Reviewby Christopher Farris,
Uma Musume Pretty Derby: Road to the Top
Episodes 1-4 Streaming
Three top-tier horse girls seek to prove themselves in the Japanese triple crown. Narita Top Road has her classmates and coach holding onto their hopes for her. Admire Vega has the memory of her sister whom she wishes to honor. And T.M. Opera O? She simply knows she was destined for greatness and is looking for the biggest opportunity to prove it. Each of them has their own story, but as they run up against each other, will they all arrive at that chance to stand at the top?
The Uma Musume franchise already proved it had running legs just in its first season, with the second showing the true ambitions it was capable of realizing. It's also gone on to be a smashing commercial success, so more anime based on these galloping gals was a foregone conclusion. But rather than immediately arriving at a third season of the television series, Cygames has instead seen fit to shunt us into ancillary ONA territory with Road to the Top here, a four-episode side-story available to watch on their YouTube page (complete with English subtitles). It's fair; the world of horse girls is wide, and even the second season of Uma Musume: Pretty Derby felt more like a spin-off of its predecessor than a complete follow-up.
Road to the Top also presents the opportunity for new entrants to leave their mark on this inherently silly yet oddly compelling concept of a franchise. Instead of Season 1 and Season 2 of the TV anime, produced by P.A. Works and Studio KAI, respectively, Cygames saw fit to have this one animated under their eponymous Cygames Pictures studio. In doing so, they brought in the ONA's director Cheng Zhi Liao, previously known for working on a litany of Doga Kobo projects. A robust row of storyboarders and animators joined her for the project, and the result is a horse of a different color that not only stands apart from the previous takes on Uma Musume, but is regularly stunning on its own terms.
Uma Musume's most distinguishing element, apart from the outlandishly costumed anthropomorphized designs of the horse girls themselves, is the exuberance of the races it puts those characters through. The previous seasons of the television anime were dedicated to communicating the sheer speed the characters moved in their competitions, lending that appreciable anime embellishment to what was otherwise fundamentally strong sports storytelling. In the hands of this assembled Cygames Pictures crew, Road to the Top transforms those races into their most visceral iterations yet. The important elements of the terrain the races take place on are not only highlighted but they're also demonstrated as the girls tear through rain and mud or kick up the turf. Their teeth grit and their eyes strain as they push themselves to those thrilling sports show limits. There are naturally only a handful of races across Road to the Top's short run, but no two competitions look alike, each sporting a distinctive tone and atmosphere, particularly regarding their relevance for a given focal character.
Even when it's not hurtling along at top speed, the craft of Road to the Top remains its biggest feature. The direction makes deft use of the framing of the characters during their downtime. Their placement in a given shot, whether a simple establishing discussion scene or a dramatic dream sequence, always feels carefully considered. It comes alongside constantly shifting decisions regarding the distance they're rendered at or the color grading of a given scene. It's a sense of calculated stillness that compliments the way the action cuts so loose during the races, yet even then, Road to the Top never feels like it's stalling to save on resources. Those simpler interactions are complemented by expressive flicks of the horse girls' ears or the upbeat swishing of their tails.
It's a stand-out presentational effort in service of a story that seems content to stick to Uma Musume's known strengths. The series' second season showed how effectively it could work by ratcheting up the sports drama. So while Road to the Top never quite reaches for those levels of intensity (it simply doesn't have the time), it's happy to continue extending sincerity to the stories of these cartoon horse girls in campy outfits. It's a seriousness that's mandated in some cases; this anime alternate-world take on the 1999 racing season focuses one-third of its energies on Admire Vega, a character whose motivation is rooted in her tragically passed twin sister. The likes of T.M. Opera O help to bring things up by occupying the decidedly sillier end of the characterization spectrum, while Narita Top Road rests somewhere in the middle. Each main character has only a couple extra supporters compared to the herds of secondary characters the proper TV seasons deployed, with the unique setup of the Triple Crown trio letting the show explore a wide range of moods and ideas across its scant four-episode run.
Being able to directly compare these three leading horses lets Road to the Top dig into one aspect of the sports narrative that has always propelled the franchise, acknowledging that while it's canon that all horse-girls live to run, their personal reasons for doing so differ from horse to horse, of course. It looks specifically to who athletes compete for, with Narita Top Road doing so for the sake of her coach's dreams as well as the inspiration of all her fans, while Admire Vega turns inward to feel like she's competing in loving memory of her sister. But then she also becomes concerned that she might just be projecting her ambitions onto her sister's memory, a self-fulfilling ambition for a victory also openly embraced by T.M. Opera O.
The way the characters express these ambitions don't necessarily intersect with one another, but their interactions allow for comparisons of these motivations. It allows viewers to acclimate to enough emotional investment even as the story economically recreates real elements of the horses' histories and race records. The writing around the alternating victories that characterized this racing season knows to focus on the characters in the lead-up to their most distinguishing derby moments.
It's all fine enough in the spirit of Uma Musume, feeling a bit more substantial than the show's first season while never entirely breaking into the emotional intensity of the second. There's also the point that the shrunk-down cast and episode count result in the series having neither the space nor the means to engage with as much of the franchise's usually expected madcap humor. There's still plenty of the inherent silliness of the Uma Musume world, to be sure; this is a series that begins with a dramatic slow pan up a horse-ified version of the Statue of Liberty proudly hoisting a carrot in place of a torch, after all. Some characters like Oguri Cap pop in to do their contractually obligated bit (though there's oddly no sign of fan-favorite funny foal Gold Ship), and T.M. Opera O's performances alone up the silliness quotient. But it's all relatively subdued compared to how gloriously goofy the Uma Musume TV shows could get. It's not necessarily a negative on Road to the Top's terms but is worth noting depending on what material you come back to this franchise for.
Regardless, Road to the Top is worth a watch. It can almost be sold on its technical elements alone. And it's backed up by a story that functions fine, especially if you've already bought into the absurd aspects that power Uma Musume. For anyone else, this strange series setup might be as arduous a sell as it was from the beginning. Though with its sampler-platter length, plus not being constrained to a subscription streaming service, one could argue that the price is right. Compared to its longer, denser forerunners, Road to the Top might be seen as a horse anyone can more confidently bet on.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B
Animation : A+
Art : A
Music : B
+ Top-tier animation and direction, Solid story with its own unique angle on some of the franchise's ideas
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