If the ‘fujoshi-friendly’ sports anime genre hasn’t reached its logical conclusion with Yuri!!! on Ice it is certainly working its way there. Kuroko no Basket, Free!, Haikyuu!! and many more all depict male relationships with heightened emotion, intimacy and intensity; the close trust and fierce rivalries in sports provide a natural framework for this. And with those levels of emotion, intimacy and intensity, it becomes easy for fans to read romance and love into those relationships if they so choose – hence their large female and gay male fanbases. The attractive, athletic schoolboys certainly don’t hurt either!
But those romantic readings are still just fan readings. They’re no doubt at least somewhat intentionally cultivated, but there’s no real canonicity to it, and it’s far from a narrative focus. They hint and tease, but leave anything further to your imagination.
And then along comes Yuri!!! on Ice and blows the doors wide open by making every implicit allusion an explicit action, by putting a heavily and overtly romantic lens over the entire show, by dropping damn near every semblance of ambiguity and leaving only the most negligible semblance of plausible deniability (and grasping on to that requires a far greater reach than the alternative). And it does all this while being a damn good series about a washed-up figure skater working to become a world champion under the tutelage of his lifelong idol!
Yuuri Katsuki’s progression from great but deeply flawed figure skater who always collapses under pressure to world-class skater under Victor’s coaching, while maybe not the primary draw, is certainly the primary driving force, and provides an excellent skeleton for the rest of the show that’s captivating in its own right. It’s hard to discuss outside of the context of his relationship with Victor, as his development as a person and skater is inextricably tied to their relationship (a side I’ll talk about later), but what I can say is that while devoid of anything too shocking or unexpected it is still very well executed. Yuuri starts weak and defeated, frustrated that despite all his efforts he’s still unable to break his mental barriers that cause his failures, but not whiny or useless; he’s a hugely sympathetic character, which is obviously fantastic if we’re meant to be rooting for him (and you will).
The path he is taken through is fraught with difficulty, and at no point is he ever made out to be some prodigy held back by a small character flaw; he’s just a very, very good figure skater who got to where he did through a lot of hard work, and has to keep putting in a lot of hard work to progress further. Sometimes he does well, sometimes he screws up and stays in by the skin of his teeth – there’s a little luck involved but the emphasis is placed on him, his talent, work and his struggles with anxiety. As a result every victory is well-earned and every round tense; there’s enough failure that, even if we kinda know the narrative arc, it’s still a nail-biting experience because defeat would not be exceptional. That this is achieved at every stage of the series despite him facing increasingly skilled competitors speaks volumes about how well-balanced his growth is – he grows more confident and more practiced as the series progresses at a rate that is both inherently believable and keeping in step with the increasing difficulty. So many shows struggle at this, using asspulls or deus ex machina to keep things flowing, but by and large Yuri!!! on Ice makes it look so natural. There are certainly a couple of contrived moments, but the overall execution is excellent.
The supporting cast is fantastic too. Skaters and non-skaters alike enrich the show, from the warmth and love of his family, through the passionate and non-partisan fangirling of some of his friends, to the delightfully varied competitors – this is not the ‘Victor and Yuuri’ show. And there’s a lot to love about the competitors in particular. Despite only having a limited amount of screen (and rink!) time, they’re given a remarkable level of depth that takes them from simply being Yuuri’s rivals to engaging characters by themselves. The backgrounds, personalities, motivations and arcs they’re given makes them almost too sympathetic – there were very few I wanted to see lose, no matter how invested in Yuuri’s success I was. Praise has to be given to their performances on the ice – the opportunity presented to the show through them is not passed up, as a lot of vital development is given in those moments, be it through thought, expressiveness or choice of performance.
Yuri Plisetsky – AKA Yurio – needs to be highlighted in particular. Yuuri’s primary rival, Yurio stands in stark contrast. He’s a prodigy, a 15 year old who’s on track for the Grand Prix Final at his very first opportunity out of the junior division, and unlike Yuuri’s quiet, unconfident demeanour, he’s a loud, brash, ruthlessly driven ball of barely-controlled anger. He’s not an antagonist though, just a rival, and his own character arc is excellent. He seeks glory and recognition, something he’d get on a whole other level given his age, but that age is his undoing; he’s immature, arrogant and distrustful of his coaches. The net effect is to ignore their advice, pushing himself far beyond his capabilities but failing to achieve greatness because he’s so focused on technical performance that he doesn’t grasp why Yuuri’s performances are so good. He has huge potential that he can’t realise, and combined with his emotional isolation he becomes driven by frustration and a need to be the greatest. It’s fitting, then, that only after resolving that does he truly shine, and that when consumed by it he suffers defeat.
While I can’t speak for the accuracy and love shown for the sport (but if the way the series has swept the figure skating community is any indication it’s at least pretty good in that area), I can say that the performances are full of elegance, beauty and passion. Once they’re skating, the focus is placed on the marriage between the skater’s performance and their mental state; their skating serves to communicate their feelings. Phichit, as Thailand’s first figure skater to make it this far, wants to celebrate on behalf of Thailand and show off the country’s previously unshown love of skating for the world to see; his performance is one of excitement, joy and a tribute to the sport. Christophe’s highly sexual nature bleeds into his skating, which is intensely erotic. And Yuuri’s skating, of course, is an expression of deep love.
It’s a shame then that the show was so marred by production issues. The skating often has too few frames, looking choppy and messy. There’s ambition and a longing for intricacy that just isn’t realised, and it hurts the effect. It’s to be expected that they’ll be skating the same performance each time, but you can only see the same animation so many times before you tune it out. Quality issues run rampant, with many off-model characters and low-detail figures in the background, or even minor, inconsequential but very distinct scenes repeated across episodes. It’s a shame that a show with such an emphasis on grace and elegance was hamstrung like this; hopefully it’s improved for the blurays.
And while I’m complaining, I feel it could have done with a little more breathing room between competitions. As is, it jumps from competition to competition with nary a break and no real display of the passage of time, making it a constant barrage of important skating. I loved the moments where it was just the characters in their off-time, because aside from being a much-appreciated change in tone they were full of wonderful characterisation that couldn’t be accomplished under competitive pressure.
But who cares about all that – what really matters (and presumably what you really care about) is Yuuri and Victor’s relationship.
I could talk about it in regards to homosexuality and depictions of homosexuality – discussing representation, presentation, how successfully it handles it, and so on and so forth – and while it is an important angle to discuss it from I am simply not the man to do so. Others will be able to in far greater depth, with far more accuracy, based on knowledge and personal experience that I don’t have. I am simply not in a position to do it justice.
What I can talk about is how good their relationship is though – and boy is it good.
Yuuri’s slow growth from seeing Victor as an idol – an unattainable and unreachable goal, a professional dream and fantasy – to treating him as a peer and lover is wonderful. He begins with his walls covered in Victor posters, with a dog of the same breed as Victor’s, with his whole skating identity wrapped up in his admiration for Victor. He is a fanboy. By the end? The very idea that he could hold him in that same regard is absurd. It involves shock, confusion and disbelief. It involves arguments, pressure and disappointment. It involves the death of idealism, the growth of cynicism, and the discovery of realism; only after he kills Victor the idol does Yuuri become able to see and appreciate Victor the person, become close to him, and find love.
And the growth of his relationship with Victor, the growth of their love, informs his skating prowess. I mentioned that he grew more confident and became better for it, but why? Because he started skating for someone; because he made his skating an expression of his love. It’s established early on that he needs to skate with love, and therefore skate with love towards something, and a joke is made about pork cutlet bowls being a major love of his. Victor gets him to skate with pork cutlet bowls in mind, to skate to express his love for them, and it works! But it’s not the pork cutlet bowls that’s important – it’s that he skates with love. Over time, the bowls fade and Victor takes its place as his love grows. And it’s through the depth of his love that he’s able to truly realise his potential.
Victor on the other hands is a bit less obvious. He’s not the focal character and we don’t get things from his perspective that often, so his feelings and attitudes have to be inferred. What we can see is a gradual softening of his stance towards Yuuri; from a strict and harsh mentor that constantly infuriates and doesn’t mince his words to something far more equal and far more intimate. But it doesn’t feel like a growth or change in his character; it’s more like he was waiting for Yuuri to grow enough before their relationship could develop into that.
And I say that based on the pieces he assigns Yuuri and Yurio to skate to (they have an exhibition competition to determine who will get Victor as a coach). Victor has Yuuri skate to ‘Eros’ and Yurio skate to ‘Agape’. Of the Greek words for love, “eros” is the one most closely linked to romantic love, with a strong element of sexual passion. “Agape” as a love includes that of man towards God. Yurio sees – and never stops seeing – Victor as a master, an idol, a skating god. Someone to reach and eventually beat. His love is indisputably one of agape. Yuuri’s love ultimately becomes eros, even if it didn’t seem that way when the pieces were assigned. Did Victor recognise that in the two of them when he assigned those pieces? In which case, did Victor love Yuuri romantically before Yuuri loved him likewise?
The point I’m trying to make is that there is a lot of depth to their relationship. It starts out seemingly definitively master-student, but takes on far more romantic elements as time progresses – but it also never loses that initial ‘hierarchy’. There is a direct connection between Yuuri’s performance and the deepening of their relationship, which progresses in a linear fashion; Victor’s side to the relationship doesn’t have anything quite so clear and straightforward, and there are a lot of questions surrounding the background to it and his initial motive to become Yuuri’s coach. It’s utterly fascinating and so gratifyingly nuanced.
And, of course, it’s gratifyingly heart-warming. They share so many wonderful, romantic moments together, all of which are perfectly calculated to make your heart skip a beat. Some of them are certainly audacious, but quietly so; they’re a depiction of a huge, hugely meaningful moment between them where the rest of the world fades away into nothingness, leaving the two of them alone. There’s intensity to it driven by the focus on competition and a comfortable intimacy achieved by their respective maturity; the love achieved here belongs uniquely to Yuri!!! on Ice.
I think everybody was pleasantly surprised by Yuri!!! on Ice. Not because we expected it to crash and burn, but rather because it was just that good. It went FAR beyond the expectation of “gayer gay sports anime” that previews and even the early episodes lent it – at least from my perspective. The competition was exciting and tense, something I didn’t expect out of figure-skating, and the romance was so much more thoroughly developed, original and engaging than I anticipated. It was a daring and heartfelt series that has genuinely pushed the envelope. I cannot recommend it enough.