Yuri!!! on Ice was one of the biggest hits to come out of 2016, taking many anime fans by surprise as they slowly fell in love with this beautifully animated story about ice skating. Produced by studio Mappa, this anime captured so many people’s attention with both the way it brought an old technique back to life and the various characters that breathed their own sense of vibrancy into the show. I won’t say this show is perfect, but I did find myself wanting to return again and again each week if only for the great music and ice skating sequences.
For those of you who haven’t had a chance to watch it yet or maybe didn’t think it looked interesting, I would suggest stopping here and watching it before continuing. Here’s a quick synopsis to get you started:
Yuri is 23, on the older end for pro-figure skating, and has just lost his chance at winning a major competition. Filled with self-doubt and fear of losing once again, he decides to take a year off and journeys back home to Japan, seeking comfort with his family and friends. But being on the ice is a comfort as well, and Yuri finds himself skating to a routine perfected by one of the most famous ice skaters, Victor Nikiforov. Little does he know that his interpretation of that routine was shared throughout social media and eventually reached the eyes of none other than Victor. He then became so interested in Yuri that he dropped his pro-skating career and flew to Japan to be his coach. With Victor’s support, Yuri reenters the competitive scene, facing off against experienced contenders including one hot-headed Russian dead-set on making Victor his coach.
One of the best parts of this series is the music and opening/ending. Composed by Taro Umebayashi and Taku Matsushiba, it succeeds at capturing your attention and holding you throughout each episode, from opening to ending. The opening itself is arguably one of the best to come out of this Fall season, showing off right away what both the animators and the musicians can do. The opening song, “History Maker” by Dean Fujioka, paired well with the sketchy art style and vibrant splashes of color. This short opening alone got me excited to see what the rest of the animation looked like as each movement was fluid and each punctuation of color contrasted starkly against the otherwise black and white figures. The ending song, “You Only Live Once” by Wataru Hatano (which hit number 11 on the Japan Hot 100), is great mix of pop and electronic that pairs well with its backing animations. Also arguably one of the best endings to come out this Fall (next to March comes in like a lion), splashes of color are used again through sparklers which is then split up by an Instagram feed. The scrolling feed gives us a look into the lives of all of the other characters and their interactions with each other, deepening our sense of understanding and background. I don’t know if there’s been another one like this, especially one that incorporates social media into it.
The quality of animation is the other major selling point of this series, able to capture the fluid and complex movements of skating through its use of Rotoscoping. This technique requires animators to trace over live-action film using paint on glass sheets. It’s one of the best ways to accurately depict realistic movements, something that can be hard when it comes to animation in general especially with a subject matter like figure skating. While there were moments where I thought the characters came out too stretched or awkward looking, the vast majority of the scenes that used Rotoscoping were great to watch, especially Yurio’s routines. It was here that I thought the animators took the most liberty with their art, creating highly stylized movements that stretched in a way that gave impact to his routine, much like the fight scenes in Kill la Kill. Outside of the figure skating routines, the animation was equally great, with vibrant colors and details that gave life to a myriad of different locations around the world. Considering that Mappa was founded by a former member of Madhouse, who are responsible for some of the most popular animes including Trigun, it’s no surprise that this animation is so high-quality.
One of the other positive things about Yuri!!! on Ice is the vast differing cast of characters that manage to keep you invested in whats happening outside of the Yuri-Victor relationship. Each character struck me as unique, having their own drives and dreams that impacted their need to compete. Yurio is a good example, but even characters like JJ and Chris were given enough attention to become at least mostly fleshed out. I don’t think they could have paid enough attention to every single side-character, but for the ones that mattered, they struck me as well-rounded for the most part. This is great when it comes to showcasing their routines, as each character’s personality is broadcasted through their song choices, movements, and motivations to skate. JJ, for example, is a pretty quintessential narcissist who is skating for the love of his fans and the woman he loves. He has a hard time losing though, and it shows as he falls into a slump from experiencing performance anxiety for the first time. It would have been one thing to keep JJ as the narcissistic, annoying competitor, but the writers gave him just enough development to where he actually grows as a character by the end of the series.
Many went into this series with the idea that it was just going to be another instance of yaoi bait, there to tantalize BL fans and start another shipping war. Not so surprisingly though, many also came out of this show with their opinions completely changed, and I was kind of one of them. I honestly thought this might end up something like Free! with its ab shots for ab shots sake, but while there are plenty of shots of partially or fully naked men (Victor in particular), I also felt like this show went a lot deeper into the relationship between Victor and Yuri than I thought it would. While there are undercurrents of homosexuality in this show, I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s the main focus. In a nut shell, I think their relationship is more about mutual inspiration and support than anything sexual. Yuri is someone who is full of emotions but doesn’t outwardly express them that often. He’s constantly wracked by doubt and self-consciousness, succumbing to binge eating in his moments of stress to the point where he gains a significant amount of weight. However, Victor is someone who has the ability to see through to his true emotions and recognize them as a strength. This is one of the reasons he gives Yuri the Eros routine, because he knows those raw emotions would be a benefit to him in that case. Over time, as their coach-student relationship develops, Victor comes to learn just how to work with those emotions to Yuri’s benefit.
As Yuri’s relationship with Victor matures, we see his reasons for skating change. In the beginning of figuring out his Eros routine, his idea of what love is turned out to be a Katsudon bowl, his favorite food (also the food he eats most when he’s stressed). As he keeps performing and making new relationships, we see his motivation change to just wanting Victor to be proud of him and to not disappoint him. In this way, Victor’s presence has helped him grow emotionally to the point where he isn’t wracked by so much self-doubt and becomes a stronger skater in the process. We see something similar happen with Victor as well through the course of the series. In the beginning, he had fallen into a slump and was coming up short on inspiration for his routines when what does he see, a video of Yuri practicing one of his routines with his own sense of style. I think it was at this moment that Victor recognized the potential in Yuri and thought he might be able to gain something for himself by becoming his coach. It was through crafting new routines and watching him struggle that he gained some new knowledge that he could take back with him for his own career.
And while I questioned whether to classify this show as BL after seeing the kind of personalities Japan gives to foreigners and the stereotypes they hold for them, I will concede that their relationship did pretty much border on yaoi. Japan tends to hold this idea of foreigners as more willing to engage in physical contact whether it’s hugging or kissing. They seem to think that people outside of Japan do those things with reckless abandon (as I’ve mentioned briefly before in my review of Super Lovers). To me, Victor seemed like another product of that stereotype, unabashedly hugging, touching, and even kissing Yuri. But I think over the course of the episodes, they did develop a deeper bond that went past coach and student to something more, something that allowed them to draw strength from each other’s presence. I’ve heard someone say that this should could be a giant metaphor for coming out of the closet. I don’t know if I believe that, but I’ll leave that one up to you to decide.
Though this show does do a lot to improve the image of LGBT characters in figure skating and in Japan and Russia (two countries with the worst opinions of homosexuality). This is shown semi-slyly in one of Victor’s routines where he is pictured wearing a costume similar to one worn by a famous gay skater, Johnny Weir, who faced countless criticism for being gay. Figure skating is another kettle of worms when it comes to their support or view of gay skaters, and this shows depiction of Yuri and Victor’s pretty open relationship may have been the writer’s way of commenting on this problem. I think they definitely nailed it with the ending scene where Victor and Yuri skate together, something that has never happened in the history of figure skating. So while their relationship might not be as overt as many yaoi’s and BL, what the show manages to say about issues such as gay men in figure skating is powerful enough in and of itself.
Overall I enjoyed this anime, and it kept me coming back week after week to see what would happen next, but I wouldn’t call it perfect. There were definitely a few things I thought could have been done better or omitted entirely. For one, I really did not like the Yuri-chibi explanations and recaps in each episode. I understand the episodic format occasionally calls for recaps and the nature of doing a figure skating show means you need to explain things, but I generally thought they were unnecessary. Just sticking with the tournament announcers seemed like enough for me in terms of explanation, and I think the show’s format was easy enough to follow that we didn’t really need that much of a recap. Additionally, the ending of the show might have been a little to rushed. I felt like there could have been a bit more there or it even could have been taken into another season, and it turned out to be not satisfying enough.
If you think this show is great, let me know in the comments! Thanks for tuning in for another anime review. New reviews go up every Saturday and Wednesday, so be sure to follow me here or my Facebook for updates. Also follow me on Kitsu to see what I’m watching or not watching this season.