As with any number of mobile-game motivated multimedia productions, Uma Musume Pretty Derby has a lot going on right out of the starting gate. In the case of this series, it’s not just a matter of the massive cast of characters or the intricacies of the concept that have to be detailed, but more simply the sheer number of different kinds of show it wants and needs to be. It’s a character-focused franchise showcase, sure, but it’s also a sports drama. It’s a series with a lot to present regarding real-world race-horse trivia, but at the same time relies on a lot of fantastical world-building to filter that through. The result is a series which, in its maiden-voyage first season, begs the question of exactly which audiences are going to find the most appeal in its myriad parts, and how well those parts can come together to form something stable.
The base concept that Uma Musume is saddled with seems a fair place to start in taking a look at the series. Anthropomorphizations of things as cute anime characters is a concept that needs no introduction, but Uma Musume both uses its particular angle as a way to build out its world and as a shortcut to setting up all of its characterization. The commitment to showing how ingrained the horse girls (both their existence and their roles) are in the parallel-world’s society is honestly quite impressive. We see how commerce and advertising play out with them at the forefront of media, and even with this first season’s primary focus on one specific school and race circuit, it’s still made clear that a variety of other affiliations are out there worldwide. Besides that broader stuff, we see tiny details like phones specially designed to be used with the horse girls’ higher-mounted ears, or the existence of horseshoes as particularly-placed running apparel for them. These are incidental elements that could have passed as simple sight-gags, but are deployed so nonchalantly-yet-consistently as to make this bizarre anime-fantasy mash-up still feel actually lived-in.
On a character level though, the setup can feel like both a shortcut and a shortcoming. The horse girls seemingly universally possessed of their racehorse reincarnations’ desire to run means their participation in the sport is a somewhat foregone conclusion. Their schooling and training are all in service of this singular pursuit, with no mind even paid to the question of a horse girl in any other role in this society. In this case it’s probably best not to think too hard about any broader implications of this setup and simply regard it as part and parcel to the overall gimmick, but it does create one clear delineation that affects the other parts of the show: The horse girls don’t run for themselves, they run because they are horse girls. It’s a departure from key elements of more traditional sports shows, which often at least partially focus on the motivations of their protagonists in taking on their particular activity. With that box pre-checked for all the horse girls, the story simply becomes a question of their approach to the game.
Once you’re past that odd conceptual hurdle, Uma Musume does actually work pretty well as a sports show. There’s an abundance of focus on training regimens and strategy that come off more impressively complex than unaware viewers might expect from what basically amounts to running really fast. And with the motivation for running given a systemic workaround by the setting, the series instead settles into exploring the different reasons the horse girls find for specifically doing their best. Special attention is placed on the sheer competitive aspect of the races, with rivalries pushing the girls to become better and better. It’s an effective way to interconnect the massive herd of the cast, even if it sometimes seems like too many of the decisive declarations of competition are focused on mane characters Special Week and Silence Suzuka. However, the driving bond that eventually forms between those two turns out to be one of the best examples of that competitive philosophy the show sells, and the relative dedication to reenacting real-world race results means characters can experience an even number of victories and defeats to keep viewers engaged. Honestly, the plain seriousness with which Uma Musume treats its sports aspect is only undercut occasionally by the presentation itself. The wildly impractical racing outfits worn by the girls in high-level races can stretch the suspension of disbelief perhaps even further than those tuning in for magical animal-girls might be prepared for, especially given how well-thought-out other aspects of the world are. It’s just enough for me to question how overheated characters like El Condor Pasa or Broye might get in their heavy coats, or get whiplash from a horse girl whizzing by with a top hat magically attached to her head, not to mention how I’m thrown each time this show reminds me that these racing horse girls are also idols, sometimes.
That occasionally-disparate mash-up of elements itself appears in service of the remaining facet of Uma Musume, that is as a kind of hobbyist/special-interest show. Its particular angle on racehorse trivia is probably the oddest approach, in my opinion. While the series never actually stops to dryly dole out facts and trivia about the horses depicted and the races they’re participating in (which is almost certainly best for keeping the pacing brisk and entertaining), it’s still extremely tuned-in to the real-world inspirations for everything we see play out, to the point that hardcore horse hobbyists can certainly pick up on the idiosyncrasies and even be pre-emptively spoiled on how the show’s series of races will turn out if they know their history well enough. It feels like an odd disconnect from the hobbyist aspect of the show, as the neophyte viewers they’re clearly hoping to bring in with the fancy anime character designs aren’t going to have the info imparted to them beyond looking up trivia on their own after the fact, while established fans of the world of horse-racing will end up approaching it from an opposite angle, with consideration of how Uma Musume will ‘adapt’ the seasons of the sport they’re already familiar with. I should stress that this doesn’t necessarily make for a bad viewing experience – the show feels brisk and accessible regardless. It’s just another of the choices that can feel odder the longer you let yourself think about it.
However you end up approaching Uma Musume, I think it does well at its primary goal of selling this stable of characters to you. That sports-story framework does a lot of the heavy lifting, presenting the girls in a situation where people are literally rooting for them, and their catchy designs and gimmicks help keep each of them distinct even more than their ridiculous names. That some of their quirks are rooted in more of those oblique horse factoids actually makes the characterization feel more cohesive than some of those other elements outlined above. The animators for the show love throwing in silly background jokes or antics purely for the sake of endearment, be they Gold Ship’s consistently backfiring antagonizing of Mejiro McQueen, or some comically-large food portions to emphasize how these girls eat like, well, you know. On the note of the animation, P.A. Works turns in their typical workhorse job, bolstered by this being a Cygames joint and all the resources they’re known to pony up. In particular, special attention is paid to portraying the sheer speed the horse girls run at, with body language indicating their shifting intensity and strategy (and in one notable instance, sustaining an injury while running). There are also lots of little character flourishes akin to those aforementioned background gags, adding horsey habits to the movements of these anime girls.
Judging Uma Musume as just another anthropomorphized-subculture mobile-game tie-in would definitely belittle it. What we have here is a show with a lot of clear love for its base subject and interest in creating a world that works around it. Its inherent goofiness may at times seem to clash with its serious treatment of some of the action and subjects at hand, but I think it ends up a net positive as far as charm goes. The main issues holding it back are its underdeveloped or oddly-deployed elements that stop you from getting too deep into the series, always making you just aware that this is ultimately a product being sold. That’s fine if you already know you’re here for it, but it means that others may have to willingly cast aside any cynicism they might have about this kind of project, and engage with it on its own strange, but admittedly fun terms.