Recent years have proven that the market for sports anime with a sprinkling of homoerotic under/overtones is one that is in great demand, with shows like Free!, Kuroko no Basket, and Yowamushi Pedal more than proving the point to be true. You name it, there’s an anime for just about every major sport: swimming, basketball, cycling, soccer, even rugby with this season’s ALL OUT!!, but then we come to this show… figure skating? This has been quite a talking point among the online anime community, an anime directed by Sayo Yamamoto, centering around figure skating, and it’s entitled, of all things, Yuri!!! On ICE. And no, it’s not what you think it is. In fact, it’s quite the opposite of “yuri” in one sense of the word.
Sochi, Russia. The Grand Prix Finale event. Russia’s prodigy figure skater, the 27-year-old Viktor Nikiforov, wins top honor in the finals, while Japan’s top skater, 23-year-old Yuri Katsuki, suffers a crushing defeat at the bottom of the ranks. The Russian heartthrob is a bonafide success story, winning top honors in the Russian nationals and the European championships, and is now going after the World Figure Skating Championships in Yoyogi, Tokyo. As for Yuri, although he suffered crushing defeat while watching his idol win top honors, he’s given a hero’s welcome once he returns home to Japan, after five years away on the circuit and at college. And he got himself a little gut, during all that time away. Once he’s all settled in at his home, the Yu-Topia Hot Spring in Hasetsu, Yuri heads out to visit his old friend Yuko at a nearby skating rink, and shows her a routine he’s been practicing, which may or may not have been lifted from his idol, Viktor. She loved it, as did his old acquaintance Nishigori and his kids. Back at the championships, though, as you’d expect, Viktor won top honors, earning him the title of “best in the world.” But there seems to be another Russian prodigy making waves, in the 15-year-old upstart Yuri Plisetski, who Yuri (the Japanese Yuri) remembers from the event in Sochi, accosting him and telling him to “just retire already.” That train of thought is broken, though, as he finds out the routine he performed at the rink was recorded and put on YouTube for the whole world to see by Nishigori’s kids. And it spreads like fire across the internet. A day passes, and back at Yuri’s humble abode, there’s someone spending some time in the hot spring in the back. And who could it be? Why, it’s Viktor! And he’s going to be Yuri’s skating coach. This will be GOOD.
Sayo Yamamoto is an interesting figure in the anime world. Like clockwork, she shows up every four years to blow the anime world away, and I can safely say that she’s done it again with Yuri!!! On ICE. Although her resumé consists of a lot of storyboard work, her few main directorial pieces have helped establish a promise and high standard of quality with her work, namely with the series Michiko & Hatchin and Lupin III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, as well as a couple episodes of the cult hit Space Dandy. The promotional material had a lot of seriousness to what it was advertising, but the show’s first episode blends in the serious moments with bits of uplifting comedy relief, and it never feels out of place. Some jokes are made at Yuri’s expense, be it about his shyness or his pudginess, but it’s all executed at just the right time and never lingers for too long. Now, some of you might be disappointed that this show features zero “yuri-ness” to it, and might say that this show should have been called “Yaoi!!! On ICE” instead. Yes, this show has some fujoshi-centric fanservice appeal, namely with Viktor, but what separates this from its sports anime contemporaries is that the characters and their designs have an extra point of realism to them. Namely, the characters designs of Yuri and Viktor – they’re not teenagers who are overly idealized with bulging muscles or washboard abs, they’re 20-somethings that are crafted and displayed as if they could be real athletes with real bodies. Yuri’s got a little extra weight, while Viktor has an even distribution of tone; it’s realistic without being overly idealized.
Where this series really excels, though, is its figure skating choreography, brought to life in this show by Kenji Miyamoto, a retired figure skater and choreographer extraordinaire. The animation as a whole, supplied by MAPPA, is very smooth and stylized, using a colder color palette, but the animation in the skating sequences is incredibly fluid and filled with swift motion, almost looking like the scenes are rotoscoped in spots – that’s how good it is. To be completely honest, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this first episode; I was expecting to like it, but not this much. it definitely put its best foot forward, so I’m hoping it remains consistent throughout. I have faith in Sayo Yamamoto’s direction, so bring on the training montages and homoerotic over/undertones, show. I’m ready to indulge.
Yuri!!! On ICE is available on Crunchyroll as a weekly simulcast, every Wednesday at 3:00pm EDT. An English simulcast dub will be available from Funimation later this fall.