It was never supposed to be this big of a success. A skating-themed sports anime centered around two queer male characters? That would only be for the deepest niche audience and nothing more. Maybe a couple people talk about it online, and it pulls respectable sales numbers in Japan. Like every show, it would come and go, maybe build a small little fanbase for itself, and life would carry on normally. But that’s not what happened. It broke through and found a wide audience. Somehow, someway, Yuri!!! on ICE became, what I believe to be, the breakout show of the entire season, building an audience far larger than anyone could have imagined and, in turn, delivering a show that’s equal parts charming, funny, romantic, and thrilling. I’ve been building up my thoughts on this show ever since episode 1, and now, I’m going to let it all out.
This is my final verdict on, and my final review of, Yuri!!! on ICE.
DISCLAIMER: Yes, there will be spoilers.
Yuri Katsuki isn’t what you would call a star figure skater. He’s had a rough year, coming in last at the sport’s biggest stage, the Grand Prix Final of Skating, after a breakdown of a performance. He found himself crying in a bathroom, developing more anxiety, and considered himself a failure. Although his home country of Japan considers him a superstar, Yuri doesn’t feel that way; he let himself down, and upon returning home from graduating college abroad, he found out that his childhood crush not only married one of his bullies, but also had three kids with him. And his childhood dog died, as well. Things just aren’t going his way, at all; if only his life were that of Viktor Nikiforov, the Russian living legend of skating, and Yuri’s personal idol. However, through some happenstance from a video of Yuri skating Viktor’s gold-medal-winning program spreading across the internet, Viktor manages to see this and takes it upon himself to go to Japan and find this young man. Which he does, at his family’s hot spring. Naked, of course. Proclaiming to Yuri that he will be his coach for the year, the two work together to build to the next Grand Prix Final event, but a much larger goal begins to surface between the two, toward each other. But another fellow Yuri, Yuri Plisetski, the young upstart prodigy of Russia at only 15 years of age, is aiming to take top honors at the world’s biggest stage; he’ll stop at nothing to reach the top, and if it means taking both Yuri and Viktor out of the picture? Then so be it. It’s high stakes, high drama, and all for a high reward.
If it needed to be said off the bat, Yuri!!! On ICE is not your typical sports anime. As a matter of fact, it is a very atypical anime. Usually, with sports anime, the main focus centers around team-centric sports; swimming, basketball, rugby, cycling, you name it. Very rarely does a sports anime take a focus on a more singular sport, such as skating, in this case, but for what it’s worth, it tells a fairly gripping and compelling story out of it. But let’s be honest, that’s only one reason why this show has formed such a large fanbase. The other… well, I’ll address that all in a moment. I won’t go too deep into the plot, or give a start-to-finish summation of the plotlines, since I have a set of episode recaps you can all read instead, but I’ll say that the plot is a true sports anime plot, from the get-go: underdog performer teams up with his idol and a legend to work toward the new season and come out on top. You have your usual sports anime plotlines and tropes, and the usual fujoshi appeal that most modern sports anime have, in order to make some bank from their deep pockets. Within the show, some bumps in the road occur, but the underdog and the legend power out of it, and sometimes falling on each other in the process. Or rather, for each other. Again, more in a moment.
Despite how simplistic Yuri’s goals are, he’s actually a very dynamic character, when you look beneath the surface and analyze him. He’s imperfect in many capacities, be it with his personal or professional life; he overthinks, he goes through bouts of anxiety, and he’s never completely sure of his own capabilities. All of this, in turn, makes him more of a relatable character, in the process, because these are issues that many viewers can relate to, be it anxiety or pressure or even regular shyness. He’s not a perfect protagonist, and that is what I love about him the most. The first of Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling lays out a very simple outline for any character in fiction:
“You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.”
What this means, in simplified terms, is that if your character always wins and is lauded as being a perfect hero, the audience won’t feel overly invested in whatever that character does. However, if a character works and claws and fights toward their end goal, that gives the audience more of a reason to feel invested. Sure, a perfect character is fine for a power fantasy scenario, but a character who never wins and always has to work for it brings in more of a reason to care about that person’s growth and development.
Pixar’s first rule fits Yuri, perfectly, in that regard, because throughout the entirety of the show, he never comes out on top. He fights and claws and works to better himself on the ice, but he never finishes first. He’ll finish second or third, but never first, and it’s because of that that it gives the audience more of a reason to feel invested in his growth. We, the audience, want him to succeed; we want him to grow, we want him to win, and we want him to mature into the star performer we know, and he knows, and Viktor knows, he can be. Despite those shortcomings, though, he does grow and progress as a character; he develops more confidence in himself, he’s able to overcome challenges and push onward, and the shyness and nervousness he shows around Viktor goes away, over time. And even in the last episode, where Yuri gets so close to winning, only to lose it out to a fraction of a margin, this is a bit of a double-edged sword; he doesn’t achieve his end goal, but this also keeps his character arc alive and well, as well as his connection to Viktor, in all regards.
And speaking of Viktor, even though he’s lauded as this god among men who can do no wrong, he tends to have his moments of doubt and unsureness. Yeah, he’s a young figure skating legend, and on the surface, he’s a stunning beauty who could do absolutely nothing wrong, but him venturing into a coaching role with Yuri brings forth some challenges and doubt along the way; is he teaching him the right things? Is he pushing him too hard? Is he doing the best he can as a coach? It’s this interesting professional dynamic that builds throughout the series, and it keeps viewers hanging on for what comes next. His drawing power is more than just fanservice and sex appeal, of course, because he offers a role of someone who’s venturing into new territory while also learning more about what he wants in life, thanks to Yuri.
And then there’s “Yurio,” the thorn in the collective paw of this show. He’s brash, he’s arrogant, he skates without much thought, and, ultimately, this is what brings him the most success. He’s a product of some of the best training regimen there is to offer for a figure skater, and it shows, but MAN, does he have a serious attitude to him. Granted, there are some moments that show a warmer side to him, such as the relationship he has with his grandfather, but other than that, I’ll be frank and just say he’s a total jackass, through and through. But I’ll be damned if I didn’t say he’s an excellent skater, and that his prowess took him all the way to the top. Still, total jackass. So why wasn’t there as much of a focus on this Yuri, as opposed to the main Yuri of the show? Well, that’s all a matter of personal opinion, but if you ask me, it’s that Yuri K. is a much more interesting character to follow than Yuri P., who is presented as perfect and a technical prodigy, as opposed to Yuri K., who claws and crawls his way through his progress overall. Dynamic growth is a better draw than technical perfection; it’s why Vegeta is considered a more dynamic character than Goku, because Vegeta grows as a person throughout his character arc, whereas with Goku, he’s already grown and is just there to kick ass and take names. Same logic applies here: Yurio does his job, but Yuri has more character growth.
But I suppose I can’t quite talk about this show’s characters, as well as Yuri and Viktor without mentioning… well, Yuri and Viktor.
Let’s just throw all pretense out of the way: Yuri and Viktor are a queer couple. On top of that, they’re an interracial queer couple. They may not be completely gay, but they’re not completely straight, either. With Yuri, his feelings developed from a simple idol crush to a deep intimacy and love, and with Viktor, his feelings developed from finding this young Japanese boy charming to never wanting to be apart from him, no matter what. It’s a strong romance between the two, and it goes beyond the notion of what a homosexual couple in an anime is usually seen as. A recurring theme in this series is that of “love,” and for Yuri and Viktor, it’s more than just a program theme; what they share toward one another does grow deeper, as the series progresses, and it grows to heights that its contemporaries have never attempted to encounter before. And for what it’s worth, can I say how nice it is to have a set of main characters who are in their 20s? None of that teenage high school nonsense here.
Of course, what is a show without its side characters? Among the crew showing up in brief moments, you have the flamboyant but very attractive Christophe, the young and bright and perky Phichit, the mysterious and rather reserved Otabek, and then… there’s JJ. Do I need to say more about him? He’s an egotistical pretty boy from the great white north, Canada, and seeing him swallow a bitter pill of defeat was more than enough to make the finale great – but you’ve already seen my glee over that. The main thing that defines this show’s supporting cast the most is its truly international flavor. You have people from all different countries, from Japan to Russia, Italy to Switzerland, Thailand to Korea, there’s even some representation from the Czech Republic, China, and even AMERICA in this show. It’s a nice little touch, and a step above other sports anime, since most shows usually keep their side characters and adversaries within Japan’s boundaries. One common complaint I’ve seen is that we barely know anything about these characters, but here’s where I’ll chime in with a counterargument: some of these characters are only here for one or two episodes. Do we really need to know every little detail about them, in the short time we have with these people? More would be nice, but it’s not overly needed in the long run. We’re given enough to make out the kinds of characters they are, and it works to its benefit, rather than against it to its detriment.
Time to get into some production details, about this show. Helmed by series creator Mitsurou Kubo, partnered with chief director Sayo Yamamoto, and with animation studio MAPPA working on the production, Yuri!!! on ICE is a very ambitious project, from start to finish. The main focus of the animation centers around the beautifully choreographed skating routines, which were handled by retired figure skater Kenji Miyamoto, and the artistry and passion that is put into these sequences is on full display within the episodes. Granted, some of the passion becomes a bit too ambitious for a television anime, with as many as SIX routines having to be animated in just one 24-minute episode, and all on a television anime budget. Some corners are cut and quite a bit of shots are recycled, mostly with the longer shots; there are some fantastic close-up shots, though, especially in the early episodes, and the amount of detail that they put into some of these shots is absolutely breathtaking.
So how did this series come about, to begin with? Well, citing an interview with Kubo from the magazine PASH! PLUS, the series was greenlit in the winter of 2014, as a passion project of director Yamamoto, and spent a long time in development with both Kubo and Yamamoto putting in a lot of time and work and research into making this series a reality. The research and work do show within the show, offering an authentic representation of how professional skating competition works, while also laying out some exposition and detail as to, you know, how the competition actually works with point scales and such. This was an ambitious project nearly 3 years in the making, and it’s not quite as perfect as you’d want such a project to be, but you really can’t fault Sayo Yamamoto for being ambitious about her work, especially when you look at her past storyboard and directorial resume (Michiko & Hatchin, The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, Space Dandy). It only being 12 episodes does mean that you’re getting the slimmed version of a series that does, from point A to point B, span around 8 months of time, so the pacing is a bit muddy in spots. The primary focus is centered around the competitions, seeing how this is still a sports anime, but the focus is broken up here and there with some moments to breathe and relax, throughout, with the 10th episode being a fine example. There could be more character interaction to see through sure, but on the other side of that sword, if this were, say, 24 episodes, that could possibly mean that the skating competitions would get dragged out for multiple episodes. So you take the good with the bad, with that. As far as what is present, though, there’s also a surprising amount of humor to be found, be it through a shift in tone, or a facial expression, or even an awkward bit of dialogue; there are some really, honestly funny moments to be found, and they’re very much welcomed to counteract the more serious moments that this show has. Many of Viktor’s gleeful facial expressions run with this motion and work perfectly to ease tension, especially in the last part of the final episode. Any show that gives a character a heart-shaped open mouth smile is alright by me.
One part of the series that I don’t really see being talked about a whole lot is the music of the show, and it boggles me as to why that is. Yuri!!! On ICE has an amazing soundtrack, running through many kinds of musical genres and styles to accompany the characters’ skate routines. You have orchestral and operatic music, you have big band swing, you have pop and hip-hop, you even have some boy band-style music and piano concertos in the album. It’s a great blend of vastly different genres, and each track shows off each individual skater’s own style and attitude, and I definitely recommend you all check it out – cheap plug, it’s streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, and can be bought outright on iTunes.
Something to note about this show that is actually a really cool little detail is how it manages to present itself as “current,” without feeling overly dated, by using elements of social online networks within its story, and especially in its ending credit sequence. Social networks such as Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube play a pretty substantial role in parts of the series – that’s how Viktor saw Yuri skating his routine, it was shared online over and over again and he saw it on his phone – and the ending sequence shows a slideshow of Instagram posts from our characters. It also helps that there’s an official Instagram account for the series, as a means of promotion, with posts that have nearly impeccable timing with their corresponding episodes. And as a final note, before moving on, has anyone else noticed that there are barely any flip phones in this show, despite how common flip phones still are in Japan? All you see are smartphones, mostly of the Apple variety – another point for being current without being dated.
But let’s get this elephant out of the room, right now, and address one of the unfortunate grievances some folks might have about this show, and it all boils down to three words: “eww the gay.” And you know what? Yeah, this show is very homoerotic, it deals with queer characters, it even has some moments of flamboyancy, and the inner core of the series revolves around a gay romance between Yuri and Viktor. It’s a series that isn’t afraid to dance around its homoerotic overtones, despite the political slant of the nation where this series is produced in, let alone the nationality of said characters – remember, both Japan and Russia aren’t too keen on the queer love, Russia even less so. And to some, it won’t be a point of connection, and it could easily be shrugged off by going, “Okay, they’re gay, what’s the big deal?”
I’ll tell you what the big deal is.
For years, gay men in anime have generally been cast as either the stereotypical gay man (flamboyant, effeminate, a total priss) or shown in the more usual seme/uke dynamic light, wherein one is the dominant of the relationship and the other is the more submissive. This show, right here? In more subtle ways, it tells everyone “Yeah, that seme/uke BS is BS,” due in part to Yuri and Viktor’s relationship having one thing that most anime, gay or straight, tend to forget: the human element. Their relationship is not the kind you’d see in Junjo Romantica or Sekaiichi Hatsukoi, but instead, their relationship is very much akin to what a real queer relationship would be like. And trust me, I would know a thing or two about that. Both men give and take, both men push and pull, and both men find equal trust in each other; granted, for Yuri, it took a little bit longer for him to come out of his shell, but when he did, you could barely pull him away from Viktor for even a second. But more than that, their relationship doesn’t wholly follow the usual traits that such a thing would expect to follow; there is no real seme/uke dynamic to them, both men give and take equally, both men go through their own struggles with one another, their own spats, and they both work to come over those spats and arguments.
I don’t want to immediately call it “progressive,” since that’s become such a cliché term in our lexicon, but as far as “mainstream” anime goes, the development of Yuri and Viktor as a gay couple certainly is a fairly progressive move to make. But watching the series, you might notice that they’re a bit subdued toward each other, for some reason. Why is that? It has a lot to do with Japan’s stance on homosexuality; remember, Japan is a fairly repressed nation with highly conservative political ideologies, when it comes to open displays of affection or sexuality. For gay men and women, though, it’s even stricter a limitation within the country, since marriage is out of the question within their borders, but some small steps forward have been taken; there is nothing prohibiting gay Japanese citizens from marrying their partners overseas, as it would be considered a legal binding union, and the Tokyo districts of Shibuya and Setagaya allow same-sex unions to be registered and overseen, while the Hokkaido district of Sapporo has recently announced that they will recognize same-sex partnerships as marriages, with a legal outline to be finalized by March 2018. Again, small steps. But as it pertains to anime, one thing people should understand is that, for series that aren’t “explicitly” shounen-ai, you have to tread very carefully, in order to not set off Japan’s firmly strict censorship board.
“People in the real world can think of [Yuri on Ice] as they will, but in [Yuri on Ice]’s world, there’s no such thing as discrimination for loving something. I will most certainly defend this world, and this world alone.”
This is an interesting comment to make, as it does prove that, yes, this show does exist in an idealized world. Unfortunately, with that, you get a small backlash by a small sector of people who aren’t too keen on the world being idealized and there being no societal issues being talked about. Don’t get me wrong, I do agree that the continued fight for equality by LGBT groups and citizens, worldwide, is a very important subject – I live in North Carolina, so I’ve had a front row seat for the past few months – but if you ask me what I’d want to see, a series about constant struggle or a series about two gay men in love, I’d go for the happy gay dudes being happy gay dudes over being beaten down and called a faggot at every turn. Of course, there are some who don’t see the notion of homosexuality in a non-shounen ai series as a big deal to make, so allow me to give one more reason why it certainly is a big deal, at least to me.
This is my coming-out story.
Back in the fall of 2011, I had just begun my senior year of high school, and it was around this time where I started to develop an attraction toward the male gender, be it through various means. I’ll just say, some repression started to surface and grow into normality for me. I kept all of this to myself for a few months, until one day at school, where we were doing an exercise in class; I forget what the details were, but it had to do with what we wanted to get away from. I spoke up and mentioned how I switched schools because, for one reason, I was always called a “faggot” by people around me. This lead one girl, who I was not on good terms with, to get up to my face and repeatedly call me “faggot.” I couldn’t do anything, so I stormed off and locked myself in a bathroom, and I broke down crying. A few minutes passed, and a teacher and police guard were trying to get me out; I saw that girl and I just started screaming at her before running outside. I was a complete wreck and I was crying for nearly two hours, that day. I started to wonder to myself if that was what I was going to be labeled as, forever onward, but it was also in that moment where I realized what all my mental strife meant: I wasn’t completely gay, but I wasn’t completely straight, either. And at 18 years old, I came out as bisexual.
As far as the general public goes, I’m still very much closeted; my sexuality isn’t quite on public record. At times, it can be tough to try and deal with these kinds of feelings in your mind; am I letting people down? Will people think any different of me because of it? How will my friends react? More than anything, though, it takes a little bit of time to come to terms and feel comfortable with who you are. 5 years have passed, I’m now 23 years young, and I’m proud to be a queer man. I’m glad to have friends and family who don’t think any less of me because of it. I’m glad to know I’m a part of a community who will never cease fighting for full equality. And I’m very much glad, 3 years strong with many more to come, to have at my side a wonderful boyfriend who’s practically my husband, only minus the rings. That’ll change in a couple of years, though.
But bringing this back to the show at hand, I’m glad that a show such as Yuri!!! On ICE treats queer men, and Yuri and Viktor’s relationship, with respect, normality, and sincerity. Which is very hard to come across in anime, unfortunately. The usual argument of “ohh, it’s just queerbaiting” falls a bit flat, as well, because unlike other sports anime that follow this unfortunate trend, we have characters in this show who are queer men. This show does seemingly everything it can get away with to let it be known that Yuri and Viktor are, in fact, an item. And their sexuality never becomes a point of concern within the story; when a photo of a drunken Viktor trying to kiss Yuri was spread on Instagram, Yuri didn’t think, “Oh no, now they’re going to think I’m gay!”, he instead thought, “Oh no, now they’re going to think we were fooling around before the event…” They hug, they kiss, they gaze into each other’s eyes, they sleep in the same bed, they push their beds together to sleep in, they always tell each other about their “love,” they gave each other gold rings and are publicly engaged, and this is not viewed to be something “wrong.” They’re open toward each other, but they’re stuck within the real-life limitations of Japanese political ideology. Just because they are not “explicit” about their feelings does not mean that their feelings are nullified, in any way. They don’t have to have public sex on the ice for their feelings to be validated, and that’s what this show does a lot better than its contemporaries: it keeps its overtones subtle enough to where it’s not overly obvious, but also makes it obvious enough while also retaining its subtlety. It exists in a world where discrimination of sexual preference does not exist, and it treats its characters simply as characters, letting their actions define who they are, and not their sexuality. “But Alex,” you might retort, “they never said ‘I love you’ to each other.” And? Inuyasha and Kagome never actually said those three words to each other, but they’re still a couple in love. It goes back to my previous statement: it doesn’t have to be “explicit” for it to be validated.
While portrayed as a sports anime, with intense competitions that will leave viewers wondering just how everything will play out for Yuri and his competitors, it’s also telling a bigger story about two queer men who, having grown so close to one another, develop a strong and unbreakable intimacy and love. It is, in a way, Kubo and Yamamoto’s Trojan horse of a series: a tale of two men who fall in love, within the boundaries of a sports anime.
And that’s why this show is a big deal to me. I can’t put it in any other way than that.
As I said at the start, and as I’ll argue consistently, this show was never poised to be anything more than a small niche title for a small niche audience. But the way it was handled, from the direction to the skating choreography to the dynamic characters, it clicked with a lot of people and it practically exploded into an overnight phenomenon across the world. When you have professional figure skaters such as Evgenia “Janny” Medvedeva, Denis Ten, and arguably the most famous figure skater alive, Johnny Weir, talking about it and becoming huge fans of the series, that’s a kind of mainstream appeal people could only dream about an anime having. Moreso, its online chatter and activity got to be so large that on the day of the final episode, both Crunchyroll and Tumblr – yes, that Tumblr – crashed for a small period of time, with this show being the reason for the overloads. The soundtrack album I mentioned, it actually charted on iTunes’ overall sales chart within its first few days, breaking the top 25 highest-selling albums at that moment. It’s achieved all of these accolades and appeal, but to me, speaking as both a critic and a fan of this series, its best accomplishment is that it made me, as a person, feel a sense of pride over my queerness.
I hate it when shows bait people in only to leave things inconclusive, and I hate it even more when shows play the seme/uke cards so obviously, but this show did things a little bit differently. It offered a viewpoint that showed some vast realism of what a queer relationship really entails, and it did so in a manner that was both respectable and romantic. I’d like to believe that Kubo and Yamamoto both knew there would be an audience for this show made up of queer men, so they decided to throw us a bone and say, “You’re not just a fantasy for fangirls. You’re real, and your feelings are real. This is for you.” And it’s because of that, I grew to adore this series more than any other show in a long time; yeah, I know there are people who will say that the best show of the fall season is Flip Flappers, or Haikyu!! (season 3), or even KEIJO!!!!!!!!, for some odd reason, but to me, the show that I consider to be the best of the season, solely for the emotional impact it left on me, is, without a doubt in my mind, Yuri!!! on ICE. And I do hope that I’ve explained myself quite adequately as to why that is.
These 12 episodes have been amazing, and it left me wanting more, craving more, and needing more. So imagine my joy when, informally, they ended things on a message of a second series, coming soon (most likely next fall). Personally, I’m alright with them doing another set of episodes; they’ve built this show up to where it has a worldwide following, its projected disc sales in Japan are going to be huge, and they could take it in just about any direction and it’ll still be a hit. It does open up a large set of possibilities for what could come, but as long as Mitsurou Kubo and Sayo Yamamoto are still spearheading this project, I have faith that they will deliver in a very strong way.
Bottom line, this show is fantastic, from start to finish. It subverts a ton of tropes, it delivers fantastic characters and animation choreography, and it presents a very strong story with an even stronger romance between the two leads in Yuri and Viktor. In all, it has something for just about everyone: fans of sports anime, fans of excellent and ambitious animation, fans of strong character-driver narratives, and most importantly, fans of romance in anime that feels real. May it continue to go strong in its second series (and for the love of god, give these boys a wedding, they deserve it so badly).
Final Verdict: Buy it on day one. DAY. ONE. And in the meantime, watch it online if you haven’t already. Yuri!!! On ICE is available for streaming on Crunchyroll, subtitled, and on FunimationNow, dubbed in English.