High Score Girl

The Coming of Age in a Synthetic World: the High Score Girl Series

High Score Girl is a recent video-game inspired romantic comedy framed for television and aimed at millennials. It originally found success as a comic “manga” in 2010 by Rensuke Oshikiri, and just that much tells you quite a bit. The series promises to be a new player in the growing subculture of anime, especially given the amount of money and labor pumped into it by the production teams at J.C. Staff, one of Japan’s most established animation studios, in collaboration with Square Enix, the world-renowned video-game production company.

The existence of this new series and the occasion of me talking about it underscores how the world of entertainment has expanded beyond what seemed imaginable a few decades back. Globalization, transmedia marketing, cultural homogenization—all inexorable forces that have pulled us far from those halcyon days when we sat in front of a TV tray watching Rocky and Bulwinkle with our parents.

For American audiences needing an analogy to the manga story within the series, High Score Girl might best be compared to Terry Zwigoff’s brilliant dark comedy, Ghost World (2001), which starred Thora Birch as a bright, disaffected teenager drifting aimlessly through the shallow world of her high school peers until meeting another loner, a romantic antitype who snaps her out of her lethargy, opening the possibility for movement and growth. That’s the angst behind the story, here told through the lives of Japanese teens addicted to alternate realities.

One can conclude that this story has now become a cultural archetype—modernity has created and bred disillusionment among teenagers growing up apart from strong parental structures and so developing emotional bonds horizontally rather than through the traditional vertical paths of family, ancestry, ethnicity, religion, et al. Americans might have thought the James Dean, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift disillusioned youth sensation of the 1950s was an American phenomenon. It has proven more universal, a byproduct of the modern era of industrialization and technological mediation. Where world cultures have entered the stream of modern life, they have universally suffered the casualties of disillusionment—divorce, depression, suicide. Adolescents are more often than not defined in film through these lost, loner types. The protagonist antiheroes seek to “only connect” in the phrase coined by E.M. Forster who first described this existential problem among the middle and upper classes of England at the turn of the 20th century in A Room with a View and Howard’s End.

Back to the context for High Score Girls, the era of coin-hungry arcade machines where teens escape to the zing-bang of simulated conflict and resolution; and even more so, the subsets within that culture, those nostalgically drawn to retro-games. The series revolves around Haruo Yaguchi, a middle-class high school boy who is trying to figure out life through the usual struggles of peer rivalry and crassness. His greatest talent is his gaming ability which becomes his safe space for self-definition, at least until he is defeated at an arcade by a mysterious silent girl named Akira Oono. That breakthrough, something of a psychic shock judging from how he makes her pay later on for his affection, changes his whole world, opening him up to the possibilities of love and personal growth, though he is unable to express either very well.

The production quality of High Score Girl is strong. The editing and the dialogue pay homage to the manga and should satisfy all fans. Unfortunately for many the dialogue will come off a bit like a teenage video-game nerd fantasizing about his dream girl, instead of a young man in a synthetic world struggling to be human. The story is littered with gaming culture references throughout which limits the appeal to those who have some history, but perhaps that is fitting.

One can clearly see the appeal and market of the show, those raised in the 90’s who spent many hours at grandma’s house playing Street Fighter 2. Still, those of us who come from other eras can find interest in this exotic series as well, if only because it tells a tale analogous to our own, coming of age and finding meaningful relationships in our more and more dehumanizing modern world.