Figure Skating and Romance: Yuri on Ice

Licensed by Crunchyroll and produced by studio MAPPA, Yuri on Ice is a twelve episode sports anime about the world of figure skating. It first came out in 2016 to a receive a widely positive reaction from anime fans. After spending over a year with it on my “to watch” list, I finally got on Crunchyroll and started watching. 

Yuri on Ice follows the life of figure skater, Yuuri Katsuki, a shy 23-year-old from Japan, who’s just experienced a major loss at a competition. After falling into a funk at this blow to his career, Yuuri is uncertain about where to go from there. That is, until his idol and figure skating legend from Russia, Victor Nikiforov, unexpectedly shows up at his family’s hot spring, declaring himself Yuuri’s coach. The two spend the rest of the series discovering unexpected things about themselves and each other as their relationship grows. 

Yuri on Ice is a great character-driven that draws you into the ups and downs of Yuuri’s journey as a figure skater and person. One thing that struck a chord with me, was the show’s honest and poignant portrayal of anxiety. In the first episode, Yuuri apologises to his mother for losing over the phone in a bathroom stall, uncontrollable tears pouring down his face. It’s a raw moment that sets the foundation for Yuuri’s character arc. 

He revisits that scene numerous times during flashbacks. Yuuri tends to dwell on any setbacks and withdraw from others, refusing to let them help.

With the help and support from Victor, Yuuri stops holding everything inside, and begins to grow as a figure skater and a person. One of the defining moments of their relationship shows the two of them opening up about their desires and the future of their relationship. Victor treats Yuuri with respect and dignity, and never like the burden he feels. It allows Yuuri to open up more because he no longer feels so alone in his struggles. 

It’s that kind of heartfelt frankness that makes Yuri on Ice unique and compelling. Yuuri’s anxiety never completely goes away. He’s never “cured.” Yuuri backslides into old ways of thinking, unintentionally hurting those closest to him along the way. But he learns to cope with it through his support system. It’s such a refreshingly realistic take on what it’s like to live with anxiety.

When it first it aired, the show received a lot of praise for its LGBT+ representation, and with good reason. Director Saya Yamamoto (Michiko to Hatchin and Lupin III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine) fought for the relationship between Yuuri and Victor to be depicted as a blatantly romantic one. 

After working through difficulties in their relationship, episode 7 had Victor run up to Yuuri post-performance to kiss him on the lips. Victor’s shiny lips and adoring expression, make it clear what’s happening, even if the kiss itself is obscured by his arms. 

In the official Yuri on Ice visual fanbook, GO YURI GO, Yamamoto admitted that she faced censorship with this scene. So, even if the animators had to obscure it somewhat, it’s still clear what’s happening. 

Romantic aspects such as a marriage proposal in episode 10 are downplayed at least a little due to Yuuri being oblivious to the fact he was even proposing in the first place! But the subtlety and slyness which the romance is sometimes handled, doesn’t mitigate the overall impact of this deep and beautifully developed relationship. 

Yuri on Ice actively pushes the boundaries in terms of representation in media and figure skating. In episode 7, a younger Victor deliberately dons the same look as openly gay American figure skater, Johnny Weir. He had this to say about the series in an interview with Geekiary:

“I think all positive imagery of LGBT themes in sport are good. Unfortunately, the majority of people that rule the skating world are conservative and more business minded. I think many of them, while they may love and appreciate the art and the sport, are more interested in the business side of things or power trips. I don’t know if Yuri on Ice will be able to change the perception of gay athletes to a 60 year old businessman, but I am of the school of thought that every little bit helps”.

                                                   A younger Victor and Johnny Weir

Yuuri and Victor’s relationship feels real in its gradual development, while the environment it takes place in is safe and accepting. Everyone from family and friends to strangers, accepts that two men are in a loving relationship. Some have critisised its lack of realism in that regard. 

But this is a slice-of-life show about personal growth and positive relationships. It’s not about bigotry. One of the appeals of Yuri on Ice is that it’s unashamedly a “feel-good” show.  

Discrimination is a reality that Johnny Weir and other LGBT+ people know well. Depicting a setting where their love is treated as valid, where they are accepted and loved for who they are? That is important, even needed in a world where they frequently face the opposite. 

The depiction of figure skating itself is impressively detailed and enjoyable to watch. You can really see just how much effort the staff put into portraying figure skating accurately. All the detailed performances are brought to life with the help of series choreographer Kenji Miyamoto. As a former figure skater and now coach, Miyamoto uses the sequences and the characters interpretations of them to develop plot and character. 

                                                                    Kenji Miyamoto

The series impressively explores its many characters, even minor characters through their routines. It balances multiple subplots in a way that never feels rushed, or takes away from the main storyline. While women are not the main focus of Yuri on Ice, they do get to have subplots where they assert their independence and break away from harmful ideas and people.  

While the animation is fairly standard anime fare, the art direction is fun and creative, with looks into the imaginations of the characters while composing their dances. 

Another feature of Yuri on Ice is that it is very funny! The humour is a delight, with facefaults, exaggerated animation and risqué situations between the characters leading to some sitcom style antics. 

Yuri on Ice is a charming and sweet series about personal growth. It’s masterfully paced to make the character development gradual, yet always engaging. The characters are dynamic and lovable, spreading its attention over a large cast while never spreading itself too thin. I highly recommend it! 

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