Continuing off from where I left off last time, it’s a really rocky road when it comes to queer representation in anime, and it’s even rockier when said representation is shown in a sincere light. And for viewers like myself, who want more representation in anime, there’s nothing we can really do but take what we can get. Exhibit A: Bulat from Akame ga Kill! – a non-stereotypical, non-flamboyant gay man in an anime, different from your usual suspects of Leeron and Fred Luo. But that was only a minor case of queer representation, not a major leading role and case. The broad scope and spectrum of queer representation in anime is a very narrow one, sadly, but as we’ve seen from Yuri!!! on ICE, that scope seems to get a bit wider, after every episode. I’ll be tackling the latest two episodes, but we’ll also be doing things a little bit differently, just this one time. I’ll be integrating a summation of the past two episodes into a further discussion about queer representation in anime, and more specifically, in this anime. So let’s dive into episode 4 – “Like Yourself… And Complete The Free Program!!” and episode 5 – “Face Beet-Red!! It’s the First Competition! The Chugoku, Shikoku, and Kyushu Championship” – and let’s talk shop, people.
For those who – somehow – haven’t noticed it, this show is very open about its subtext, overtones, and general presentation of, simply put, queerness. In the first five episodes, the bond between Yuri and Viktor has taken quite a few big leaps, going from idol to fan, to student and teacher, to caring partners, both on and off the ice rink. We’ve seen Yuri, step by step, ease away from his bashful shyness and become more open around Viktor, and in turn, we’ve seen Viktor make quite a few advances with Yuri, forming a trusting bond with him in the process. We’ve seen Yuri and Viktor share some more-than-friendly looks, close physical contact, and even small displays of a very clear sexual attraction towards one another.
In short, barring some kind of weird and left field twist that’ll happen later on by the creative staff, Yuri and Viktor are queer men. They are gay (or at the very least, bi) male characters in a queer-centric anime, engaged in a more-than-friendship, without said friendship and queerness being made explicit.
Now, what does that word mean, in this context? “Explicit” could imply anything, from open admittance to physical intercourse, but in the case of just this show, it means there’s no verbal acknowledgement of Yuri’s or Viktor’s sexuality. Instead, it’s spoken through body language, and a lot of it. A single touch on the lips, a hand on a shoulder, or even a warm embrace – body language, more often than not, speaks louder than any word ever could. In episode 5, there’s a lot of physical contact to be found between Yuri and Viktor, with one moment containing Viktor locking Yuri in a hug and speaking softly to him, quote, “Seduce me with all you have. If your performance can charm me, you can enthrall the entire audience,” before Yuri’s competition begins. Moments like those only add to the belief of their presumed sexuality being true, complete with Yuri’s speech about “love” at the end. Love, in itself, is not directly connected to romance, it goes far beyond that. Yuri proclaiming how he feels about Viktor being a kind of “love” goes beyond the usual notion of love and romance being tied together; it’s more about the emotional and, at times, intimate attachment that both characters have developed over the course of the series, thus far. But when you look at their body language, there may be something a bit more, bubbling under the surface, and when words are spoken, they carry some extra weight, because of it.
Case in point, in the second half of episode 4, where Viktor and Yuri are having a talk out at the oceanside. Yuri mentions to Viktor about a girl he knew in Detroit who he pushed away, because of his own self-worry over his feelings being intruded upon in one moment of weakness. Viktor reassures him, though, that he’s not weak, and further asks what Yuri wants him to be to him; a father figure, a brother, a friend, or even a boyfriend. Yuri, a bit flustered by that last option, assures Viktor to just stay how he is, and that he had been ignoring him (in the first half of the episode) to hide his shortcomings, but that he’ll make it up to Viktor with his skating. Viktor, in turn, acknowledges this by saying he won’t let him off so easily, and that it’s his way of showing his love. Simple words such as those, when spoken through a close intimate bond, can hold a lot of weight, and it’s not just about the words that are being spoken, but how those words are spoken that add even more weight to their impact. Pardon the brief tangent, but this is one of the reasons why I’m not going back to re-watch the episodes on Mondays, dubbed in English – elements such as cadence, delivery, and impact of the spoken word are never the same between languages. How something sounds in Japanese is never usually the same as in English, for better or for worse. Look at a couple of shows on your own, in English and in Japanese, and see if you can pick up any differences in the cadences of the characters’ voices.
One strong selling point that this show has is how well it integrates its “ship-fuel” moments around, and into, the central plot. Whether there’s a new batch of characters being introduced or a few moments of backstory, or even a minute or two of introspect among a side character, this show is able to have it both ways. One such case is in episode 4, centering around Yuri’s struggle to find the right music for his program; he reached out to one of his confidants abroad, and came out with a reworked piece of music, with the theme being “on my love,” which Viktor quips as being “the best theme.” Little, subtle details such as that help blend both sides together, tying in the close intimacy factor with the progression of the main narrative.
So, we have queer characters in a queer-centric anime sharing an intimate bond – haven’t we seen this in other shows? Well, yes, but only to a certain extent. Shows like Junjo Romantica, Sekai-ichi Hatsukoi, and even the more recent Love Stage!, all showcase gay male characters in an intimate relationship, but in those cases, the presentation and characterization were far more romanticized and, in a way, fetishized for its audiences – which, in these cases, are mostly women. Whether you call it “yaoi,” “shounen-ai,” or “boys’ love,” the target audiences are women, and Yuri!!! on ICE is certainly guilty of the same trapping, but what sets this show apart from the above examples is that its queer subtextual overtones never feel overtly sexualized or fetishized. This show goes beyond those stigmas and, in turn, presents its queer overtones in a more humanized fashion. One case is in episode 4, where Viktor is posing with Yuri in the hot springs – naked, of course – and many other men inside are looking on, not with a look of shock but with a look of awe. One such said to himself, “Thank you, God,” after seeing the momentary peep show. Another case is in episode 5, with the introduction of Minami, a fellow figure skater and one of Yuri’s professional rivals, sharing some – in a manner of speaking – lovey-dovey glances toward Yuri, as well as some surprised awe upon seeing him and Viktor share some contact. Again, presented as normal human behavior, and nothing more – how it SHOULD be.
Granted, some of the more standard-fare tropes pop in, every now and then, but as a whole, the presentation is very mature and humanized, especially in the most recent (fifth) episode, and it doesn’t jump the gun with its intimacy factor. And the strongest moment of said factor, so far? Let’s go back to the closing moments of episode 5, and Yuri’s closing speech:
“But since Viktor showed up to be my coach, I’ve seen something totally different. My “love” is not something clear-cut like romantic love, but the more abstract feeling of my relationships, with Viktor, family, and hometown… I was finally able to realize that something like love exists all around me. Viktor is the first person I’ve ever wanted to hold on to. I don’t really have a name for that emotion, but I have decided to call it “love.””
Those closing moments, and the end of episode 5, go beyond the notion of “sappy gay feels,” and bring in a deeper level of emotional investment between the characters and their continuing arc. It makes the viewer want to see Yuri thrive in competition, want to see Viktor lead him to victory, and want to see them both form a closer bond with one another, one that’s more intimate and emotional. And with the way everything has been building, so far, the creative staff at MAPPA, the writing staff, and director Sayo Yamamoto are doing a damn fine job of building everything up to a glorious climax. Yes, I want there to be a “Big Damn Kiss” moment between Yuri and Viktor, but I want there to be a strong build and an even stronger payoff to it, because the stronger everything gets, the more impactful that moment will be. We’re only 5 episodes into this show, so anything can certainly happen in the second half, but with the way things are going, Yuri!!! on ICE might just be the one show to finally pull that trigger all the way and break away from the stigma of sports anime just being queer-bait with a dissatisfying outcome. If any show can go full-queer, it’s certainly this one. Please don’t let me down, Sayo Yamamoto.
This branched-out discussion was inspired, in part, by a recent piece from Jacob Chapman from Anime News Network, which you can find here and I do recommend reading (barring the usual ANN-level slips and miscues in the piece). I hope you all enjoyed this shift away from the usual recap, and that you all take a few things from this discussion and branch it out to others to keep the discussion going. For those looking for a more extensive recap, sorry that it took a back seat to this larger talking point, but don’t fret – next time, we’ll be back to the usual routine for the recap. So until then, have a gay ol’ time, folks.
P.S. – how in the hell did KEIJO!!!!!!!!, of all shows, have a gay kiss before anything else? That just blows my mind.
Yuri!!! On ICE is available on Crunchyroll as a weekly simulcast, every Wednesday at 3:00pm EST, and on FunimationNow as an English simulcast dub, every Monday at 10:00pm EST.