Yuri!!! on ICE
Yuuri Katsuki used to be Japan's male figureskating champion, but a mix of anxiety and a lack of vision led him to a crushing defeat in the previous Grand Prix Finale competition, and he's now at a loss about what to do; not to mention, an episode of bullying by hotheaded Russian Skater Yurii Plitsetsky, who claims he resents sharing his name with Yuuri K on the rink, has left him badly shaken of his own abilities. He goes back to his parents' rural inn in Kyushu, not really knowing what he wants to do with himself; while "screwing around" on the local ice rink, he does an interpretation of one of legendary skater Victor Nikiforov's routines, which ends up being recorded and uploaded to the internet. When the video goes viral (without Yuuri's knowledge), Viktor decides to fly out to Japan for no other reason than to be Yuuri's mentor...Yurii P, who's supposed to be his protege, isn't exactly thrilled about this and follows Viktor in anger. So Yuuri finds his idol and his tormentor suddenly on his doorstep, one day, out of nowhere. It seems that Viktor is offering to be his coach and groom him into a more confident skater....but why he's really there isn't so clear, just yet...
"We were born to make history! - Dean Fujioka, "History Maker" (OP for this show).
Sometimes, long after I finish a show, I try to think back to what my first impressions of the premise and promotional art were like when it was first announced; sometimes, I might even have watched something that I'd first heard of way before any art even came out. The name Yuri!!! on ICE showed up in a pre-season lineup a while back, and if you're at all familiar with my reviews, you probably won't be surprised that my first thought was "cute lesbian figure skaters!" Of course, that wasn't exactly the case (the opposite, in a sense!), but I still had plenty to get excited about. It was a show directed by Sayo Yamamoto, who did a fantastic job with Michiko and Hatchin and her episode of Space Dandy (and who also got a lot of attention for shifting the focus to Fujiko Mine in one of the newer Lupin III outings), and she's also one of the only prominent female anime directors I know of. Not to mention, sports anime usually aren't my thing, but figure skating has a much more obvious appeal to me from an artistic standpoint; not that I know how to dance, but I think playing the cello for fifteen years helps me appreciate it! And most importantly of all, there were pretty strong hints of gay romance in the promotional materials, at least hinting at subtext. Now, with Yuri!!! on ICE being such a smash hit, I'm happy that my excitement was well-placed, but I'm also just sort of blown away by what it's done to the fandom: it's overwhelming popular for all the right reasons, I think, and considering that this very well could have been queerbait, it's been especially amazing for a lot of my gay male anime fan friends, who definitely have slimmer pickings than queer yuri fangirls like me. I'm not at all sorry that I had the wrong idea about the show's title: this show is amazing and absolutely deserves the fandom it's gotten.
First off, if you've never heard of Sayo Yamamoto, there's a few things to note: although I'll confess that I haven't yet read any interviews of her talking about her own work, I'd call a lot of her previous work actively subversive and feminist in that it either places female side characters of iconic franchises at the center (Lupin III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine) or sets up a usual story of women searching for missing patriarchal figures but ends up saying that friendships with other women matter more (Michiko and Hatchin). I like the fact that she actively seems to be courting an adult female audience, and if you'll notice how few josei manga actually get animated you'll see how that isn't very common (or didn't used to be). I'll also give Gabriella Elkins from ANN credit for pointing out that globe-trotting is a hallmark of her works, and given that anime is as guilty as Hollywood is of painting a stylized, caricatured picture of foreign countries, that in itself is subversive, I'd say (I highly recommend her episode review series, by the way). Of course, given the adult female audience, there was a pretty big risk that a show about male figure skaters would not only just come across as queerbait but also fall into the trap of stylizing and exotifying gay romance for a cishet female audience. This....honestly tends to be a huge problem, and given some conversations I've had with some of my male otaku friends who identify as queer, cishet female yaoi fans who claim expertise on "what it's like" to be a gay men can get old, to say the very least, in the same way I can get ticked off at cishet men who like lesbians because they're "hot". Not to mention, I think it's much worse for male LGBT anime fans, because far fewer BL manga get adaptations than yuri manga, there's more yuri manga targeted at women (or that at least end up appealing to queer women) than BL manga that have much appeal for men, and a lot of the male-targeted gay manga don't make it to the US. But while I can't say anything for what it's like to be a gay man, it seems to be that Sayo Yamamoto has managed to pull of a show that has plenty of outward appeal to adult women, but also one with a main relationship that gay male anime fans (at least some of the ones I've talked to) actually feel develops into something organically. Thus, this show making such a big splash is, in itself, kind of amazing for a lot of reasons.
So let's get down to the actual characters: the main character of the show is Yuuri Katsuki, who's on the verge of giving up figure skating entirely after doing really, really badly during his last competition, not to mention that his competitor, Russian skater Yurii Plisetsky, has verbally and emotionally abused him pretty badly out of anger at having to share somebody's name on stage. On the one hand, that sounds like a ridiculous reason to get angry, and Yurii, who in the first episode pounds on Yuri's bathroom stall with his feet, really has a complex about this, but on the other hand, I've noticed time after time that when two people with the same name are in class or at work together, one was often either more popular or more confident than the other, and, plenty of times, the other person had a bit of a complex about this; this is something I've really, really noticed among guys. Yuuri's predicament is a pretty common one in art-centered anime, and his anxiety is very relatable to me, since I've had plenty of brushes with stage fright. Kind of like, say, Kosei from Your Lie in April, he's talented but isn't finding a lot of great reasons to stay in figureskating, and the directionless and lack of confidence is a lot of what's making it hard for him to keep his skating in shape (as much as I dislike Your Lie in April, that aspect was relatable). The very first episode has him return to his tiny town in Kyushu and move back in with his parents (who run an inn), and there's a sense that he's "attempting to return to his roots" to figure out what he wants to do. It doesn't really work, and what happens to him, while not elaborated on for long (since we're not even at episode two, yet!), is kind of like what happens to college dropouts: he gains weight, loses his motivation to practice, and, of course, has to deal with the fact that the girl he grew up skating with, and whom he used to crush on hard, is now married with kids. I'd argue that this is exploring a couple of different tropes: on the one hand, his reunion with Yuuko Nishigori, the old crush, is set up to be a "childhood friends meet again" scene you'd find in any other anime, but of course, while they have chemistry, it's really more as friends, and it's pretty obvious that they're not getting together; not only does she have a husband and triplet daughters, but she seems absolutely content with them. At the same time, Yuri!!! on ICE sets her up as the sort of "Last Het Romance" character, and in a lot of yaoi and BL manga, these characters, and women in general, end up being the butts of jokes; while Yuuko herself doesn't get that much screentime, though, and the fact that it's centered around male figure skating means that the cast is pretty heavily tilted towards the male end, the female characters we do have are all strong, interesting characters in their own right, like Yuri's ballet teacher and mentor Minako, who's an awesome working lady who also tends to get way too drunk while watching competions (giving the show a lot of its humor). Basically, it's like Sweet Blue Flowers in that the women in these guys' lives matter just as much as male characters played a role in that show; I'll admit to enjoying plenty of yuri shows where there just weren't any guys around, but I also appreciate having some shows that take a look at how things actually are in reality.
As for Victor, the show sets him up to be almost this sort of "manic pixie dream" character. Yuuri obviously knows who Victor is, and he'd hardly expect a former champion and huge celebrity in the figure skating world to just show up at his parents' door, out of the blue, because he'd seen a viral YouTube video of him doing one of his routines; that'd literally be like if you made a video of yourself doing the "Comfortably Numb" guitar solo and David Gilmour showed up at your house the next day wanting to be your guitar teacher. It actually ends up being a little more complicated than this, but that takes time to emerge, and I won't spoil the full story; it's honestly one of the best aspects of the whole show, and one of the reasons the character development in this show ends up feeling so rich. Outwardly, Victor is a contrast to Yuuri: the latter is demure, soft-spoken, unconfident, and struggling to find his own ambition, not to mention that he downplays his own status in his field, to his own detriment, whereas Victor just screams "confident and sexy" (the camera's focus on his bare chest in multiple hot springs scenes definitely adds to that impression). Naturally, Yuuri basically forgets his own name even being in Victor's presence, and his friends and family gushing over their new resident celebrity certainly doesn't help. Then, of course, part of the premise is that Yurii Plisetsky follows his mentor to Japan, angry that he's being upstaged, and his mood doesn't exactly improve when Victor starts calling him "Yurio" to differentiate the two, given that he has a bit of a complex about being perceived as "little" or "cute", even though that's both part of his appeal and, in regards to his build, one of his main advantages as a skater. I'll say that if Yuri!!! on ICE has a weak point, it's that Yurio ends up being a bit underexplored, all things considered, and his screentime drops as the show goes along; once the competitions start in earnest, he gets considerably less focus. We do learn more about him, including the influence of being coached by a bitterly bickering divorced couple and not really being allowed to develop his own skating persona under their conflicting stringent visions for him, and the fact that he's desperate to impress his grandfather, the only family member who truly cares about him (and whom he relies on a bit too much for inspiration, at times), but while he does play a crucial role in the show ending on as emotionally satisfying a note as it does, he's, overall, a bit neglected, considering that he's set up to be as central a player as Yuuri K at the very start.
Now before I get way too carried away talking about the characters, and I promise that I'll at least get back to talking about the central pair, let's get into the figure skating itself a little bit. A lot of Yuri!!! on ICE is taken up by skating competitions; there's a few episodes of downtime in the first half, but only one episode near the end that doesn't have any skating scenes. I'm very easily bored by a lot of sports anime because watching competition after competition after competition can get boring; again, Yuri!! on ICE already has something going for it in that it's established from the start that this is as much about art and the characters' relationship to their art than about physical prowess, and I dearly love that about this show. Heck, Yuuri and Yurio's very first challenge is for each to develop a skating routine to one of two movements of a classical piece, "On Love: Eros and Agape"... with the awkward and uncomfortable Yuuri K having to handle "Eros" and the hotheaded Yurio getting saddled with the gentle "soul" love piece "Agape." If there's something really amazing about this, it's that with Yuuri K's evolution especially, the version of "Eros" he finds himself embracing and being able to build an art out of is, ultimately, a very feminine style of expression, and given the fact that male figure skating actually has a huge history of macho behavior and antigay culture (thanks again to Gabriella Elkins for alerting me to that), the fact that he becomes so comfortable and confident in this, without him feeling like it threatens his gender identity, is absolutely beautiful. Actually, one aspect I did really like about this show is that while there are a lot of competition scenes, and lots of different figure skaters and routines to keep track of (and I do apologize to the fandom, but I can't take the time to list them in a review like this, so I'd say find watch the show and find out for yourself!), Yuuri himself has only two basic routines, "Eros" and a piece written for him by a high school friend that, well, let's just say that the title shouldn't come as too much of a surprise; as a side note, it's also amusing to me that the show implies that he was two oblivious and not-straight to notice that this girl (who never shows up onscreen) was crushing on him. But having him focus on just these two routines makes it easy to follow his progress throughout the show; just like you're never going to perform the Dvořák Cello Concerto the same way twice, he never skates the same exact way twice, and his particular interpretations, of course, have a lot to do with where his mental state is and how things are progressing with Victor (and it's similar with the other skaters). As far as the skating itself, the animation quality in this show isn't perfect, but the cinematography just about is, as far as highlighting the skating and body motion goes, and if I haven't already mentioned the manservice potential of this show I'll say again that the character design gives you just about as many beautiful male bodies as you could possibly want (I'm about as lesbian as they get, but I definitely still appreciate it). The in-show music is pretty great, overall (the piece "Yuri on Ice" itself is fabulous), and I loved both the opening and ending themes; Dean Fujioka's "History Maker" suits the show amazingly well (not to mention the watercolor style animation of the OP is godly), as does "You Only Live Once" by Wataru Hatano. Compared to a lot of songs that have random English thrown in, the English lyrics here (especially in "History Maker") give the show an international feel, which is fitting given that the competitions take the characters all over the world and that we meet skaters from lots of different countries, not to mention that one of the best, most pivotal, and most squeal-worthy episodes of the show happens in Barcelona after a visit to the Sagrada Familia, beautifully rendered here.
Now, I've been dropping not-so-subtle "hints" throughout this review about a certain....relationship, and while I'm not going to go on outright and say anything, I'll say that for those of you are afraid of this show being queer-baity or being full of "tragic gay lovers", I'd say worry not and give the show a try. Yuri!!! on ICE, let's just say, gets significantly less "ambiguous" as it goes on, and that's a good thing; for another thing, while the whole "manic pixie dream boy" thing seems like a recipe for disaster, if we're really going to think about things realistically, the show actually does address that character's own shortcomings, including being a bit too outwardly flippant and harsh in his coaching style and, by extension, how he intimately relates to others, and he gets taken to task for this. This becomes especially satisfying as things become a bit less implicit; let's just say that I squeal over date scenes in yuri series, and there's plenty of cute scenes of the equivalent here (actually having the characters spend meaningful time together and growing makes things better, who'd have thought?) If there's a downside to any of this, it's that Yuri!! on ICE, a show that's clearly aiming to be somewhat realistic (and possibly even radical) in depicting this, makes a few missteps in how it handles other people's reactions. In Sweet Blue Flowers, Fumi deals with people constantly assuming she's supposed to be straight, even when she's so much of a lesbian that you can see it from space, and as the show gets more explicit about her orientation, she and the others deal, if not always with outright hostility, with befuddlement and comments a la "but you're so pretty, you could get any man you wanted". That doesn't really happen here, and I'm not exactly saying that I want that to happen to these characters, but it's more that, given that Japanese culture has a complicated history with LGBT issues and the current Russian political climate is wayyyy worse than "complicated" for LGBT people, and given that Yuri!!! on ICE isn't just an all-gay cast living in fantasyland (like a lot of BL stories are), this aspect is just sort of....swept under the rug. This didn't make me enjoy it any less, but again, it's in the back of my head. If there's another quibble I have, also, it's that the show pulls a bit of a cheap trick to make it seem like our couple is going to fall apart, at the end; the show actually has a rather clever way of averting this, and I was emotionally invested in the show to the point where I almost didn't care about the cheap trickery, but there's too much talent behind this show for them to be settling for that. Nothing's perfect, I guess.
Quibbles aside, this is one of the best shows to have come in the 2010s, and I'll call this just about essential viewing for LGBT anime fans. This definitely makes me even more convinced that Sayo Yamamoto's work doesn't get enough attention, and I'm really, really pleased with how she handled this show, for the most part. Even if sports or the arts don't have an immediate appeal to you, I'd suggest giving this a try; again, this show had some things going for it, as far as my own tastes, long before I started watching, and it blew even me out of the water. The only reason I'd say "don't watch Yuri!! on ICE", is if you really, really have a problem with LGBT people....
....in which case, I'll end this in the same way I handle this in the "Audence Appropriateness" sections: if you have such a problem, then we promise you with all possible sincerity, we absolutely... do... not... want.... to... hear... about... it.
The rest of us? I think you're going to have quite a bit of fun with this show.
Maybe not a five star show if you aren't as invested in LGBT media as I am or if the art aspect doesn't immediately get your attention, but still highly recommended just as a story in its own right. — Nicoletta Christina Browne
Recommended Audience: Pre-teens and up, I'd say; no, there's no explicit sex, but there's a lot of (male) nudity still, and a lot of sexual tension, resolved and unresolved, throughout the show. Plus, I really just don't see this appealing to kids much; on a side note, the characters do get drunk a fair bit.
Version(s) Viewed: Streaming on crunchyroll (Japanese with English Subtitles)
Review Status: Full (12/12)
Yuri!!! on ICE © 2016 Hajimon Town Association / Yuri !!! on ICE Production Committee
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