The first season of Uma Musume Pretty Derby can take a bit of getting used to with the terms it wants to be engaged on in order to get into, to let yourself have fun with it. Similarly, Season 2 has a bit of its own circumstances that viewers have to understand going in. First of all, this follow-up supplants its predecessor’s focus on Special Week, Silence Suzuka, and much of the previous stable of characters. Instead, starring roles are given to Tokai Teio and Mejiro McQueen, exploring the rivalry and relationship that develops between them and a mostly-new cast of additional horse girls involved in the highs and lows of their careers. It makes this season feel less like a true sequel to the previous show, and more like a supplemental story or a sister series. More importantly, both newcomers and returning viewers alike have to once again engage the show on its own terms, and that’s before even getting to its wildly different scope of ambitions.
Secondly, if the freshman outing for Uma Musume successfully used the framework of a sports story for its narrative constructed out of classic race-horse records, Season 2 dives deeper into its sports anime DNA, as well as featuring shockingly-dedicated recreations of the racing seasons it’s depicting. Already that creates an interesting challenge for the material it’s presenting to the audience: There’s understandably a bit of repetition in the obstacles faced and overcome, and the wins and losses are not always perfectly timed to a narrative arc as one that’s totally fictional might otherwise be. There’s also the whole question of agency rolled over from that real-world context, as so much of the story revolves around the horse girls injuring and damaging their bodies in pursuit of furthering their racing careers. There’s an entirely separate conversation to be had about the actual cases of these animals suffering injuries or the possible commentary on athletes wrecking themselves at the behest of their own dreams or fan encouragement. All this is the second half of those terms to engage with Uma Musume on, understanding the structure this plot has been stretched over and the points the fantastical format may make it easier to gloss over.
And in my opinion, that understanding of Uma Musume is worth getting over, because once it does draw you into its structure and story for this second season, it grabs hold of the reins and never lets go. Where Season One demonstrated a know-how of sports-show presentation to make its dramatized racing plots work, Season Two has ideas about storytelling in sports that it earnestly wants to use its cartoon horse documentary structure to explore. There’s a definite irony to the way I dismissed the horse girls’ actual motivations for running in the first season as baked in by the magical world-building, since the second season devotes an intense amount of time and introspection to multiple characters considering why they do or don’t want to run at various ups and downs of their career. And make no mistake, the attempts to maximize the pathos of these developments have been dialed up to a shocking degree. The initial season could take itself seriously when it wanted to, but Season Two gets downright melancholy multiple times.
The primary story of Tokai Teio is where the balance between all those qualifying aspects is most on display. It’s worth noting that not only is the story of the horse’s recovery from multiple injuries to the season-ending win an established journey that’s being reenacted here, but it was actually casually summarized already at the end of Uma Musume’s first season. Knowing that can lend the faintest glimmer of hope to what at times seems like an extremely emotionally bleak story. Injuries to athletes in real life, and the question of what they do to move on in the face of their own previous dreams and the fans those hopes are projected on can seem hopeless and frustrating, and Teio’s story leans into that relatable energy even with its foregone conclusion and magical horse-girl framing. There are scenes of her after her third fracture, when she’s initially resolved to fully retire, meandering through attempts at more mundane joys in daily life, that I think anyone who’s suddenly lost a major element of engagement with who they are can probably relate to. The show’s commitment to setting up this segment across all the preceding episodes lets it work without any qualifying caveats or irony, in my opinion. It can seem frustrating from a narrative standpoint when Teio’s third fracture occurs, but the point is hammered in that this isn’t just a beat forced in for drama – it’s the kind of real setback that’s happened to real people (and horses).
Teio’s journey, alongside McQueen and their developing rivalry, is supplemented by a host of fresh side-characters that explore other aspects of the odd interplay between reality and storytelling in sports. One example is the arc about Rice Shower, a very impactful set of episodes that pops up midway through the series. Rice Shower’s story asks the question of how someone performing in a sport for their own success and glory, same as other participants, might feel when regarded by the audience only as a spoiler, an obstacle to the expected success of more established favorites. Rice’s grappling with her conflicting heel and hero roles doesn’t reach a neat, tidy resolution – as so many sports careers don’t – and instead we see her finding small comforts along the way in the appreciation her fellow horse girls have for her, in motivating them to always have a new obstacle to push past. It’s just one component of this season’s point of real-world athletic goals always being in flux: We almost never achieve the degrees of perfection we initially set out for, and what keeps us motivated anyway are the moving targets of those we compete against and become close to.
I know it can come off like I’m waxing a bit too sentimental about the efforts of this multimedia-franchise horse girl cartoon, but it’s because this season really does pull off what it sets out to do. The animation effort from Studio KAI perhaps isn’t quite as consistently strong as the original by P.A. Works; there’s more pronounced usage of CGI stand-ins for the horse girls, and I don’t know that the speed of the races is quite as consistently conveyed. But with the more densely emotional material, the direction comes through as stronger and sharper, with both moments of big dramatic racing results and smaller, intimate character interactions sold well virtually every episode (Twin Turbo’s race win at the end of Episode 10, based on the similarly-improbable real-world race, sticks out for the message it represents and its effect on Teio at that point in the story). The show is also impressively backed up by the soundtrack, which seems at first superficially similar to what was used in the first season, but gets to really flex its muscles with the increased dramatic scope, swelling outrageously at times for that full emotion-manipulating heartstring-tugging effect. It’s another example of Uma Musume finding the exact right way to present the material it’s declared fealty to.
The only possible drawback to this second season is that concession to its material choice I mentioned at the beginning: If you were hoping for any more of your favorite horse girls from the first season, you’ll be left wanting. The most missed part comes as a result of Mejiro McQueen’s promotion to main character, moving her on from her hilarious background feud with Gold Ship that was one of the funniest parts of the first season. And Special Week is barely more than an extra here, with Silence Suzuka out of the country for most of the show, only appearing intermittently on video calls as a running gag. By that token, however, the humor is still as spot-on as ever, even with the massive increase in drama. If you’re worried this take on the franchise would be too overtly-serious to, say, let you watch a horse girl ride around on a Segway, I can tell you to fear not. I daresay the amount of ongoing jokes and clever visual humor has only increased, creating a neat sort of presentational continuity between both seasons in spite of the difference in studios and narrative ambitions.
The original Uma Musume was perfectly fine for what it was. Pretty good, even. But while Season 2 does enough differently from that first outing that it might be tempting to grade them on the curve of those distinct entertainment expectations, I can’t say it’s horses for courses. However you feel about the advisement of the second season’s ambitions, the fact is it ends up working, and at least in my case. It managed to draw me in to what it wanted to say about sports, athletes, and the stories they live in a way that the first season never quite managed to. It’s downright appreciable that the central message of Uma Musume is about trying your hardest and never giving up, since it felt like the show itself took a much bigger risk in how seriously it presented its stories this time, and as a result, came away with a surprising win worth cheering on.
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