Yuri on Ice, Directed by Sayo Yamamoto and created by Mitsurou Kubo, is the latest project from Studio MAPPA, who’s previous projects include Cowboy Bebop director Shinichiro Watanabe’s Kids on the Slope, the beautiful Rage of Bahamut: Genesis, and the very bizarre Punchline. Yuri on Ice has also the been the subject of much debate over the implied relationship between the two main characters, with some heralding the show as a masterpiece for that element in it of itself. But can this thoughtful experiment in characterization stand on its own, or does it fall flat as a paradigm of pandering?
Yuri on Ice begins where many a show in the sports genre end, with the big tournament having been completed. Our protagonist, Yuri Katsuki, has suffered a rather embarrassing defeat. He is even told to retire by young Russian skater (and absolute punk) Yuri Plisetsky. Time passes, he ends things with his coach, puts on some weight and returns back home to his small town, where his family owns a hot spring/inn. He’s feeling pretty low in spirit, but on the night that his idol, the Russian figure skater Victor Nikiforov, is performing his final performance of the season, Yuri runs over to the local ice skating rink and convinces his childhood friend Yuuko, who works there, to let him skate for a while. He shows her a performance that is an exact copy of Victor’s own performance. The scene is captivating and beautifully animated. Yuri affirms that he was tired of being depressed and wanted to make a change.
Unbeknownst to them, Yuuko’s young daughters upload a video of Yuri’s performance and it goes viral. Victor sees the video and, inspired by the performance, decides to leave Russia and head to Japan to coach Yuri and help him win the gold medal. Meanwhile, Yuri Plisetsky, angry with Victor, swears he will win the Grand Prix. What follows is a journey from the bottom of the food chain to a battle between masters of the craft as Yuri slowly discovers himself and becomes a skater worthy of the same spotlight as his peers, all the while becoming closer and closer to his idol and coach.
The biggest theme in Yuri on Ice is self-discovery. For me, Katsuki at the beginning of the series versus him at the end of the series is like looking at myself in middle school versus myself now. I was self-conscious about my appearance and lacked confidence, whereas now I’m overly self-confident and feel much more comfortable as the chubby gay guy of my group. Similarly, Katsuki undergoes a brief but inspiring transformation physically, and a more drawn out transformation mentally. He displays stone-faced fearlessness and even explores his feminine side, channeling it into his performance to maximize his sex appeal. In a way, Yuri “comes out of the closet” and embraces who he is. He himself explicitly makes it known that the driving theme of his performances in the battle for the gold is love. There is an attention to that symbolism that lies in every episode of Yuri on Ice and it is phenomenal
Victor is essential in Yuri’s development because when the pressure hits him and he can’t focus on what is important, Victor helps him regain his focus, but they also help each other grow so they don’t need that dependence. Now, while Yuri and Victor are developed wonderfully but Yuri Plisetsky (nicknamed Yurio) isn’t given nearly enough time. Instead, we get a lot of time spent on the supporting cast, who aren’t nearly as compelling. They didn’t strike a cord with me as much as I would have liked. I suppose they could develop them in future seasons, but they aren’t completely necessary. We are given glimpses at what drives a character like Plisetsky but I’d like to learn so much more about him. For as great as the time we get with Victor and Yuri is, I’d expect just as much from Yurio.
As for the romance, I’ll say this. I understand it is a debated topic as to the exact nature of homosexuality in the show. I REFUSE to speak on behalf of all gay people in regards to this show’s representation, but in my own opinion, the relationship portrayed between Katsuki and Victor was very well done and if anything, it was the best part of the show. It was well written, believable and realistic. Even without explicit kissing or confessions of love, the metaphors alluding to coming to terms with one’s sexuality are sufficient, and the imagery only gets harder to refute as the show goes on.
I mentioned how the supporting characters were lacking and I believe the animation is somewhat to blame for them not having much of a lasting impression. The first three episodes showcase some truly magnificent animation and the opening is a love letter to rotoscope animation, as with most of the performances, but the middle of the series takes a huge dip in quality that I don’t think it made up for by the end. A lot of the dance numbers look downright ugly, and the music that plays during some of the dance routines is pretty bad, especially when the singers of those tracks try speaking English. Other than that, the soundtrack is mostly great. The use of “On Love: Agape”, “On Love: Eros”, the titular track “Yuri on Ice”, and “Stay by Me” are especially beautiful. Aside from lackluster rotoscope animation in the middle of the series, the character designs are delightful, and its hard to find a screenshot of the environments and characters that aren’t pretty, sans during some dance scenes.
Ultimately, Yuri on Ice is not a masterpiece. It suffers from an occasionally underwhelming supporting cast and a dip in animation quality in the middle of the season, but what it suffers in those elements it makes up for in originality, solid writing, and a great story. I am no connoisseur of romance stories, but to see a love story between men portrayed in such a fun, happy, and real way is just icing on the cake. Yuri on Ice may not have been the best anime this year, but it certainly was one of the best this season. And to top it off, it may very well be the best fictional same-sex romance I’ve witnessed in a while. I hope to see much more in the future.