The Spring 2018 Anime Preview Guide Umamusume: Pretty Derby
How would you rate episode 1 of
Uma Musume Pretty Derby ?
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How was the first episode?
With all of the animal girl-themed anime series out there, it had to happen at some point: why not one about race horse girls, named after champion racehorses? It's a minor surprise that the girls are all human in form instead of centaurs, but I suppose it shouldn't be. After all, that would actually be a deviation from cute girl standards, and the first two episodes of this series are nothing if not absolutely conformist to the norm.
I came away from these first two episodes with very mixed feelings. The series is clearly calculated to play to audiences who eat up the moe appeal of the anthropomorphized theme du jour for cute girl shows. It doesn't even try to disguise its goals, as just about every character falls into a common archetype and every move feels carefully calculated for commercial appeal. So I found it hard not to regard the whole endeavor quite cynically. Nowhere is this more problematic than in the soft demeanor of Silent Suzuka. Off the race track, she comes across as much too passive to be convincing as a forcefully aggressive sprinter on the track. I would say her characterization is the series' biggest weak point so far.
Thankfully, Special Week still comes across as likable despite lacking an ounce of originality. This is much more evident in the second episode, as her semi-tragic backstory of her two mothers gets explained to her roommate/idol. Bittersweet backstory is also par for the course for moe titles, but the sincerity of these scenes shows promise, especially in the way that they impact Silent Suzuka. The execution of Special Week's two races also shows promise for the action side of the series, even if their outcome is entirely standard fare for its blend of genres. (I couldn't help but be reminded of the movie The Black Stallion while watching the second episode in particular.) I also liked the historical allusion here, as the actual racehorse Special Week rocketed to prominence by winning his debut race in a 14-horse field.
All that goodwill is spoiled by the tacked-on idol performance elements, though. I understand that these are an additional otaku attention-grabber, but they're so absolutely unnecessary to the story that it's distracting. The first episode also painfully proves that a horse trainer checking out a horse's legs doesn't translate well at all to a horse girl even as a joke. Combine all this with technical merits that seem a step below the quality levels of P.A. Works' more notable titles, and Umamusume isn't going to keep my viewership in a packed season. It certainly may have a difficult time breaking away from the pack.
Of all the possible series to throw me into a loop of existential dread and utter befuddlement, I was not expecting Umamusume to be the one to do the job. I have no especially great love for either horses or sports anime clichés, so Umamusume was likely never going to make a huge impression on me, but this show's preposterous world kept getting in the way of me enjoying it even as a trifle.
On the surface, this series is exactly what it says on the tin: “horse racing, but with cute anime girls instead of horses”. The first two episodes of Umamusume deliver the standard sports-anime narrative of the unlikely outsider coming to an austere athletic academy in the hopes of being The Best There Ever Was. Special Week makes for a decent heroine, whose optimism and cheery outlook help her overcome a lack of experience and formal training. She makes friends with lots of other ridiculously-named girls who all sport ears, tails, and impeccable fashion sense, with each of them falling into the role of either rival, mentor, and loyal partner. The show even tosses in the ostensibly pervy trainer, whose antics may seem creepy but stem from his eccentric training style. (Though he's still kind of gross in the end). It's familiar stuff, but the dialogue and pacing is handled capably enough, and I can see how Umamusume could prove to be fun entertainment.
However, I eventually came to the realization that the basic premise of these girls being named, raised, and treated like real-world racehorses competing in a derby simply doesn't work for me. For one thing, they're barely even horses; outside of their super-speed and kemonomimi traits, they're just normal girls competing in track events, so the fact that they're segregated into their own section of society solely for the purpose of racing comes across as kind of weird. I mean, the only thing separating our heroines from your average cosplayer is their ability to run really fast. This half-baked commitment to the premise raised enough awkward questions for me that it ended up being more distracting than anything else. I will confess to spending too much time puzzling over the fact that these girls run their races in horribly uncomfortable-looking shoes that have horseshoes nailed to the bottom. I get it as a throwaway gag, but like so much of Umamusume's setting and premise, it doesn't hold up when you think about it for more than a few seconds.
If the girls were satyrs or centaurs or something, the premise of Umamusume might make more sense, but I simply can't suspend my disbelief enough to enjoy the simple fun that usually comes with this kind of show. Even if you were to disregard the sketchy world-building, the show's production values aren't enough to hold attention on their own either. Umamusume has an appealing color palette and generally good animation, but the direction is largely flat and uninspired. The pacing and camera work improve for the racing scenes, but none of the girls have demonstrated much chemistry beyond their admittedly charming character designs, so there's only so much tension you can get out of them competing yet. Umamusume isn't a bad show, but it doesn't work for me. Maybe time will soften my opinion somewhat, but I don't plan on coming back to this weirdly uncomfortable world anytime soon.
Whoa whoa whoa whoa, hold your horses. Trainer-san in this show (pictured at right) has my extremely dumb haircut. I don't style it exactly that way, but holy cow the resemblance is uncanny. All I need is a few tweaks, and I've got a solid cosplay plan for the summer! Of course, it's entirely possible that nobody will remember this series by July.
Umamusume: Pretty Derby is not an ambitious show, but it's also not as transparently exploitative as it could have been. I mean, the premise is essentially combining three notorious money-sinks into one: mobile gacha games, horse racing, and idol groups. That's the Triple Crown of "dump your money into this faster than you can stop yourself" phenomena in Japan. Most of the show's charm comes courtesy of P.A. Works' consistent and inviting production effort. Umamusume won't knock your socks off, but it definitely looks better than the majority of these cast-of-thousands mobage adaptations that get dumped out every season. Beyond that, its casual cantering pace and broad sappy narrative are reliably engaging but certainly not exciting either.
It doesn't get weird enough with the zoology of its premise for monster girl fans, and it doesn't offer enough performance glitz for idol fans. (The jury's out on what horse racing fans must think, but as someone who grew up in proximity to the Kentucky Derby and knows a lot about the sport, I would say that Umamusume's connection to the sport is tenuous at best for perhaps obvious reasons.) The jokes are cute but expected. (Horse girls running to school with carrots in their mouths, horse girls kicking a man fifty feet when startled, etc.) The drama is sweet but standard. (Special Week's pseudo-tragic backstory hits all the right notes without giving you much else to chew on.) Barring some mild horse-butt fanservice and some uncalled-for thigh groping, it's an inoffensive experience that could probably have used more kick given the setup.
So who does this show appeal to? I think if you like your cute-girls-doing-cute-things shows with a little plot momentum, heartening schmaltz, and a decent variety of athletic builds (those Triple Crown horse girls could definitely crack your skull open with their thighs), Umamusume will serve you well as relaxing passive entertainment on a lazy Sunday. If you need a little spice in your polished escapism though, these paddock princesses will probably leave you seeking greener pastures.
I'm not sure how we've arrived at the point where a “what if racing horses were cute high school girls” show feels not only natural but almost inevitable. In any case, here we are. From the conservative starting point of “girls” and “girls in a club,” the slice of life and sports genres have slowly expanded to encompass new novelties like “girls in tanks,” “girls in the post-apocalypse,” “girls who are planes,” “girls who are guns,” “girls who are both idols and politicians,” and now at last, “girls who are horses.” I'm proud of us.
Unfortunately, I am sorry to say that regardless of its noble efforts in advancing the “girls plus blank” genre space, Uma Musume simply isn't very good. For shows like this, you generally hope for an amalgam of the strengths of their two pillars: lots of the charm and comedy of a slice of life show, but also the unique appeal of whatever that slice of life is being crossed with. So far, Uma Musume has failed to thrill me on both counts.
On the slice of life side, Uma Musume lacks the comedy, character, or visual snappiness to really sell itself. Our heroine Special Week has some goofy expressions, but her personality is essentially a bubbly template, and her encounters through the first few days at her new school are equally flat. The show occasionally mines effective comedy out of the unique horsey-ness of its protagonists, like when Special Week has to hold her phone above her head to get the speaker to her ear, but far too much of these first two episodes felt like going through genre motions, with only the unique twist of the premise offering anything engaging.
As far as that goes, Uma Musume also suffers from the fact that horse racing might not be a compelling topic for a sports anime. Absurdity of the premise aside, pretty much any sports drama that is focused on a solitary sport - that is, one where you're racing a clock, not directly engaging with opponents - has an extreme uphill battle to fight in making its big event sequences compelling. So far, Uma Musume lacks the aesthetic excellence or emotional pull to really sell its races, so its most momentous moments don't feel any more thrilling than its everyday scenes.
That “emotional pull” issue represents my final problem with Uma Musume. This show's setup relies on so many absurd contrivances and handwaves so much of the weirdness inherent to a world where "some people are just race horses and that's okay," that I simply couldn't invest in its drama emotionally. When Special Week ends the first episode by learning that being the best horse girl means “inspiring other people to dream,” I could only laugh. I'm not sure if there is a version of “horse girls compete to be the best” that could actually engage me emotionally, but I know that this show is not it.
I'm not sure why Umamusume: Pretty Derby is going for a two-episode premiere, but the move definitely works in the show's favor. It doesn't make a great first impression, and my rating would probably be a notch or two lower if I were to judge the first episode on its own. The idea of using actual racehorse names for the characters doesn't seem like it's meant to be a joke, but I burst into laughter the first time Special Week introduced herself. Then there's the initial encounter with the unnamed male trainer, which is all kinds of creepy. The show's pop idol elements feel crammed in for no apparent reason, and they distract from the rest of the story. Factor in Special Week's habit of being loudly and obnoxiously amazed by every single thing she encounters at her new school and you've got a sufficient number of reasons to drop the show and never look back.
Then we have the second episode, which does a remarkable job of turning things around. Trainer-kun cuts out his leg-grabbing antics and actually starts doing a decent job of coaching his team. Special Week's wide-eyed wonderment is dialed back to a more tolerable level, and we're given some important bits of backstory that explain her motivation and make her a more sympathetic protagonist. Her debut race is nicely paced (pardon the pun), balancing kinetic action with a nod to her childhood training. The horse racing elements still feel odd when applied to mostly-human characters and the idol stuff remains superfluous, but it's still a big improvement over the first episode.
The series does suffer from a common problem amongst mobile game adaptations: character introduction overload. I assume anyone familiar with the game will recognize most of the horse girls, but it's too many names in too short a time for casual viewers to keep up with. On the upside, the interactions between the characters are fairly encouraging. Most of Special Week's classmates seem to think she's a little weird, but they don't go out of their way to ostracize her; if anything, most of the named characters make a point of looking out for the new girl. Her interactions with roommate and role model Silence Suzuka seem especially positive, especially near the end of the second episode. There's plenty of competition built into the premise, but it's confined to the track for now.
Umamusume: Pretty Derby is enough of an oddity that it will probably be a niche interest, and its early missteps don't help its case. On the other hand, its production values are a clear step above what we usually see from this genre, and the second episode makes a significant course correction on the story front. If it can sort itself out over the next couple weeks, there may yet be hope for this one.
It's Equestria Girls the anime!
Okay, not quite, although there are aspects of it that feel like that particular spin-off of the new My Little Pony franchise. Umamusume: Pretty Derby is a bit of an odd duck, trying to mix horse racing with moe with idol singers, a combination that's struggling to find its feet in this first episode. There's a good chance that the whole thing will make more sense if you're actually into horse racing, although even with that knowledge, it definitely feels off-putting to hear the horse girls talked about like actual horses, from the race terminology to the discussion of their bodies. In fact, the most unsettling scene in this episode is when heroine Special Week feels someone groping her thighs underneath her skirt while she's out in public. He turns out to be a “trainer” of horse girls (at her new school, no less), but the fact that he's okay feeling her up in public and the public doesn't do a damn thing because he's either recognized or is muttering about “good hind legs” is really uncomfortable. Basically it feels as if the episode is blurring the lines between “girls” and “horses” in more than just the ears and tails, and that's very problematic. Although the second episode puts a stop to his predatory behavior, the continued usage of terms such as “show herself on the paddock” and “hold tight to her reins” make sure that these troubling elements remain in mind.
And then there's the weird idol bit. Not content to just have horse girls racing, apparently all of them are aspiring idols as well, because the winner's stage is where the champion horse girl gets to perform a pop song, and all of a sudden people who went to the races are armed with light sticks at a concert. Honestly, the show really doesn't need this, because it has enough going on with the racing and reincarnation thing, as well as Special Week trying to find her place in a new environment. It just feels as if the show's creators didn't trust their story enough and so threw in a popular genre element, just in case.
Aside from the fact that from the first episode's introduction I was expecting reincarnations of Bucephalus and other historical horses, other elements of this do work. There's a sort of clip-clop sound whenever Special Week is walking around that even when she's just wearing regular sneakers that's neat, and I loved the scene where she's on the phone and has to move the handset between the horse ears on the top of her head and her mouth; it's the kind of detail we don't always get in animal girl shows. (I'm now hoping someone suggests bringing back antique phones for the horse girls; they'd work much better for them.) The horseshoes on the toes of the girls’ running shoes are a good alternative to giving them cleats, and Special Week's ears are impressively expressive, more so than her fellow horse girls, which seems to indicate that she's just more open with her emotions than they are – a very good use of her special features to show us something without overtly explaining it. We also get the question of whether horse girls are born to horse women answered in a brief flashback: Special Week's human mom is adoptive. Her birth mother was a horse woman, and she entrusted her daughter to her human friend before dying of childbirth complications. This makes Special Week stand out at school not just for her optimism, but because she's the only horse girl raised exclusively among humans. This may turn out to be Special Week's ultimate trump card, because she has no set idea of how to race like her new classmates do. But it could also make her a target, so that will bear keeping an eye on.
The troublesome elements of dehumanizing the girls, the male trainer's introduction, and the fact that Special Week squealing her excitement roughly every 2.5 seconds in the first episode is really annoying kind of eclipse the better parts for me. There's definitely some potential here and the animation is generally beautiful – just look at Special Weeks’ skirt move before she switches to the school uniform – but that's not enough to keep me interested when the bad parts bother me so much.
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