Uma Musume, Pretty Derby Season 2: An unexpected delight to watch

Straight out of left field, Uma Musume will be a sleeper hit among fans of horse racing and anime alike. 

by Jian Ern

An unexpected addition to the sports genre, Uma Musume brings together the worlds of horse racing and idol group anime.

The most imperative aspect of horse-girl racing is to find true friends they can depend on and rivals that can push them to reach further than ever.

Team Spica member Tokai Teio is pursuing her goal of becoming an unbeaten triple-crown horse lady, and a developing feud with colleague Mejiro McQueen may be the push she requires to make it happen. Despite her training and skills, she might not have any luck in her favour. Runners must overcome setbacks of all kinds, and Teio encounters many more obstacles than just the physical ones she trains for. As McQueen and many other horse girls struggle with how their goals frequently come into conflict with one another and how they choose to carry on in the wake of their own defeats, they realise they are not the only ones out for victory on the ever-demanding racetrack.

Uma Musume’s first season of Pretty Derby might be challenging to get into because of the jargon it requires you to learn in order to enjoy yourself. Similar to Season 1, Season 2 features several unique circumstances that viewers must be aware of before watching.

Firstly, the focus of this season is no longer on Special Week, Silence Suzuka, and a large portion of the previous cast as they have been replaced by other characters. Tokai Teio and Mejiro McQueen are given the lead roles instead, and the plot centres on their feud and relationship as they experience the ups and downs of their careers alongside a largely new cast of other horse girls. Sometimes, it makes this season seem more like a companion piece or sister program rather than a real follow-up to the prior show.

Secondly, the first season used real-life horse names and events as a framework on which the story is loosely based. In Season 2, the show dives deeper into a more accurate depiction of certain events in these stories, even recreating certain moments of various racing seasons faithfully.

There’s also the uncomfortable reality about the injuries involved in horse racing, where the participating animals would be injured at the behest of their human companions spurring them on for the win. These destructive moments are captured in their own way in the anime, and the traumatic injuries that the girls face are often the driving force for their respective storylines. It might all feel a little grim but these events are much easier to gloss over when one gets captivated by the fantasy element of the show.

This constant flirting with career-ending injuries does bring up certain issues with repetition, as it seems rather challenging for writers to come up with fresh challenges for the cast to overcome.

But Uma Musume has its own way of catching your attention and immersing you in its many layers of emotional and visual candy. In Season 1, the plot heavily relies on demonstrating the know-hows of the horse racing sport to make the overly-dramatic plot work, but in Season 2, the series actually has ideas that they explore through their fictitious horse girls. Certain ambitions and motivations driving the girls in the initial season seemed unrealistic and unconvincing, whilst in the current season, they seem believable and real (because they are). Their motivations and desire to run, or not to run, at certain events and at particular ups and downs of their careers are explored in detail albeit with an overdramatisation inherent in any anime. By taking these real-life motivations and adding a spice of anime drama to the mix, Ume Musume can be quite melancholic at times.

The driving narrative of Tokai’s story is how she overcomes multiple dream-breaking injuries to come back, which brightens up a surprisingly bleak story. Injuries to athletes in real life are at times career-ending and Uma Musume seems intent to explore this aspect; what the horse girls do to recover from these sombre moments in pursuit of their dreams and to live up to the expectations of their fans, is where the real tear-jerkers are found. Tokai’s story relies heavily on this relatable energy, which transcends even its fantastical, fictitious magic-horse girl setup. After receiving her third fracture, our protagonist is set up to fully retire from professional horse racing, attempting to find other joys in life through the daily meandering of mundane activities. This is something many can relate to and it adds a scary realism to the anime. It can seem depressing and frustrating to watch our favourite horse girl give up and potentially retire, but you must keep in mind that incidents like this are fairly common in the sports industry and not just hoove-horned in for drama.

A cast of refreshing new side characters adds more ___ to this charmingly eccentric series that intertwines historical horse racing stories and sports-driven anime storytelling; one such example is the arc concerning Rice Shower, which accounts for a memorable set of episodes taking place halfway through the anime. Her arc explores the question of whether someone participating for glory and success, similarly to other competitors, might feel like being treated only as an obstacle for fan favourites to surpass. Rice’s story doesn’t reach a perfect, happy ending–as many athletes’ careers don’t–and in place of glory, we see her finding solace and happiness in the daily comforts and appreciation from her fellow horse girls, motivating her to always push past new obstacles. That is just one element in this season’s narrative concurrency with real-life goals being in constant change: we almost never reach the desired perfectionist outcome we set for ourselves in life, but what pushes us forward every day are those we compete against and develop close bonds with.

I know I may come off as being overly sentimental about Uma Musume but that’s because the series achieves what it sets out to do. However, one glaring concern I have is the animation by Studio Kai and their overuse of CGI replacements during races. The speed of the horse girls is not consistently conveyed to me, and I can’t get a gauge of how much faster or slower each horse girl has become, something which their predecessor, P.A. Works, does much better. The saving grace for the poorer-than-expected animation is the emotionally-driven content, which comes through as being more realistic and endearing. The quieter moments in between races serve greatly to develop intimate character relationships in almost every episode. Every moment is backed up by a repertoire of exceptional soundtracks, some of which seemingly sound eerily similar to that of its first season. You will soon grow to appreciate them as a perfect fit for the dramatic nature of the races, driving anticipation for the emotional and heartstring-tugging scenes, as well as enhancing the emotional impact of the quieter moments.

The only complaint some may have regarding Season 2 is the shift of focus from your favourite girls in the first season to Meijiro McQueen and friends. Special Week is only given passing mentions and brief screen time compared to previous renditions of the anime and Silence Suzuka appears only in video calls as a running gag as she is out of the country for most of the runtime. Be that as it may, the humour still gets me every time despite the increased focus on the drama aspect. Despite the change of studios, the clever visual comedy and atmosphere from Season 1 are recaptured here, marking this as a bona fide follow-up. Whatever you may feel towards this new focus on realism and drama, it all ends up coming together neatly.

  • 9/10
    Uma Musume: Pretty Derby Season 2 - 9/10

Uma Musume: Pretty Derby Season 2

In essence, Uma Musume is about never giving up and doing your best. By taking a risk with the change in their direction, this show comes away with a resounding win for the series.

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