Title: Yuri!!! on Ice
Author/Creator: Sayo Yamamoto (director), Mitsurou Kubo (Writer), Kenji Miyamoto (Choreographer)
Media Type: Anime
Genre: Sports, Romance
If you’re not in the anime fandom, you probably haven’t heard of one of the most popular original anime of Fall/Winter of 2016. The finale crashed Crunchyroll, the online streaming site officially streaming the subbed version. Basically, for 12 weeks a little corner of the internet had gone berserk for figure skating, self-discovery, and true love.
And so did I.
Yuri!!! on Ice is about a 23-year-old Japanese figure skater, Yuuri Katsuki, who enters a quarter-life crisis after an abysmal performance at the Grand Prix Final, one of the biggest annual international figure skating competition. The top of the competition is Viktor Nikiforov, five consecutive Worlds champion, five straight Grand Prix Finals gold medalist, a living legend, and Yuuri’s puberty-hood idol. Unable to cope with the humiliation of being an absolute loser on the same ice as his hero, Yuuri drops out of the competition season, finishes college in Detroit, and flies home to Japan to try to figure out his life and his career. As he is pulling himself together, Viktor appears at his family home and declares that he is going to coach Yuuri for gold.
While that does sound like a story of an underdog’s rise to victory, that is not actually the case. Grand Prix Final is only open for six competitors, the crème de la crème of figure skating world, so, despite Yuuri’s insistence that he is a failure, he isn’t. Yuuri is the number one male figure skater for Japan. He is himself a hero of many younger athletes. The story of Yuri!!! on Ice is about a man finding a way to love himself and see the love of other, all expressed through the art and toil of figure skating.
So, it’s not a surprise that love is the main theme of the story. The series explores friendship, familial bond, mentor-student relationship, admiration, sexual love, and romantic love. And in the middle of Yuuri Katsuki’s world stood Viktor Nikiforov, who has always been Yuuri’s main object of affection. So, when the opening theme sings of making history, the creators of this series truly did by making this series the first sports anime with same-sex romance. (The honour of being the first anime with same-sex romance belongs to a sci-fi series called No. 6.)
The most impressive thing, I found, is that the show conveys all these complicated elements while focusing on the sporting competition in a series of 12 20-minutes episodes. It was not perfect, and frankly, more time would do this story a world of good, but this means that Yuri!!! on Ice tells stories in layers rather than sequences. And this makes for an anime that can withstand multiple viewings and interpretations, creating essays after essays and debates after debates which pull the fandom into a community of shared love and anguish.
While someone can probably write a thesis on this, I am just going to give you the elements that I find most interesting. These are in no way of the complete list of things director Sayo Yamamoto, writer Mitsurou Kubo, and choreographer Kenji Miyamoto have given us. So they are essentially just a distilled list of my favourite things about Yuri!!! on Ice. And, yes, the full list is way, way longer than this.
- Yuuri and Viktor
I don’t think we can start talking about Yuri!!! on Ice without first start talking about the two main characters and their romance. After all, they are the ones driving the show. Yuuri is instantly recognizable to all East and South-east Asian viewers with his mild manners and his tendency for self-deprecation. But in Yuuri’s case, he isn’t being modest; he has a self-esteem issue that prevents him from reaching the top despite his skills being rather exceptional. He is in every way the opposite of Viktor who has natural showmanship and charm. We don’t really get the sense of where the real Viktor is in the beginning because his showman persona is so convincing and his intellect so high he could perform for anybody in any situation. I must admit I was terrified of this character at first because he seemed to have the entire story at his command, let alone Yuuri’s fragile heart.
But Yuuri isn’t passive in this convoluted relationship that started out as mentor-and-student. Because the story is told largely from Yuuri’s perspective, we soon get both Yuuri’s and Viktor’s character unveiled. They became more and more human and more and more real to the point that when Viktor and Yuuri officially became a thing, the entire fandom was celebrating like our own best friends just announce that they’re finally dating.
Well, fandoms do have the tendency to overreact when the main relationship gets an official go ahead. Not quite so in this case. The group of people I have talked to that seemed most affected by Yuuri and Viktor are the people who are in a relationship, both gay and straight. As one of my friends put it, Yuuri and Viktor’s relationship contains the elements of a real relationship. Their romance feels so much like a real romance that they didn’t need romantic dinners or grand gestures to convince the audience it’s happening.
(Well, there have been a few grand gestures, but all of them disguised as other things and starting the moment they are a couple.)
- All their friends and family
Another joy of watching Yuuri!!! on Ice is that the characters around Yuuri and Viktor are also written well and given as much depth as the time allows. This is done so effectively for much of the episodes that although they didn’t get much screen time, we still get the sense of what each character are like, what drives each of them, and what would make them lie awake at night. And when secondary characters are treated this well, it makes for a very immersive environment for the protagonists and a very enjoyable watch.
- All sorts of love
While the romance between Viktor and Yuuri is the main love, the story doesn’t solely focus or celebrate that love as being in any way superior to others. True that Yuuri becomes more confident, more self-aware, and more expressive after he meets Viktor, but Yuuri himself says that it is rather because he hadn’t given much thought to the love other people have given him – his family, his friends, his former coach, his teachers, his fans. His relationship with Viktor serves as a lens for him to see those things clearly but not necessarily overshadowing them.
The performance in the story also focuses on two different expressions of love: Eros and Agape. While the Greeks had four types, these two are selected possibly because they are the two that Yuuri learns in the story. Eros is the representation of his sexuality and his romantic love for Viktor, while Agape is Yuuri’s understanding of the love and well-wishes he receives from others and the one he also learns to give in turn as his character grows.
- Breaking gender boundaries
I would do a lot of disservice to this series if I do not bring this one up because, if there is any aspect of the show that makes more of a history than Yuuri and Viktor being a canonical gay couple, it has to be the portrayal of gender in this show.
Because the show creators do not give a damn about it. Period.
And it’s not just me who notice this. Even children have been reported to comment on the lack of clear gender identification for some of the characters. Not to mention that for one of the performances, Yuuri chooses to perform as a seductress, going as far as referring to himself using the pronoun ‘watashi,’ a female pronoun. Viktor is also known in the story to have produced a program that was androgynous, drawing both male and female elements in a single performance.
That is not to say every character in the story is like that. Rather that the entire range of gender expression is present including the stereotypical male to the stereotypical female. The decision to portray the diversity is even more radical considering that Japanese culture is probably one of the most conservative in terms of gender and sexual expression in day-to-day life.
- Breaking national stereotypes
Because the background of the series is international figure skating competitions, the characters necessarily would have to come from different parts of the world, which opens the possibly of national stereotyping a la Hetalia. But, to my greatest joy, that did not happen. If anything, the show creators were sneaky in how they set up some of the characters, quite potentially commenting on high politics without really doing so.
For example, the American figure skater in the show is Hispanic, religious (in the most positive way possible), and has an African-American female coach. He is also best friend – and if the fandom could have its way, long-distance boyfriend – of the Chinese skater, who is an absolute cutie. There is also a blossoming friendship between Yuri Plisetsky, dubbed the Russian Punk, and Otabek Altin, the Kazakh skater, giving the finger to the real-world ethnic tension. So, shoot me if these are not commentaries on the world’s conflicts in one way or the other.
- Respect for the figure skating world
To be very honest with you, the first moment I heard about the premise of Yuuri!!! on Ice, I winced.
I was a figure skating fan as a child, and Kristi Yamaguchi will always be my one and only princess. So, yes, I love figure skating, even though I might have fallen out of love with watching it because of the change in style and competition rules. But changes happen, and the sport moves on. The thing I would not be able to stand is having figure skating as a gimmick to an anime series just to create intrigue for people who had never seen a single competition.
But it hasn’t been a gimmick. If anything, I feel the same love I have for figure skating from the show. The choreography was not made up by the animators but created by Kenji Miyamoto, who is a retired competitive skater and world-class choreographer. Both Yamamoto-sensei and Kubo-sensei are figure skating fans, and they did a large amount of groundwork in making the world of figure skating in the show reflects the one in our own, down to the layouts of the stadiums and rinks they used. It is no wonder that many figure skaters in real life watch and support the show.
- The music
The last but integral part of the storytelling is the music. Most of the songs are for the figure skating scenes, but that is not the only function music plays in the series. The music is used to bring out an aspect of the skaters, normally accompanied by flashbacks and inner monologues, to build up their characters and make the best use of the limited time. Even though the English lyrics can use a bit of work, it is not obvious with all the drama going on. If anything, the music enhanced the drama. The songs are also beautiful enough to stand on its own and are an excellent collection of soundtracks.
Usually, I don’t recommend anime series to people outside of the anime circles as the initiation rite into Japanese pop culture. I have always felt that there is something inherently very Japanese about them that people who don’t have the background of the tropes or the way messages are communicated might get lost. Yuri!!! on Ice, although still very Japanese in many layers of its storytelling is surprising open and clear in what it wants to say that I don’t think there would be an issue.
So, if you like a story of competition and camaraderie in sports, this is for you. If you are looking for an LGBTQ+ story that is happy for once, this is for you. If you just want to give anime a try, this is for you. If you like a love story, this is most definitely for you.