and Akira's rapport. Some may find issue with how often Akira resorts to straight-up beating Haruo senseless, but the show's cartoony tone helps smooth those bits into the rest of the story's comedic tone – this guy gets run over by a car multiple times without so much as breaking a bone, so I don't think we're meant to take Akira's beatings too literally. There are also many moments where Haruo and other characters are forced to speak Akira's complex thoughts and feelings out loud (which Akira will confirm with a simple nod), and though I found that style of exchange cute myself, it also limits just how far Haruo and Akira's relationship can realistically go. Even when Haruo ends up getting involved in the heavier realities of Akira's home life, Hi-Score Girl somehow manages to make Akira's pantomime routine balance out in both its comedic and dramatic sides.
The strength of Netflix's English dub is also on full display. Johnny Yong Bosch's veteran skills are used to full effect, since he has to manage a vast majority of the script's heavy lifting; his Haruo strikes a fine balance between being a likable doofus and an impulsive brat, and the dub works more or less on the strength of his performance alone. Erika Harlacher gets the second meatiest part with Koharu, and she does a solid job of to selling the character's complex relationship with both Haruo and video games in general. Christine Marie Cabanos gets virtually nothing to do as Akira – I suppose the character's grunts, giggles, and “hmphs” sound equally good in either language?
If I had any major complaint to level at Hi-Score Girl, it would be how it incorporates Koharu's character. For much of the middle stretch of the season, Koharu struggles as the “Other Girl” who pines away for Haruo's affections, while he dreams of mastering every game he can find so Akira will respect him as a rival. She's not a bad character, and the fact that she can actually hold a conversations should make her a formidable opponent for Akira, but for too much of the anime her shtick consists of standing around being frustrated with Koharu's obsessions. She simply isn't given the opportunity to be as endearing as Akira until later in the series, when she begins to develop more agency and drive of her own. By that point, the series is gearing up to close out on a cliffhanger ending, which means much of Koharu's potential is left untapped before the conclusive OVAs.
At the end of the day, I'm glad I got to spend time in Hi-Score Girl's world. Its romanticism of the early '90s video game boom was satisfyingly nostalgic, and I became invested in watching Haruo grow up and come to understand his rival Akira better. For the series' 3-OVA conclusion, I'd love to see Koharu get even more of the focus she deserves, and I wouldn't even be opposed to letting Akira get a word in edgewise (though I doubt that will happen). Netflix's anime offerings have been a mixed bag, but if you're hankering for a romcom with a heaping helping of video game history on the side, Hi-Score Girl is definitely worth checking out.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : B+
Art : B
Music : B
+ Solid CG animation and fun video-game references, Haruo and Akira make an adorable pair of protagonists, deftly switches gears between comedy and drama
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