What’s it about? It’s the summer of 1991, and fighting game arcade cabinets are all the rage. Sixth-grader Haruo spends most of his free time and allowance gaming in arcades all over the city. His classmate Akira Ono has looks, grades, and money, and is the last person he’d ever expect to see in an arcade; and yet, here she is, beating the pants off him at Street Fighter II.
Content Warning: Slapstick violence
The most immediately notable thing about Hi Score Girl is its staff—no, not its director or writing staff, the animators or the voice actors, but the musical composer. Yoko Shimomura is a legendary game composer, best known in the modern day for mega-hits like Kingdom Hearts and Radiant Historia.
Hi Score Girl reaches back to her roots, using her early work on games like Street Fighter II and Final Fight to evoke nostalgic soundscapes of the early ’90s. It’s a cool way to give tribute to a woman who was a major force in shaping an important aspect of video games as we know them today.
Even as Hi Score Girl sounds amazing, it doesn’t really look very good. In fact, it’s frankly kind of an ugly show. It’s animated using clunky, three-dimensional models that move awkwardly and look like their faces are painted on. The faces themselves, with almond-shaped eyes and toothy grins, certainly aren’t going to win any anime beauty pageants. And yet, there is a sort of expressiveness to the way they move around in a three-dimensional space that a lot of traditionally animated shows lack.
That expressiveness is essential because Ono doesn’t speak at all. Instead of expressing herself verbally, she communicates through gestures and various nonverbal vocalizations like grumbles and gasps. A nonverbal heroine in a story from a male viewpoint can by tricky, since women’s voices are often culturally perceived as irritating and excessive, even when they talk less than men. Since Ono appears to be the romantic lead, her silence could be perceived as a positive asset.
However, at least one episode in, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Ono may not speak, but she sure isn’t a perfect romantic protagonist and seems to offer a lot of complexity. Even if she doesn’t describe them herself, it’s not hard to infer her motivations.
Seen as a perfect young lady, she’s under constant, enormous pressure to behave a certain way both at school and at home. She must be beautiful, composed, feminine, and intelligent at all times. Going to a dingy arcade, where she’s unlikely to be seen by anyone who would ever expect that of her, and playing beat-’em-up games is a perfect way for her to anonymously blow off steam.
That is, until she runs into Haruo.
Haruo is a prideful little snot, and takes exception at Ono beating him. At the very least, his frustration has more to do with class than gender. Video games are supposed to be what he’s good at—they’re an escape for him as well, but in a different way, and he’s mad about the class idol beating him here as well.
It doesn’t take long for him to develop respect for her skill, though, and that becomes the foundation for a relationship of equals. Equal, at least, while they’re in the arcade, which is the place where both of them feel most themselves.
It is worth noting that, since Ono is both nonverbal and an aggressive competitor, she often expresses herself through physical violence. The episode plays this as comedic slapstick, with no lasting effects on the characters. It didn’t personally bother me, but I could see it making some viewers uncomfortable when Ono is knocking around Haruo, given that the series seems to be setting them up with a rom-com dynamic.
Overall, though, they have a back-and-forth that I really enjoyed. I especially love how their relationship, whatever direction it takes, comes from their mutual interest in fighting games and not a nebulous “doki-doki” attraction.
Hi Score Girl could have easily turned Ono into a fantasy Gamer Girlfriend for Haruo, or made their relationship founded on misogyny-fueled rivalry. Instead, the first episode sets up a surprisingly sweet nostalgia piece; a love letter to the bonds that form between people thanks to games. Here’s hoping future episodes continue in this vein as well.