Umamusume: Pretty Derby – Review

Title: Umamusume: Pretty Derby
Studio: P.A. Works
Episodes: 13
Streaming: Crunchyroll

Before watching Umamusume: Pretty Derby, there were two ways to look at it. First is that a show about horse girls competing in races to perform in an idol concert sounds incredibly weird. Second is that a combination of moe, horse races, and idols is an ingenious scheme to combine three of the most profitable markets currently thriving in Japan. No matter what, it was easy to dismiss Umamusume, either as a cynical cash cow or just an anime too weird for its own good. What shocked me most though is that the show surprisingly does entertain.

Umamusume follows the traditional underdog template. The main protagonist, Special Week (Asumi Waki), joins an academy to become the fastest horse girl in all of Japan. Upon arriving to the campus, she soon gets recruited into Spica, a somewhat obscure but growing team of horse girls. Along with the team’s star racer, Silence Suzuka (Marika Kouno), Special Week (Spe for short) helps Spica climb to the top and compete against its highly popular and skilled rival team, Rigil.

Tons of horse girls are introduced in Umamusume. In fact, I’d argue that the cast is a bit too large for a 13-episode anime. While Rigil is the primary opposing force for Spica, there are a couple of unaffiliated opponents that appear here and there and almost of all of them are forgotten shortly after they are introduced. Even within Rigil, it can be a bit hard to keep track of who’s who, with the members that do play a degree of prominence in the story being the ones who also happen to be Spe’s classmates in school. With the exception of Spe and Suzuka, even most of the members of Spica end up getting a short end of the stick. Some of their arcs get gleamed over and others simply don’t have arcs at all.

While the abundance of characters is a problem that persists throughout Umamusume, there are a few saving graces that prevent the cast from becoming completely forgettable or uninteresting. To begin with, most of the character designs featured in this anime are solid. Everyone’s physical attributes and even their racing uniforms (which I must admit are quite stylish) are distinct and convey a fair amount of their personalities. In terms of chemistry, there are a couple of amusing interactions that happen throughout the show. Spica members Gold Ship (Hitomi Ueda) and Mejiro McQueen (Saori Ounishi) particularly offer some good slapstick whenever they try to push each other’s buttons. I also dug Teio (Machicho) for her spunk and her brief role as the team’s dance instructor. There is even some fun trivia associated with the characters as well. Most, if not all of them, are all named after real Japanese racehorses and you can actually spoil parts of Umamusume‘s story if you look up the results of the races they competed in.

Where the core of the story lies is within the friendship developed between Special Week and Silence Suzuka. Together, the two are foils to each together with Spe being the newbie racer climbing the ranks while Suzuka is the star racer who seemingly just keeps getting faster. Having the two in the same team proves to be an interesting move on Umamusume‘s part as both characters inspire and root for each other and yet one of them can also act as a rival for the other. The show spends a fair amount, especially towards the end, how Spe and Suzuka being rivals can actually strengthen their resolve to become better racers and better friends. Overall, it’s an effectively endearing friendship that helps keeps the story afloat and engaging.

Also included in the cast are Spica and Rigil’s respective trainers (the latter is named Hana, the former is just called Trainer for some reason). They kind of act like the producer archetype that you may see in an idol anime. Spica’s trainer is perhaps the most fleshed out character after Spe and Suzuka, possessing his own set of aspirations for his team and is clearly a competent trainer in his own right despite being really kickable in some scenes where his actions have a perverse tone to them. Hana is admittedly less developed as a character though some of the scenes where she clashes or gets annoyed with Trainer are pretty funny.

Regarding the horse races themselves, there’s plenty of that throughout the whole show. Along with the underdog angle of the plot, Umamusume plays out more like a sports anime than a traditional CGDCT or idol anime. The racing even leans more towards actual horse races than human track and field in terms of its presentation and rules. Visually, it can look a little repetitively since you’re watching girls with horse traits and not actual horses running laps. In spite of P.A. Works’s best efforts, there can only be so much appeal with watching arms swing and legs cycle through the same motions over and over again. Honestly, the better way to maintain tension in a race proved to be having someone scream as they run or having extras bluntly (albeit hilariously) blurt out that they’re losing. Fortunately, the context behind each race keeps things exciting. There is still something thrilling seeing, say, Special Week race as fast as she can after seeing her train vigorously or recover emotionally from a previous defeat.

Meanwhile, the idol performances surprisingly gets downplayed a lot, as in it doesn’t happen as often as you’d think it would. There’s even a span of episodes where that element of the premise is either skimmed over or not featured at all. Ultimately, whatever J-Pop that would get stuck in your head is the OP and ED and while they are admittedly catchy, the point still stands. If you’re not a fan of J-Pop or the occasional, awkward looking computer-rendered dance choreography, then you’re probably in luck. Me personally, I would’ve preferred it if the show made stronger use of something it advertised. It’s a shame because the few performances that are prominently featured in Umamusume are pretty good. It strangely does feel triumphant to see the winner perform in front of a large and wild crowd after an intense race.

Umamusume: Pretty Derby is by no means a perfect anime. There’s plenty to enjoy in a lot of what it has to offer but the execution is far from flawless. However, the fact that this show even evokes effort and very few traces of greed is admirable. This could’ve easily been a cynical cash cow banking on three very big markets in Japan and yet, the people behind it made sure that the show had a heart to it. And while the premise is undeniably absurd, I nevertheless enjoyed what I watched. Umamusume is surprisingly entertaining, especially for those who enjoy sports anime and/or moe.

Score: 7/10

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