The sports anime, which has a great following among pros and anime fans alike, is breaking new ground in LGBT representation in mainstream Japanese media.
As a frequent watcher of sports anime, I originally had low expectations for Yuri!!! On Ice (YOI) for the season of Fall 2016. It had to compete with the third season of popular volleyball anime Haikyuu!!, as well as other pretty-boy anime such as Touken Ranbu – Hanamaru and the fourth season of Uta no Prince-sama during the Fall 2016 season, and so few people expected it to do well.
– Yuuri Katsuki, Episode 6, Yuri!!! On Ice (2016).
My expectations were blown apart by the anime chronicling the rise of protagonist Yuuri Katsuki (Japanese: 勝生 勇利, Katsuki Yūri), a 23-year-old male figure skater born in the fictional Kyushu town of Hasetsu, Saga prefecture in Japan.
Yuuri has always idolised famous Russian figure skater champion Viktor Nikiforov, and dreams of being able to skate on the same ice as him one day. However, when he finally gets his chance to do so, he messes up his routine, coming in dead last at his first Grand Prix Final. To add insult to injury, similarly-named Russian junior champion Yuri Plisetsky tells him to retire. Yuuri then returns to his hometown, unsure whether or not he really wants to quit figure skating altogether. When he perfectly imitates Viktor’s latest routine, a video of it is uploaded to the Internet and it goes viral, catching Viktor’s attention. Viktor then shows up at Yuri’s family hot spring, declaring that he will now be Yuuri’s coach for the upcoming Grand Prix Final.
Between the evolution of Yuuri under Viktor’s tutelage, and the blossoming romance, is a rare meeting point between two disparate audiences: anime fandom and professional athletes. World-class skaters love its accurate yet affectionate depiction of the sport. For example, Russian women’s figure-skating world champion and self-professed anime otaku Evgenia Medvedeva is very public about being a fan of the series according to her Twitter posts, and has cosplayed as Yuuri. Social media trends fairly well with YOI, much like the first 3 seasons of BBC drama Sherlock.
“You don’t have to say anything. Just stay close to me!”
– Yuuri Katsuki, Episode 7, Yuri!!! On Ice Funanimation dub (2016)
Of course, we cannot ignore as well, the incredible representation of characters from a wide array of countries (such as Thailand and Kazakhstan!). YOI strikes a wonderful balance between illustrating the minutiae of competitive figure skating and staying accessible to newbies. There are even cute little explanatory segments about things like the scoring system, with equal attention paid to figure skating culture – and, as of Episode 10, pole-dancing of all things. Homages are paid to real-life figure skaters such as LGBT figure Johnny Weir. Real competitive skaters like Stéphane Lambiel and Nobunari Oda even get camoes in the anime!
I watched it first for the fan-service, ignorant of how my life would change with Yuuri – on ice. The art and animation are excellent – the technical mastery to animate so many figure skating routines takes incredible dedication on the part of Studio MAPPA.
Let’s also take a look at this screencap from Episode 3:
Can you blame me?
“Can I post this online?”
“Don’t. Restrain yourself.”
– PRC representative Ji Guang-Hong and USA representative Leo de la Iglesia, Episode 6, Yuri!!! On Ice (2016)
The attention to detail paid by director Sayo Yamamoto and head writer Mitsurō Kubo extends to music choices, costume design, even the competition arenas depicted.
The audience generally loves the addictive emotional roller-coaster of its rom-com storyline as well, since it is arguably the first mainstream popular anime to have an inter-racial same-sex romance between a Japanese man and a Russian man. Yuri!!! On Ice is genuinely good, both in terms of quality, and in the sense of being a labour of love on the part of the staff. With incredibly satisfying character development, an underdog sports narrative that echoes to adults and children alike, and a relatable romance that calls to everyone regardless of gender, YOI is one of the most engaging and positive romance shows of 2016—and a true gift to figure skating fans, who cheered when the bells of the Barcelona Cathedral tolled for the joining of two men in Episode 10:
As of 7 December 2016, 2.35 AM Japan time, Yuuri is now engaged to his coach and childhood idol, five-time Grand Prix Final winner and Russian heart-throb Viktor Nikiforov. Their meeting, first kiss, emotional developments, and engagement over the span of 10 episodes has become even more solid and received more character development than actual romances such as Akagami no Shirayuki Hime, Clannad and Anohana.
Does it show that I’m really invested in it? I’m really invested in it. This is the first time a sincere and uncomplicated romance between two men is being depicted in mainstream anime. The level of popularity was so unprecedented, that its finale airing managed to crash popular social media platforms and streaming sites Tumblr, Gogoanime and Crunchyroll a few hours after airing. Also, the fact that it has two main characters in a loving romance that has ups and downs even without any troubles of homophobia, and still retains such popularity, is a positive strike for love in the annals of entertainment history.
All screencaps taken from Yuri!!! On Ice (2016) in 720p. Credits to Studio MAPPA and the Yuri!!! On Ice production team.