Courtesy of Katelyn Sliwinski

Starting in May of this year, “Top Gun: Maverick” was promoted across the world. Though I’ve never seen a single movie in the franchise, every time I logged on to social media those days, I could not escape Tom Cruise. I feel it important to note that most, if not all of the people I follow, don’t care about “Top Gun” either. I’ve curated my feed toward anime, television or video games. But for some reason, this picture of Japanese voice actresses in horse ears posing with Cruise swarmed my timeline. Coming from a verified Twitter profile with 1.4 million followers, I thought, “What is this account? Who are these girls, and why are they with Tom Cruise?” As I checked the replies, this edit of Tom Cruise running with anime girls stood out as well. Given the context clues, I had to guess that these were the characters those voice actresses portrayed. But many questions remained. Thus began my descent into the lore of “Uma Musume: Pretty Derby,” what would come to be one of my favorite multimedia franchises.

So, let’s begin by answering the predominant question: Why were these girls at the “Top Gun: Maverick” premiere in Japan? These actresses and characters come from the Uma Musume franchise, which I discovered was collaborating with “Top Gun: Maverick” in order to promote the movie. It seemed to be an odd connection; from what I could tell, Uma Musume is just cute anime girls being cute anime girls, while the tone of “Top Gun” is more dramatic. One titular character, however, tied these two media together: Her name is Mayano Top Gun. Her character has nothing to do with guns, but she was chosen to promote the movie due to her name. “Mayano Top Gun” is still an odd name for an anime character, so I scrambled to Google her to gather an understanding of what her deal was.

And here, ladies and gentlemen, is where I learned the twist of Uma Musume: Mayano Top Gun is a representation of a real Japanese racehorse. Every character in the Uma Musume franchise is a representation of a racehorse, repackaged into a happy-go-lucky anime girl. Rice Shower, Special Week, Vodka — these are all silly names because they are horse names. In the universe of Uma Musume, racehorses of the past can be reincarnated as horse girls who then train to be racers themselves, as well as make friends along the way. The attention to detail is wild — even the character’s personalities are loosely based on each horse’s track record. For example, Haru Urara (character) is extremely enthusiastic yet always loses races, similar to how Haru Urara (horse) is well known for her consecutive losses. If you can’t already tell, Uma Musume is quite absurd, lovingly so.

The franchise itself is huge, too: It boasts 1.4 million Twitter followers, two seasons of an anime series, dozens of recorded songs, multiple manga series and a mobile game with over a million downloads.

After watching the anime series and falling in love with the silly horse girls’ friendships, I leaped to download the mobile game. Currently, the game can only be played with a Japanese iTunes account (if you’re interested in playing Japanese mobile games you can learn how here), so it’s all in Japanese, but this translation guide was instrumental in showing me the ropes. The game’s main goal is to train the horse girls for their races — as you do this, you can also learn their character stories (which are beautifully voice-acted alongside 3D models).

Additionally, there’s a “gacha” mechanic — a fancy gaming term for gambling — in which you can spend in-game currency to try to get special edition versions of the horse girls. Your “gacha” winnings will strengthen your racing team, as well as give you extra outfits and stories for the horse girl you receive. Gacha is the main moneymaker of this game: You don’t have to spend money, but many players more dedicated than I will likely drop hundreds of dollars trying to get a rare pull of their favorite character. I can’t lie — it’s really exciting; the animation that plays when you do a pull looks like a horse-girl race. Starting as hidden silhouettes behind racing gates, the characters each take their turn running out. I sit there each time crossing my fingers that I’ll pull a super rare character, and on the off chance (notably 3%) that I do, the screen is lit up with rainbow stars and a customized animation of that character. A victorious fanfare of trumpets sings, and I revel in the false reality I’ve immersed myself in.

Within the breathtaking artwork, the absurdity of these horse girls running is lost on me. I can only root for them in full seriousness, tears coming to my eyes as I watch them sing their victory song. It’s meaninglessly joyous, something I admire so much about the franchise. Fans all across the world are able to comment on its absurdity and still find reasons to adore the characters. What demonstrates this love most are the multitudes of translators that made it possible to get invested in Uma Musume, translating anything from soundtrack lyrics to full in-game stories. It’s clear that the community is dedicated to these horse girls, and the expansive reach of the franchise can help anyone become invested. If you’re a gamer, you can delve into the mobile game. If you’re a fan of live performances, you can watch the actresses perform songs as their characters. If you just want to watch something silly, you can turn your brain off and watch the anime, where the girls’ banter can cheer anyone up. It expands so far beyond its original premise; there comes a point where tears come to my eyes as I watch them sing, and it becomes lost on me that they were ever real horses to begin with.

After a long day of classes and work, I can log on to my phone and help beloved horse girl Gold Ship cross the finish line, blurring the lines between horse and human. It feeds into that childlike joy, that whimsical sense of imagination that adulthood so desperately begs you to throw away. Maybe I have an odd attachment to these characters, but who cares? I think it’s fun to find joy in silly things, to be able to hold on to that sense of childlike wonder and imagination. Uma Musume captures that absurd imagination perfectly, and I’m grateful to these horse girls and their dedicated voice actresses for keeping me grounded.

Daily Arts Writer Katelyn Sliwinski can be reached at