“He wants to kick your butt.”
–Huo Yuanjia and what the official translates things as, Fearless
Special Week is a horse girl who moves from her sleepy home town in Hokkaido to the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, where she dreams of making it big at Tracen Academy and fulfil her promise to her mother to take the title of being the greatest horse girl in. On her first day in Tokyo, she becomes sidetracked and ends up watching a race featuring Silence Suzuka, a skillful horse girl known for her speed on the track, and finesse as an idol. In a turn of events that can only be chalked up to fate, Special Week and Silence Suzuka end up being roommates, and what’s more, both end up joining Team Spica. While Special Week strives to improve herself, she must also deal with her own doubts when Silence Suzuka suffers from an injury. In spite of this weighing heavily on Special Week’s mind, she continues to train and makes a new promise with Silence Suzuka: to one day race together. Special Week thus experiences the thrill of victory, and the bitterness of a loss, pushing herself further to defeat even Broye, a French horse girl of exceptional skill, in the Japan Cup. However, it is at the second Winter Dream Race where Team Spica’s horse girls finally have a chance to race one another, and while everyone is running to win, the horse girls also have fun with their race. Based on the mobile game for iOS and Android, P.A. Works’ Uma Musume Pretty Derby‘s anime adaptation brings a very unique world to life to capture the spirit of the game, as well as immerse viewers in a universe where race horses from past eras are reborn as horse girls; despite the seemingly-outlandish premise, Uma Musume Pretty Derby ends up working out, being sufficiently detailed to make their world feel plausible and authentic.
When news of P.A. Works’ Uma Musume Pretty Derby reached my ears, the series had not been particularly appealing: I come from a city best known for The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth™, but horse racing had never been within my realm of interests, and I ended up skipping over the series. However, at the behest of one of my readers, I decided to give Uma Musume Pretty Derby a whirl: the series is prima facie The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth™ meets Kandagawa Jet Girls, Azur Lane and Kantai Collection, and recalling my general enjoyment of anthropomorphic anime, I figured that I hadn’t really been fair to Uma Musume Pretty Derby. Moreover, with P.A. Works helming this series, I knew that the visual quality would be typical of the studio’s usual standards. Thus, I began watching Uma Musume Pretty Derby, and by the time the first episode came to a close, I knew that this series exceeded my expectations going in. The series deals with typical messages of sportsmanship, perseverance and working hard to make promises happen, but more notably, there is no hint at all that Uma Musume Pretty Derby was from a game. The writing and world-building within the anime is seamless, and whatever mechanics drive the game are so finely woven into the story that the world feels life-like. Not very many anime can do this; Kantai Collection and Azur Lane, for instance, utilised elements pulled straight from their respective games, and even Kandagawa Jet Girls utilised the in-race commentary to help viewers keep up. On the other hand, Uma Musume Pretty Derby is able to succinctly introduce viewers into the world of horse girls without falling on game mechanics to define anything. This is ultimately Uma Musume Pretty Derby‘s greatest strength, helping to create a compelling world where the elements are so naturally incorporated that one can focus on rooting for Special Week and Team Spica as they race to fulfil their aspirations.
Screenshots and Commentary
- Special Week is modelled on the Thoroughbred of the same name, with a record of 10-4-2, including the Japan Cup in 1999. Uma Musume Pretty Derby‘s version of Special Week hails from Hokkaido, resembles Kandagawa Jet Girls‘ Rin Namiki in appearance and is voiced by Azumi Waki (Maika from Blend S, Kuma Kuma Kuma Bear‘s Fina and The Aquatope on White Sand‘s very own Tsukimi Teruya). Upon arriving in Tokyo, Special Week is overwhelmed by the sights and sounds, forgetting about her appointment at Tracen Academy and instead, winds up watching a race featuring the legendary Silence Suzuka.
- The trainer feeling up Special Week’s thighs is about as much fanservice as Uma Musume Pretty Derby gets into; the remainder of the series is entirely focused on Special Week, her desire to become Japan’s top Horse Girl, and the friendship she strikes up at Tracen. Initially, Special Week is very shy and clumsy, although she compensates by studying hard in her courses. However, Uma Musume Pretty Derby isn’t a run-of-the-mill series about high school, and so, much of the series’ focus happens on the race track, as well as the training leading up to races.
- Special Week’s only desire is to run on the same team as Silence Suzuka, and when she finds herself kidnapped by Team Spica, she initially tries to turn them down. However, she changes her mind almost immediately after learning Silence Suzuka (Marika Kōno, Hinako Note‘s Yua Nakajima and Sachi Tsubakimori of Slow Start), is set to join Team Spica, named after Alpha Virginis, a blue giant star that is one of the brightest stars in the sky and forms a part of the Summer Triangle along with Arcturus and Regulus.
- From left to right, Team Spica initially is composed of Special Week, Silence Suzuka, Gold Ship, Daiwa Scarlet and Vodka. There are many names in Uma Musume Pretty Derby, far too many to memorise, but fortunately, P.A. Works is nice enough to take a leaf from Shirobako and name all of the characters with tags for out benefit. With time, folks will at least remember Team Spica’s largest players, and several of the horse girls from Team Rigil, as well.
- While perhaps not P.A. Works’ most jaw-dropping anime, Uma Musume Pretty Derby nonetheless looks solid in terms of artwork and some of the best animation can be seen during races and victory concerts. Because this series is about horse racing, P.A. Works cuts straight to the chase, and Special Week debuts in a race that sees her take first place; despite her inexperience, Special Week is able to hold her own and win, impressing spectators with a solid first-ever showing.
- In terms of singing and dancing, Special Week begins her journey completely unprepared to perform, and blanks out during her victory concert. These concerts allow Uma Musume Pretty Derby to combine the thrill of racing with the spectacle of an idol anime – this trend is not new, and since The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya days, anime have combined musical showmanship with their main story as a means of driving up revenue. Voice actresses also sing, and adding in music to a series means being able to use an anime to promote album sales, too. P.A. Works also takes advantage of this to showcase their fabulous animation talents.
- With time, Special Week begins fitting in with the other members of Team Spica, even going for special training with Tokai Teio to better her singing. It turns out Special Week is motivated by a desire to excel for her both her mothers – her biological mother, who died shortly after Special Week’s birth, and her adoptive mother, who’d looked after her. To express her gratitude, Special Week promises to be “the best in Japan”, a lofty goal without a clear-cut set of criteria. The trainer helps Special Week to mold this into something more tangible, and a combination of training and her natural intuition leads her to victory in her earlier races.
- Done purely as visual comedy, Special Week becomes engorged after eating too much during a post-race celebration. Special Week, like Akagi of Kantai Collection and Girls und Panzer‘s Hana Isuzu, eats considerably more than her peers. Folks familiar with the original Special Week mention that this is a parallel of the real horse suffering a catastrophic loss at Kyoto Daishōten after gaining weight. Animated media is typically fond of using this approach for indicating when someone’s eaten too much; while unrealistic (food is not converted into adipose tissue immediately upon consumption), it’s a quick and simple way of indicating fullness.
- Uma Musume Pretty Derby would be dull if Special Week were to be the next Ip Man, so she also sees her share of losses; her first loss to Seiun Sky comes as she becomes distracted by her skirt not fitting correctly, and in the aftermath, although she promises Silence Suzuka that she’ll train harder, she cries into an open stump on Tracen’s campus grounds. The fact that such a stump exists for the horse girls shows that the campus is well designed, and gives horse girls a place to vent their frustrations before redoubling their efforts.
- While Uma Musume Pretty Derby doesn’t do anything particularly novel with its themes, the main joy in this series comes from watching Special Week open up to the others; setbacks and failures help her to lean on her teammates more. In particular, despite her exceptional talents, Silence Suzuka takes a liking to Special Week – the two are roommates, and therefore able to converse with one another, sharing stories and encouragement during the evenings. The two become friends over time, rather similarly to Akagi and Fubuki in Kantai Collection, and this slowly helps Special Week to grow as a racer.
- Uma Musume Pretty Derby originally ran in 2018’s spring season for a total of thirteen episodes, and a quick glance at the blog’s archives show that I’d been fairly busy: Comic Girls, Amanchu! Advance, and The Division had been keeping me busy, along with several anime films of the day. The archives also indicate that was when I hit a million views for the first time, as well, and looking back, I’ve covered a nontrivial range of anime here. Uma Musume Pretty Derby initially felt like one of those shows I’d have nothing to say about, but I ended up eating my words: attention to detail in world-building and the focus on racing allowed this anime to remain consistently engaging.
- When Uma Musume Pretty Derby was airing, viewers similarly reported a solid anime whose focus on the act of racing, the training leading up to a race and the aftermath was the series’ biggest strong suit. For many, the series proved to exceed expectations: anime about mobile games occasionally count on familiarity with game mechanics to drive some of the world-building, and folks who come into the series with no prior experience may become lost at the concepts thrown their way. Uma Musume Pretty Derby does no such thing, allowing the anime to stand on its own accord.
- One detail I particularly liked in Uma Musume Pretty Derby was the fact that Special Week’s ears wiggle, rise and fall depending on her mood. By this point in time, Tokai Teio and Mejiro McQueen joins the ranks of Team Spica. While the other horse girls may not get anywhere as much screen time as Special Week and Silence Suzuka, but the anime makes certain to show that the other horse girls are capable in their own right, winning races to the best of their ability.
- A longstanding part of anime I’ve always enjoyed is watching characters bounce off one another or have fun when away from their arena. Details like Daiwa Scarlet’s constant rivalry with Vodka, or the fact that Gold Ship’s teasing of Mejiro McQueen always ends with the former poking her eye do much to give the horse girls character. Series like Kantai Collection and Azur Lane similarly give their characters eccentricities based on their namesakes’ history and real-world traits, and it takes no small amount of writing to work everything into a game.
- While Japanese games may not possess the same level of technical awe that Western triple-A titles have (Uma Musume Pretty Derby and Azur Lane can run off a mobile phone’s hardware and command a sizeable player-base despite lacking real time ray-tracing, for instance), they offset this by taking characterisation to a whole new level. A major part of these games is getting invested with the characters and their stories, representing a pleasant change of pace from Western titles, where the spectacle and skill-ceiling is where the fun lies.
- Food is a secondary aspect in Uma Musume Pretty Derby, but in the typical P.A. Works fashion, it is still beautifully rendered. Watching the horse girls let loose at parties is always fun, especially whenever Special Week puts away an insane amount of food at various events.
- Sportsmanship is easily the best aspect in Uma Musume Pretty Derby: the horse girls are competitive and driven, but handle winning and losing very gracefully. Here, Silence Suzuka and El Condor Pasa exchange words before a big race, challenging the other to bring out their best for a good match. El Condor Pasa is bold, flashy and confident, possessing the skill to back her words, but in this race, Silence Suzuka suffers an injury that knocks her out of the game, leaving El Condor Pasa to win. In the aftermath, El Condor Pasa is devastated, and it was ultimately Special Week who tends to Silence Suzuka until medics arrive.
- Special Week thus focuses a great deal of her time towards Silence Suzuka’s recovery, visiting her every day and doing her utmost to encourage her. Encouraged by Special Week’s dedication, Silence Suzuka makes considerable strides in her physical recovery. Over time, Silence Suzuka’s fractures heal, and she’s able to walk around without a cast, and she returns to the track with the goal of racing again. The trainer comments that he’d not doubted Silence Suzuka’s ability to heal, but instead, worries about her state of mind.
- While Silence Suzuka is well enough to train again, the support Special Week had given Silence Suzuka came at a massive cost: Special Week begins to forget that she has her own races to win, and her training suffers as a result. This culminates in Special Week practically throwing a race, and in the aftermath, Grass Wonder confronts Special Week, asking if the latter’s heart had been in this race at all. Team Spica begins suffering as a whole, and this prompts the trainer to mix things up a little.
- At a training camp, the trainer encourages the horse girls to think of another as rivals rather than friends. After dividing them into teams, he asks them to hold nothing back, as they will be competing in a triathlon of sorts against one another (with a fancy dessert buffet being the victor’s prize). The exercise doesn’t produce any winners; the horse girls are unable to decelerate on a turn during the last part of their race and end up running right into the ocean. Team Spica ends up overcoming their reservations about putting their all against one another, seeing how pushing themselves will also pull their teammates up with them. They share a laugh together and exit the exercise with newfound resolve.
- Seeing Team Spica celebrate the end of their training camp with all-you-can-eat desserts reminds me of a time when I used to be able to go to Sunday brunches in the mountains. Back in those days, brunches consisted of being able to eat a scrumptious breakfast of made-to-order omelettes, Eggs Benedict and smoked salmon alongside beef stew, prime rib off the carving station and King Crab before wrapping up with unlimited cheesecake. At these buffets, I always favoured the main course type items, but looking back, the cheesecake, chocolate cakes and fondues were tasty, as well. The ongoing health crisis meant that such an experience isn’t possible for the time being, but during yesterday’s dinner (Southern Fried Chicken and gravy with fries), the idea of returning to the mountains was floated as a part of the conversation, and while things aren’t fully back up yet, it suddenly seems like a nice idea to plan out what such a trip might look like.
- Ahead of her races, Special Week is granted leaves and heads home for Hokkaido, but the moment she gets back, she’s tied to a post to keep her from stretching her legs, resulting in a hilarious and adorable, if somewhat mean-spirited moment. The intention behind this is clear; Special Week had over-trained previously and found herself underperforming during actual races. Her expression here is priceless, although shortly after, dinner is served, and Special Week’s adoptive mother shares with her photographs of their past, before gifting her a special set of horseshoes.
- Upon her return, Special Week shares with Silence Suzuka her thoughts; she’s striving to be the best to fulfil a promise to both her biological and adoptive mother, as thanks for all they’ve done for her, but since Silence Suzuka recovered, Special Week realises that she’s now longing to test her own mettle against Silence Suzuka and see just how far she’s come thanks to the time they’d spent together. However, before this promise can be fulfilled, Special Week must prepare for the Japan Cup, one of the most prestigious a horse girl can race in.
- This race is no joke, and France’s Broye expresses an interest in participating, especially after hearing about both Silence Suzuka and Special Week. Broye is a powerhouse in terms of raw speed and endurance; during the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, Broye had edged out El Condor Pasa to claim the victory. Although El Condor Pasa had been excited to challenge such a powerful opponent, the results of the race also devastated her, and she wishes for Special Week to do better and avenge the Japanese horse girls. On the day of the race, El Condor Pasa passes a French phrase along to Special Week and lets her know it means “let’s do our best”.
- The actual phrase is “don’t get full of yourself”, which only serves to fire up Broye and increase tensions during the race. This moment brought to mind Fearless, during the fight in Shanghai between Huo Yuanjia and Hercules O’Brien. When the official asks Yuanjia to sign a death waiver, he declines, saying that fighting to the death is an outdated tradition in Chinese martial arts, and that Chinese martial arts is also about friendship through challenging one’s opponents. The official disregards Yuanjia entirely and informs O’Brien that Yuanjia intends to “kick his butt”. While Yuanjia handily wins the bout, he also saves O’Brien from being impaled on nails that had come loose during their match, earning his respect.
- I imagine that the same holds true in Uma Musume Pretty Derby: Special Week; while her words may be trash talk, her tone of delivery suggests that she didn’t know what was going on, and she wanted a good match. Impressed with Special Week’s victory, Broye thanks her for the match and promises that they will meet again with her as the victor. With this achievement under her belt, the name Special Week is one that is known throughout Japan, and while Special Week’s original goal of becoming the best was vague, meeting Silence Suzuka and Team Spica allows her to make her dreams become more tangible.
- While Special Week’s become a fearsome competitor on the track, there are some small moments that still show her more clumsy side: as she steps onto the stage to thank her viewers and give a small victory speech, feedback from the microphone surprises her, causing her to stutter in shock. In mannerisms, Special Week is not so different than Locodol‘s Nanako Usami – now that I think about it, Nanako and Special Week share some similarities in terms of appearance, too.
- Despite the rough start, Special Week’s victory concert goes very well, and her teammates are happy to cheer her on. Overall, Uma Musume Pretty Derby is a very optimistic and cheerful anime, and looking back, my own reservations for skipping this series were unjustified. With this in mind, I did mix up Uma Musume Pretty Derby with A Centaur’s Life, which had aired a year before Uma Musume Pretty Derby did. At this point in time, I’m not sure if A Centaur’s Life is something I would write about, but perhaps there is merit in at least checking the series out.
- In the end, Special Week and Silence Suzuka get their wish when the trainer managers to get everyone on Team Spica slotted into a race against one another. This is what Special Week and Silence Suzuka had been working towards, and it’s a satisfactory close to Uma Musume Pretty Derby to watch this final promise be fulfilled, bringing the series to a close. During this finale, the trainer notices a new horse girl, standing where Special Week had a year earlier, and upon fondling her thighs, similarly gets kicked, suggesting that this new horse girl will walk a similar path as Special Week, continuing the cycle. Altogether, Uma Musume Pretty Derby scores an A- in my books for being an engaging series that paints horse-racing in a more interesting light with its colourful cast of characters.
- Earlier this year, Uma Musume Pretty Derby received a second season, and this one focuses on Tokai Teio, as well as Team Spica’s other members. P.A. Works has a fierce reputation for not doing second seasons, and Uma Musume Pretty Derby is handled by the up-and-coming Studio Kai, which I know best for their work on Super Cub. I’ll check it out as I’m able: I’ve recently decided that it’s time to make a dent in my backlog of slice-of-life anime, including Action Heroine Cheer Fruits, Hitori Bocchi no Marumaru Seikatsu and Mitsuboshi Colours, as well as wrap up Okusama ga Seito Kaichō. I do have plans to write about each of these series in the near future, and on top of that, this past weekend saw Far Cry 5 available for free play, so I’ll have some thoughts to share on that, as well.
Overall, I found Uma Musume Pretty Derby to be unexpectedly enjoyable: horse-racing in and of itself is unremarkable, and it’s a sport where spectators seem more concerned with the gambling aspect rather than the sport itself. This reputation means that I’m typically not a fan of horse-racing, but par the course for anime, Uma Musume Pretty Derby manages to remove this negativity outright and in its place, create a world where horse-racing is more entertainment than gambling – winning horse girls get to perform in a victory concert, an event that demands solid singing and dancing from those who participate. Similarly, while horse girls are deadly-focused on the track, off the field, they express a sincere enjoyment of racing and view the challenge posed by top horse girls as a means of pushing themselves further. Losses are only ever temporary setbacks, and sportsmanship off the track means that Special Week has no trouble fitting in with the likes of Silence Suzuka, El Condor Pasa and Grass Wonder; while everyone dreams of winning and making it big, friendship and personal improvement is no less important to everyone. It typifies anime to make topics like horse-racing worthwhile, and the character dynamics are balanced out with the races so that Special Week and the others’ efforts are something viewers can cheer for. The outcome of Uma Musume Pretty Derby, then, is the wish that real-world horse racing could be this compelling, and a newfound interest in checking the iOS game out – the anime is a solid standalone experience, but the fact is that it did succeed in piquing my interest for the game. I would go ahead and add this to my library of titles to experience and write about, were it not for the fact Uma Musume Pretty Derby‘s mobile incarnation is only available for the Japanese app store. While I can probably figure out the game for myself, my Apple ID is unequivocally bound to the Canadian App Store – I don’t have it in me to go through the process of switching things up for one mobile game, since my Apple ID is used for my personal Apple Developer license (including the associated provisioning profiles, development and distribution certificates). With this in mind, that the Uma Musume Pretty Derby mobile game has come the closest to convincing me to spin up a Japanese Apple ID is a testament to the anime’s successes, and for the present, one hopes that we might see an English-language release bound for the Canadian App Store one of these days.