After suffering a crushing defeat at the figure skating Grand Prix Final, Katsuki Yuuri is surprised when five time world champion Viktor Nikiforov suddenly shows up at his house, determined to be his coach.
You’d think this anime would be like pretty much all the others in the same genre, with endless performances, surhuman techniques with super weird names, and the usual vitriol between rivals. It’s usually what happens in sports anime, what makes them distinctive, and the reason why we love them. But Yuri on Ice turned out to be completely different. I was stunned by the sheer innovative spirit of the series, which was brilliant in every way, and remains down to earth while breaching a bunch of sensitive social issues with tact and elegance.
Let’s start at the beginning, meaning the obvious: Viktor and Yuuri. Although figure skating and Yuuri’s desire to become world champion are the driving force behind the show, it’s the relationship between both men which carries it all the way through to the end. They’re almost-rivals when the story starts, high-level figure skaters, but it seems like their paths will never cross again when Yuuri endures a crushing defeat at the Grand Prix. Yet, a few months later, who should show up at his place but Viktor Nikiforov himself, who proclaims himself Yuuri’s coach from now on.
Nothing mind-blowing so far. By that point, I was somewhat interested, but nothing more. And yet! This relationship, rooted in Yuuri’s admiration for Viktor, turns into a healthy friendship which then turns into something else entirely, something vast and unshakeable, something neither of them could have foreseen…and that we didn’t either. It’s a deep-seated trust in each other, faith and, beyond that, tender and sincere love.
A Gay Couple in a Sports Anime
Yes, you read me right. Love. This is a gay couple in a sports anime. No yaoi anywhere to be seen, and I feel obliged to explain that the term is often used wrong to refer to male homosexual relationships in general when it’s actually a specific genre often displaying a “seme” and a “uke” (or dom and sub) and relationships which more often than not fail to be healthy. And although I love myself some yaoi from time to time (because beggars can’t be choosers and healthy gay relationships in Japanese media—or, well, anywhere else, really—are…hard to find, to say the least), the difference between that and Yuri on Ice is just so striking that I wonder how I could have been satisfied with that kind of dynamic before.
One thing is for sure: I will never, ever watch an anime the same way ever again.
The beauty of Yuri on Ice comes from the healthy relationship which slowly blooms between those two men. No big declarations or lengthy introspection. No unnecessary drama, love triangles or whatever else. No real sexual dimension. Both follow their heart and express their mutual affection through gestures that are sometimes very small, very simple, and yet convey everything. Sometimes, the silence, the quiet, are actually what makes those apparently insignificant displays that much more potent.
International Relations at Their Best
But it doesn’t stop there. As if having a healthy gay relationship as one of its pillars wasn’t enough, the show goes beyond all expectations by making the characters in question Russian for one, Japanese for another. Imagine this: a healthy interracial, homosexual couple on Japanese TV. It’s been confirmed that Viktor and Yuuri communicate in English, but there are small clues all over the place to show that they’re learning each other’s language as well. Take Viktor’s phone, for example. It’s clear in episode 2 that it’s set in Russian, but by the time episode 10 rolls around, the settings are in Japanese. Take Yuuri, who drops “Vkusnos” and “Davais” here and there.
I think this struck a particularly sensitive chord in me because I’m currently expatriated. I’ve been living in a foreign country for a few years, and while it’s great, there’s something really special about sometimes slipping into a different tongue when speaking, and having that represented on TV was very precious to me.
Friendships and Fair Play Ahoy
This international-ness of the anime is also shown in its portrayal of the other skaters. Yuuri being a competitor in the Figure Skating Grand Prix, he of course goes up against the best the world has to offer, and that comes with their respective cultures, skin colors, languages and history. Phichit, arguably a fandom favorite, is the first that comes to mind, or Otabek, or even Jean-Jacques. Let’s also point out that the United States competitor, Leo de la Iglesia, bears a latino name instead of an English one.
I was also taken off-guard by the absolute lack of ill-spirit in the relationship between competitors. While, in other sports anime, there’s more often than not a bitter rivalry going on, complete with insults, disdain and/or sabotage attempts, none of that here. Instead, they’re actually pretty good friends, hang out together, have dinner, party and share their love for the sport they dedicate their life to. It’s an absolutely beautiful dynamic to witness, based on shared passion and effort.
Mental and Physical Hurdles
Which leads me to my third point: Yuri on Ice doesn’t shy away from the physical and mental issues those high-level athletes must face and overcome in their pursuit of the podium. The show actually makes a point to show just how taxing it is on both body and mind to train so hard, practice ballet, work out every day, and watch their diet closely to ensure they stay in top shape. It’s an admirable hommage to athletes all over the world, whatever their chosen discipline.
The show also touches on mental health through its protagonist, Yuuri, who clearly suffers from a debilitating anxiety disorder, or J.-J., who, for all his boasting and somewhat arrogant nature, remains very human (yet another success on the show’s part). I won’t go any deeper since I’m not an expert and don’t want to offend anyone by being ignorant, but I really wanted to at least touch on the subject.
A Top-Notch Production
Let’s not forget either the sheer work it must have taken to design the characters’ gorgeous, gorgeous costumes and, beyond that, to animate their routines. So much work had to be put in there, and despite the low budget, despite the difficulties (I read somewhere that the show had been turned down by several studios precisely because it would be so difficult to animate), MAPPA did a wonderful job.
And if you’re still not convinced, remember that figure skating champions such as Stéphane Lambiel, Johnny Weir ou Evgenia Medvedeva watched and passionately twitted about the show. If the pros love it, then it must be good, right? Also, experts in a different field (I’m not saying which one) have said the show was accurate in its descriptions, so something must be said about the care and research that went into each episode.
I feel compelled to add that Yuri on Ice won in every single one of the categories it was nominated for in the 2016 Crunchyroll anime awards. That’s Best Couple, Best Boy, Most Heartwarming, Best Opening, Best Ending, and Best Animation.
Also, on the day of the finale, streaming sites crashed because of the huge following the show had gathered…and so did tumblr. We crashed tumblr, guys. I’m so proud.
All in All…
A revolutionary anime which will go down into history. An absolute must-watch.
Title: Yuri on Ice
Air Date: 10/05/2016 to 12/20/2016
Number of episodes: 12
Genres: Sports, Friendship, LGBTQ+
My Grade: ★★★★★