Umamusume: Pretty Derby – Episodes 1-2

By: Vrai Kaiser April 1, 20180 Comments
Special racing over the finish line ahead of her opponent

What’s it about? Special Week is a horse girl, a special kind of person gifted with incredible running ability. She’s come to the prestigious Tracen Academy in order to be the best in Japan and fulfill her promise to her mother.

Any anime can have an outlandish concept that sounds ridiculous on its face, but it takes work to really sell those ideas beyond a single punchline. It’s not clear if Pretty Derby will get there or sink into being a plain old “cute girls do the sports” anime, but it’s certainly got style.

Shizuka on stage during a concert. Caption: Shizuka-san is so pretty in the spotlight

Pretty Der—look, I can’t pretend, I’ve been calling it “Horse Girls” this entire time and so have you, probably. Let’s not delude ourselves just because the weird spectacle anime turns out to have been made with a surprising amount of care. Anyway, Horse Girls is a P.A. Works project, so viewers can be assured of a consistent level of basic narrative and visual competency throughout. If your worries are to the tune of “what’s this season’s Maerchen Maedchen,” you’re fine here.

The series is definitely out to catch eyes by being weird. For some baffling reason, this is not a world where all people are animal hybrids of some sort. No no, there are regular humans out there coming to the horse girl derbies. And those horse girls, if they enter the winner’s circle, are rewarded with the chance to give an idol concert, because of course they are also idols.

But I assure you, the hole goes deeper. The girls attend a school that has desks, chairs, and classrooms, but only teaches them racing-related things. They wear school uniforms and special idol uniforms to race in (of course they do!) if the opening theme is any indication, but they also nail horseshoes onto their running shoes.

And, in by far the most off-putting, unpleasant part of the premiere, Special’s coach, Trainer, is introduced by feeling up Special’s thighs like she’s merchandise. In public. Twice. Tragically, he survives after being kicked in the head. About the only good thing that can be said of Trainer is that the show seems to have played his introduction as a (bad) one-off gag; the groping doesn’t happen again, and he’s quickly maneuvered into the position of inspiring mentor rather than “comedic” creepazoid. Hopefully that remains the case going forward.

Special looking out the train window while her mom waves in encouragement

The resident horse girls are also all named after actual racehorses, which really just hammers home how absurd racehorse names can get. I would like to share my favorites with you: Sara Poole, Air Groove, Narita Brian, Symboli Rudolph, Mister CB, El Condor Pasa, and… Vodka.

It’s the kind of half-thought-out world-building that takes care to add the sound of rumbling hooves while these teeny-tiny girls are running around the track, but totally fails to think through the implications of what having a whole sub-class of horse people means. We see inside the classroom and none of these girls are learning algebra, so like… where do they go if they don’t end up racing? Is there someone with a big shotgun waiting if one of these girls breaks their leg? Are the dormitories a-whisper with tales of the glue factory? Do retired racers get put out to breeding pasture? All of the school classes are taught by human women, so what aren’t they telling us? Where are the horse women? WHAT IS THIS DYSTOPIAN NIGHTMARE LAND.

The fact that I had time to think of these things while the anime was introducing its enormous, generically cute ensemble cast might not speak well of how the show will fare when it runs out of surprises. The race sequences look undeniably good, and aside from the really unpleasant introduction of Trainer (as well as a weird, awkward game of Twister in Episode 2), it’s basically free of fanservice or uncomfortable framing.

Special running to school with a carrot in her mouth

Heck, sometimes the show’s even funny on purpose, with strange little sight gag flourishes like Special running to school with a carrot in her mouth. Oh! And Special turns out to have two moms, which is nice. It’d be nicer if one of them wasn’t dead, but apparently we’re taking baby steps here. There’s also some minor shipteasing between Special and her roommate, Silence Shizuka, but given the genre and how couched it is in close, platonic relationships built on admiration, I wouldn’t count on it going any further than implication.

Whether the entire run of the show can rise and stay above basic competency for an entire cour is uncertain. I definitely had fun watching this double premiere, but a considerable amount of that was making my own conspiracy theory fun rather than actually becoming invested in the characters and stakes—about a 70/30 split, I’d say. In other words, I had a big ol’ grin on my face by the halfway point, but I seriously doubt it’ll be able to keep that hook for three months.

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