The theme song “GIRLS’ LEGEND U” from the game Umamusme Pretty Derby starts with this phrase: やっとみんな会えたね! It translates loosely to “We finally get to see everyone.” Mixed into that is the marching horns and battle cries of the cast in an anthem. It is the banner theme song of the core product in a media-mix property years in the making–partly due to a multi-year delay between the initial release date and the actual release date. It’s really cute that the song tips the hat to the delay. In fact, in a way this song tips a hat to the strange journey of the video game from conception to coming out on our phones, tablets and PCs: Don’t stop until you finish.
But we can farm a lot more out of GIRLS’ LEGEND U than all that. Much more. Woven into the instrumentals are these thematic strings that you can also get a good glimpse in the bridge, as well as different parts of the game as background music. Having the theme song of a thing synchronize musically with the other background pieces of the thing isn’t unusual–it’s rather expected, especially in video games. But also the song itself tells us more up front–really, what I want to write about isn’t the song, but horses.
Umamusme is about horses…girls, of course, but it’s really about horses. Specifically, the legends of horses IRT to horse racing. I would call Umamusme a game about HORSE GIRLS’ LEGEND but the titular song is, instead of HORSE it’s… U for Uma? Umapyoi Densetsu (うまぴょい伝説) is the first theme song for the franchise from 2016 and the title really says more or less the same thing, just more horse than girl.
On paper, the conceit of these alternative character-based franchises (ships, guns, katanas, cities, appliances, etc.) are as database as it gets. You put these things (and animals in our case) in the otaku database machine and create a character story out of it. Bundle a bunch of these and tie it together with a setting and a few themes, and out comes a media franchise.
In that sense, Umamusume is no different. But the big difference that I can see between Umamusume and the garden variety ones out and about, is that Umamusume has been imbued, at least from what I can tell, a spirit that is horse-like. Horses are large, majestic, temperamental and sensitive land mammals. Horses are social, in that they exhibit social behaviors such as pact mentality, dominance, individuality, competitiveness, and others (such as being able to be domesticated). They play and court. It’s easy to translate a particular natural aspect of horses into anime characters, and I see that being a very strong underlying pattern in the Umamusme franchise.
It’s easy to see this in the characterizations of all the horsegirls. It also helps that the “good girl” trope resonate well with the audience–our racing horses all are good horses (and presumably their rights owners wouldn’t allow otherwise). I mean there are so many of them (even just in Japan alone) and the ones that people commemorate enough to put in a video game are already legends themselves. Of course they are good girls. Even if you run into problems like making El Condor Pasa into a she… Doesn’t that break grammar LOL.
Contrast this with, say, things that are based on WWII heroes or weapons of destruction. How do you channel “the military” except only superficially? You can do a lot more when you’re channeling legends about racing horses, it turns out, maybe because it’s not problematic.
And I think this is where Cygames really flexed their muscles. You can directly take what is lovely and endearing about these horses and put them right in the game, down to the way their tails wag or the way their ears twitch. It’s beyond the whole sexual aspect of furry appeal–we are talking about making fiction where you combine the best of what racing horses have to offer with typical otaku tropes. (And including the sex appeal as appropriate, as it never was gone, just not in the fore.)
This to me comes across like all the strings in the instruments throughout the game BGM. Cygames was tasked to make Umamusume a game that conservative Japanese businessmen would gladly sign over their legendary horse brands over to, so I think a certain level of restraint was needed throughout the entire Umamusume experience. The characters (and the cast, FWIW) are still going to do the same rigmarole, the same toe taps and dance routines. Tracen Academy is extremely generic but it does adhere to a classy all-girls school vibe. Symboli Rudolf and Meijiro McQueen can walk down the school yard gracefully, while Vtuber Gold Ship can jump kick the trainer while it happens.
That is the framework that allows things to happen, but what endears us is the individual stories themselves, and how it’s executed. For me, the game taught me the one behind Rice Shower, who was put down during her final race due to injury. It’s sad, sure, but the story in the anime and game makes it a lot more approachable due to the execution and details. The most famous of them all–Haru Urara–only got as popular as she did because of marketing/promotion and production, after all. In a way, Umamusume is the same pitch, but for a lot more horses besides Haru Urara. When these horsegirls channel their named legends, it’s where the magic happens. Even if it’s extremely normal/boring like Special Week, it is still endearing that our mother-loving, Hokkaido born glutton became one of Japan’s best.
Which is all to say, GIRLS’ LEGEND U is a great piece of music, and you can tell by hearing someone playing it on the piano. This is some great composition fit for a sweeping orchestra. Instead we have a bunch of seiyuu grunting calls about winning races. No matter how you cloak it, a good story will shine through–and that’s what Umamusume really is about, putting into character-stories of racing horses, their lives, and their struggles.
PS. There are other finer points to Umamsume Pretty Derby. So far it has largely inherited many of the QOL stuff that I love about Princess Connect! Re:Dive. It being a raising game doesn’t quite translate into how not to make it into the same kind of “menu hell” that JRPGs can be, but I see some small glimpses of hope here as is. It is also kind of time consuming given each raising run takes a good half hour, at least. There are many little touches in the game and in the IP generally that I wish I can highlight but it will make several post at least. Anyways, I’ll end with this video.