• remind me tomorrow
  • remind me next week
  • never remind me
Subscribe to the ANN Newsletter • Wake up every Sunday to a curated list of ANN's most interesting posts of the week. read more

The New Best-Selling TV Anime

by Michael Basile,

There's a new best-selling TV anime, but it might not be what you're thinking of. Join Ember Reviews as we take a deep dive into what might have made this new record holder so successful.

Last year, according to Oricon's sales data, a new TV series completely smashed the record for anime Blu-ray sales, blowing right past the previous record holder, Bakemonogatari, and more than doubling other contenders like Madoka Magica and Yuri!!! on Ice, and the title at the center of all of this is none other than Uma Musume Pretty Derby Season 2. I'm sure many of you are probably thinking “why Uma Musume of all things,” and on the surface that's totally understandable. Nothing about this series screams “best seller” at first glance, but I'd like to take you on a dive into this series to see what made it so successful and, in my opinion, one of the best anime of last year.

Before we get to season 2, however, we need to go back a bit further and take a look at season 1, both because it laid the groundwork for season 2's success and because of how vastly different these two seasons are in terms of overall presentation. If you're still uninitiated into this franchise, Uma Musume Pretty Derby is a sports anime produced by Cygames, known for other multimedia projects like Rage of Bahamut and Granblue Fantasy, that premiered in Spring of 2018. It portrays an alternate world in which horse girls compete in races similar to the horse races we're familiar with in our own world, with each horse girl bearing the name of an actual real life racing horse. The winner also performs as a pop idol at the end of each race, which felt like a much more original idea back when it first came out. It was also meant to have a mobile game tie-in, but that aspect got pushed back for quality control purposes.

Season 1 of Uma Musume is packed with a lot of concepts, most potently rooted in how it references the real world. You see, naming the characters after real race horses isn't its only aesthetic gimmick, as most of the racing results in each episode are based on results of real life races, and so the writers are essentially working backwards from a predetermined race result when constructing each encounter and the lead up to them. There are also tons of visual details from color design to hair styles that directly reference details about the real horses, and the depth of these details across the series conveys just how invested the staff was in recreating horse racing history in a fictional space.

However, the fictional story that it tells is, to put it mildly, very messy. There are a lot of ideas firing off all at once, and a lot of these ideas are kind of interesting, but there's not enough focus to direct those ideas towards creating an effective narrative throughline. It tries its hand at quite a few different genre focuses, namely cycling between sports, comedy, and slice of life depending on the situation, but never feels like it fully grasps any of them. Sometimes the jokes are funny, and sometimes the races are hype, but I can't say it's fully reliable in accomplishing either of those, and some of the humor is just flat-out awful like this weird groping-but-not-really gag that the trainer character does throughout the series.

It also doesn't help that the characters executing these genre shifts aren't the most engaging or complex. Our main character, Special Week, personifies a lot of the narrative confusion in this series. She wants to be the best horse girl in Japan, or at least says she does, but most of her actions throughout the series don't convey the desire for such a lofty goal. It's just something she's doing for her late mother and current foster mother, so the character feels pretty aimless for most of this season's runtime, and it never feels like she or any of the other racers get as much characterization as they could have. They're not bad per say. Just kind of unremarkable in the broad strokes, in part because of that focus problem mentioned earlier.

That said, there is a brief span of episodes in the second half that does try to settle into one particular wavelength when one of its main characters is injured and has her future racing prospects thrown into question, and I would like you to put a pin in that idea for now for when we get into discussing season 2. Granted this character barely had much of a personality before, but it gave the series the central focus that it needed for a pretty ok second half. Still, the overall narrative comes off as less than the sum of its parts simply due to a lack of cohesion amongst the many disparate elements it tackles.

A similar sentiment can be noted for its visuals, which feel pretty inconsistent on the whole, especially in terms of character designs. Most of the characters in this series are visually complex and have many more extra lines to be drawn than your standard anime high schooler, not just because of the horse appendages, but also because each design goes out of its way to be distinctive, even those that only show up for a few minutes in a single episode. It's pretty hard to mistake one character for another because they're so visually unique, especially when they're wearing their signature racing outfits, and that's a great selling point for a franchise where its individual characters are the primary focus.

However, if the designs are going to be this complex, then they have to be handled appropriately, which is unfortunately not the case in the final product. Sometimes we'll get something really polished and slick, and other times…not so much, and the overall cinematography rarely takes full advantage of highlighting these designs, which is kind of a surprise considering that this was produced over at P.A. Works, a studio that generally has a solid handle on animation and art direction.

All that said, the first season of Uma Musume actually sold rather well, moving about 15,000 copies upon its initial release, which is a pretty substantial feat and more than enough to justify a second season. Perhaps that more scattershot approach to genre meshing was one of its more endearing aspects. I personally didn't like it, but it is a very “anime” way to write so I can certainly see its appeal. Perhaps this kind of insane premise for an anime that is totally unapologetic about its existence is endearing in its own way. One of my favorite anime from the last Fall season was about the Soviet Union sending vampires into space, so I'm totally down for weird premises. Perhaps that massive swathe of characters managed to attune itself to the obsessive otaku audience. These designs are good in theory, just not well-executed most of the time. Or perhaps Cygames is just really, really good at marketing. Either way, season 1 was a financial success, paving the way for what was to come.

I spent a lot of time so far describing what didn't seem to click in season 1, partly because they are interesting failings to discuss, but much moreso because practically all of these failings were remedied when season 2 came along last year. After finishing season 2 it seems clear that the staff wanted to go in an entirely different direction with this franchise. In order to do that, however, they needed to clearly separate this new season from the previous one so that they could accomplish all the ideas they wanted to. As such, season 2 is, for all intents and purposes, a soft reboot of this franchise. The events of season 1 still happened and are referenced occasionally, but they have zero effect on the story that season 2 tells, which means you can skip season 1 entirely if you just want to get season 2. In fact, I might even say that skipping season 1 is preferable considering that the final episode basically spoils the first 5-ish episodes of season 2. Speaking of which, lots of spoilers from here on out, so you have been warned.

With a soft reboot now resetting the board, the story is free to reshape itself however it chooses, and the most significant change is that it almost completely does away with that messy genre mix that season 1 tried in favor of something that is majority sports anime with occasional accents of comedy and slice of life. Whereas season 1 treated the sports aspects as just another part of its genre melting pot, season 2 goes all in on telling a gripping and exhilarating sports narrative. The lead-ups to races are quick-paced and full of engaging training montages and moving speeches. The races themselves are often incredibly tense and directed in such a way that you really don't know who's going to win until the very last moment, unless you're familiar with Japanese racehorse history. The wins are overflowing with hype while the losses are drowned in desolation. The breadth of emotions on display is beyond captivating and gets you fully immersed in the careers of these characters.

This full commitment to being a straight sports anime is probably the best thing this series could have ever done, especially in how it handles some of the less-often discussed aspects of sports, as injury is a huge motivating factor in this season. While season 1 only briefly touched on this as a minor dramatic twist that was basically resolved by the end, season 2 steers headlong into this concept. Much like we see in something like season 2 of Megalo Box, putting this much physical strain on your body can have drastic consequences, with characters often losing races or not being able to race at all as the result of not being able to fully bounce back from an injury, and the damage that does to their psyches is portrayed with a truly palpable sense of emotional defeat. It's kinda devastating to see your favorite character break down upon realizing that they've lost a significant part of their racing career, and the moments where other characters who have been building themselves up for the entire season realize that they'll never get to race against their icons are simply heartbreaking. While the finale does get a tiny bit fantastical with how it treats certain injuries, these emotions remain a constant force of dramatic tension throughout the show.

Another major restructuring element that this season included is the realignment of its main cast. While they weren't necessarily bad, Special Week and Silence Suzuka didn't feel like particularly strong main characters. Their desires and aspirations often felt lukewarm at best, and that attitude simply would not fly if this story was going to fully shift towards the sports aspects. As such, this series needed a new main character, and it found one in what was pretty much the only character from season 1 that had any semblance of a winning drive and passion for victory: Tokai Teio, whose upbeat and excitable personality that also skewes a bit precocious meshes perfectly with the idea of a main character in a sports anime. Because she displays such an immense love for racing, those moments of setbacks and constant injuries hit much harder than they did with Suzuka in season 1, and the emotional arc she goes through as this season progresses is immensely engrossing.

However, if you know anything about sports anime, or pretty much any anime where competition is a core element, then just getting the main character solidified isn't enough. You need a rival, but Teio doesn't really have a rival in season 1, and so season 2 took Mejiro McQueen and basically rebooted her as Teio's Ms. Perfect rich kid rival; not that this was difficult to do since McQueen had practically zero character in season 1 outside of her comedic bouts with Gold Ship, so season 2 pretty much scrapped that and retooled her as Teio's rival/best friend to incredible effect. The dynamic between these two feels almost effortless in its execution, as though they actually were long-time rivals in a previous season, tightly balancing their support for each other with their desire to be the better racer.

And this treatment is given to pretty much every major racer in season 2. Even the trainer is stripped of that weird pervert gag and turned into an honest, hard-working, and dedicated coach that constantly pushes his racers to be better and finds new strategies and training techniques to help them get over the next hurdle. By far though I think my favorite addition that not only adds another interesting cast member, but also works as a reflection of how this sport is perceived by non-athletes is Rice Shower, who ends up breaking a character's undefeated streak and earns the disdain of the audience as a result, essentially turning her into an unwilling heel in the racing circuit. The way she grapples with her own desires for victory and her relationship with the racing audience is dramatically brilliant and plays right into the previously mentioned ideas regarding ambition and passion for the sport, and it leads to one of the most hyped-up climaxes that nearly goes full battle anime and ends with Rice Shower coming to terms with her place as a racer.

Even the worldbuilding has been stepped up a notch. With season 1, it just felt like they slapped horse girls on top of our existing world, but season 2 goes the extra mile to make this feel like a world where horse girls have always existed. There's an entire fan culture centered around horse girl races where people discuss their favorite racers the same way they talk about athletes in our world. The horse girls get their own traffic lane that allows them to outrun slower vehicles. It's things like this that you have to go out of your way to think about that truly bring this world to life not just narratively, but also visually.

Speaking of which, this might be one of the biggest glow-ups I've ever seen between two anime seasons. Whereas season 1 was generally rather flat and lacking in pop outside of its character designs, season 2 blows all visual expectations out of the water, and the most notable changes display a much stronger and more ambitious artistic direction. The linework for character models is much thinner than season 1, allowing for a crisper finish and sharpening of details. This also seems to reduce how noticeable an off-model face is in comparison to season 1's models. At the same time, the overall color palette is much richer and more saturated, almost explosively so, which gives even more of a presence not just to the bombastic racing outfits, but also the beautiful environments that these characters live in.

Even the costumes feel more creative and ambitious, with both of Teio's racing outfits alone vastly overshadowing season 1's designs, which almost seem too standard and unimaginative by comparison. Trendy streetwear, flowing ball gowns, full-on suits; so many different fashion personalities can be found in these outfits that bring out the individuality of even the most minor of characters. In a season overflowing with visually appealing anime, it's pretty incredible that a sequel hardly anyone was expecting anything from managed to look this amazing.

As for the reason behind this massive leap in quality, I must admit that I'm at a bit of a loss. While the project did shift from P.A. Works over to the brand new Studio KAI, most of the core staff remained identical. Same director, same writers, same animation director, director of photography, character designers, color coordinators, editors; the similarities are surprisingly lengthy. Now there are some notable differences with storyboard artists and individual episode directors, which still have some notable similarities, and while these roles are incredibly important, it doesn't quite feel like a drastic enough change to explain the quality difference. The only answer I could possibly come up with is that either season 1 was given too tight a schedule and not enough pre-production assistance to solidify the concept they wanted to create, or season 2 received an exceedingly long amount of prep time and a shockingly healthy production schedule considering all the other productions that crashed or nearly crashed during the same season.

Even the ancillary circumstances surrounding season 2 could be seen as contributing to its success. The series received a 3-episode OVA a few months after season 1 finished airing, and a series of web shorts titled Umayon aired in the summer of 2020, thus keeping the idea of Uma Musume in the public consciousness until season 2 would arrive. Additionally, the game that was supposed to release alongside the first season finally premiered in February of 2021, halfway through season 2's run, further bolstering its presence outside the anime sphere. Even its manga counterparts have made contributions to its media presence, with the most current series, Cinderella Gray, debuting in Weekly Young Jump in June of 2020 and doing moderately well considering the competition it's up against. For all intents and purposes, Uma Musume as a multimedia property is succeeding on practically all fronts.

It's not exactly rare for a second season to be better than the first, but for a second season to pull a complete 180, fix basically everything wrong with the first season, and amplify its strongest core elements with a finer handle on narrative drive and visual presentation is a whole other matter entirely. Uma Musume season 2 was easily the biggest surprise of 2021, a surprise I highly recommend even if you have no prior knowledge of this franchise. Give it a go and see why this, out of every other show, stands tall at the new best-selling TV anime of all time.

Thanks to all of you for watching. If you enjoyed this video, be sure to like and subscribe and follow Anime News Network on Twitter for more great anime content, and if you wanna see more from me you can check me out at Ember Reviews on YouTube and Twitter.

discuss this in the forum (35 posts) |
bookmark/share with: short url

Watch homepage / archives