Yūri!!! On Ice: What am I missing here . . . ?

If you follow anime, you’ve heard of Yūri!!! On Ice. And you already know whether or not you’re interested in watching it. Full stop.

But I suspect some of you who passed on it have questions anyway. This was written for you, those who have no intention of watching this series but are curious enough to understand what the hell all the buzz is about.

Here’s a tour of why so many people—men and women alike—fell in love with Yūri!!! On Ice.

Final warning: spoilers ahead!

The sport. Figure skating is intrinsically artistic, making it a much more compelling concept for an artistic medium than your average athletic sport; it’s easy to appreciate regardless of how much you know about scoring and jumps. And as a trade it is also culture agnostic unlike, say, rakugo and kabuki, for example. Thus Yūri!!! On Ice was uniquely positioned to rocket into the mainstream, despite its generally niche LGBT themes.

Professional skaters love the show too, which is more than can be said about other shows featuring some kind of expert—doctors, hackers, mathematicians, etc, it’s never great. YOI hits its mark in part because characters’ programs were choreographed by a seasoned ice dancer. When you have to hunt for screenshots you notice that a lot of the skating animations are reskinned and recycled, and very few frames are even average in isolation, so in that sense the animation is the weakest element of the series.

But in motion it’s convincing because much of the skating is rotoscoped (filmed as live action and then traced over into animation), so what you are looking at is a literal performance by an actual athlete. It’s hard to tell where it stops and starts—where it’s animated freehand, or just poorly rotoscoped—but it is most obvious with protagonist Yūri as his body is animated with the most detail and most closely mimics the real thing. I can’t say this doesn’t help with the hotness factor either, since rather than being a scrawny anime man Yūri has a more Yagudin-type physique. (If that dates me, so be it.)

Because of this attention to detail Yūri often suffers a drop in framerate and his movements are a little less fluid than the other skaters, visually simpler yet with more inbetweens. But he reads with much more authenticity, lands jumps with more heft, and is all-around more present as a performer. In spite of its flaws, the skating is enthralling, especially when we get to see lengthy chunks of programs performed uninterrupted.

The series is also unique in its age bracket. The fact that figure skating is an individual event and not a team sport separates it from the high school space that most sports anime occupy. Chihayafuru is a tournament series that explores this space a bit, as karuta is a lifelong hobby and people of any age can compete against each other to become the national Master or Queen of the game. But the protagonists in that series are still members of high school clubs.

The shelf life of male skaters is a bit longer than that of their female counterparts as well, so the active skaters in YOI range from fifteen to twenty-seven—a much wider array of life experience than you’d get in a high school-based series. Georgi, for starters, is an angsty mess and a font of impassioned Russian romanticism.

Phichit is a token Millennial, complete with selfie stick and Staunch LGBT Ally card.

JJ has the biggest ego on the planet, but is voiced by Miyano Mamoru so it’s really hard to hate him.

Christophe is, like, into skating. To an uncomfortable degree.

But he miraculously regains charisma points later on for being fuckin chill as all hell.

And even the youngest competitor in the senior division—hot-headed Deuteragonist Russian Yuri (nicknamed Yurio in-universe to distinguish him from Japanese Yūri)—has a complex emotional storyline and is perhaps the most well-rounded character in the series.

But he is still fifteen and thus a little asshat.

The sport also comes across as exceptionally inviting. As competitors all the skaters are friendly; some are more distant, wrapped up in their own worlds, but none of them harbor any personal animosity toward anyone else. They consistently cheer on and support each other, as do their friends and families. Two of Yūri’s closest supporters—his sister and his longtime ballet teacher—switch up signs and country flags in the audience depending on who is performing. And one of his oldest friends seems to become a pillar of Yurio’s support system, with no bad blood between any of them.

The zeitgeist. Sorry, prospective fans, but this is one aspect of YOI you can’t ever recreate, as fleeting as the finer experiences of The Matrix Online—you can still walk the game world, but without servers, the communal experiences that made it special are lost to time.

Even hungover and disheveled he is beautiful. I am ended. Yūri stood no chance.

Every Wednesday night was a marathon of Okay who can I text, who’s watched it yet. . . . And waiting weekly for the next escalation in the protagonists’ relationship was a global event filled with frenzied twitter exchanges and tumblr metas, poignant one-shots, gorgeous fan art, and given the bones it constantly threw us, surprisingly little smut. (At least until a certain pole-dancing incident.) This may have been an artifact of its mainstream appeal—the Normals outnumbered the hardcore fujoshi, for once.

Viktor Nikiforov paint 2 by Brilcrist on DeviantArt
^ after episode 3: beauty and ephemerality
(I couldn’t get in contact with this artist for permission to repost so just trust me, click on this link.)

no-title-by-trinitybat

no title by trinitybat on pixiv
^ after episode 7: celebration and relief

消えそうな温もりを求めて by on pixiv
^ after episode 9: comfort and sentimentality
(This one’s a video . . . go get it!)

^ after episode 10: ??!?

^ after episode 11: simplicity and emotional salves

Putting together the pieces as a community—before we knew definitively where the story would end up—was exhilarating because the fandom was so palpably large. Each “reveal” shifted the tone of the fan works for the following week, and watching their evolution hand in hand with the story was just as entertaining as the program itself. (Note the gap between first and second place below. Case rested.)

Attention all creators: having a protagonist in a committed same-sex relationship is NOT the death knell for your television series. Handle it with the same care and nuance that het romance has received over the decades, and your audience will come.

The election. I’m not kidding. Of course this is only applicable to American fans (or anyone with an interest in US politics). But an unfortunate part of this zeitgeist was one of the longest, nastiest, most divisive presidential election cycles in my nation’s history, filled with hate and bigotry and misogyny and homophobia and goddamn it just let these anime boys kiss. And I can’t say it any better than a friend of mine did:

I feel like every member of the LGBT community started consuming more LGBT media in mass quantities just to cope. . . . When you feel horrified and scared for your rights you NEED some warm fuzzy anime boys in love more than ever.

The days after the election were the most depressed I’d been in years. And that’s saying a lot. I am horrified and scared for LGBT rights, for my own reproductive rights as a woman, for the safety of people of color and of non-Christians . . . for pretty much everyone. Watching Yūri!!! On Ice on November 9th—absorbed by artistry and athleticism and Victor’s dorky heart-shaped mouth—was the only time in that week after that I forgot. It felt like the world’s final source of happiness, and at this point I’m not convinced it isn’t.

The gay. Remember when yuri meant girl-on-girl? Those were the days. Is that how I tricked a male friend into starting this series? Yes absolutely. Only supports the longstanding hypothesis that fujoshi can ruin anything.

. . . but have I mentioned that he wears waistcoats?

If you’re not a fan of yaoi, you probably don’t understand all the fuss over this series in particular. It’s sports. It’s BL. Big surprise, y’all have seen this stuff before.

But never before have we seen them in actual combination. Sports have always had the stank of homoeroticism, and in recent years anime creators have been using that to full advantage, actively toeing the line to chase the queer-loving audience with subtle boy-on-boy fanservice. This is known more widely as queerbaiting, and it is a bad thing. Why?

Observe: here’s a shot from the end credits of the recent soccer anime DAYS.

It’s not just a still—it appears to be an actual moving shot—and they stare at each other this way for several full seconds. Theirs is a platonic relationship, as is this one:

And we mustn’t forget Free! – Iwatobi Swim Club. . . .

Yeah dog, you let yourself into his bathroom and were surprised that he was clothed?

Despite the fact that the five to six main characters spend most of their time topless, handsy, and declaring one another’s importance, across two seasons none of them get it on. I am so conditioned by pandering like this never reaching its natural conclusion that this:

still did not register for me as an actual expression of sexual romantic love. Only upon rewatching after the Drop (which I will discuss later) did I come to accept that the YOI creators were purposely portraying a same-sex relationship and not simply teasing the opportunity for one. They had to be careful about it; they walked a very fine line between “acceptably ambiguous to present to a primarily homophobic nation” and “unambiguously presenting what we want to say”. But they pulled it off, and if you’re reading these characters’ interactions with any honesty, they are undeniably together.

In fact the only negative reception you’re likely to see from fans will concern the finale. For some—almost guaranteed to be Western fans—the relationship as a whole was left with too much plausible deniability. Which, again, is perhaps by design. On the other hand Japanese queer-positive fans tend to be satisfied with the state of the relationship portrayed; they are part of a culture steeped in go-betweens, hedging language, and indirectness, so the interactions between Yūri and Victor don’t feel unclear or lacking. They feel authentic and intimate.

Yes, there exist yaoi and BL with sports themes, but until YOI the reverse had not been true. It’s not just queerbaiting either, where feelings are dangled before our faces only to arrive at no satisfactory romantic conclusion. Instead we are bombarded with knowing and pointed physicality, deliberately worded foreshadowing, honesty so blatant and unequivocal that I was confused. Initially I dismissed it as my own fujoshi reptile brain reading too much into things and creating a universe from nothing.

But the, oh, let’s say third very brazen, very naked onsen scene finally resulted in this message to a friend: “Did I miss something, is this legit BL? . . . damn son, this is not subtext. . . .” And upon rewatching the series with the knowledge that, no, it’s not just magical thinking—you see that it truly is just text.

Perhaps most remarkable is that no one in-series really bats an eye at their behavior. (The red-faced boy above—that’s not disgust, that’s his hero worship jealousy over Yūri showing.) The fact that the audience just tilts its collective head when Yūri and Victor share an on-ice (if offscreen) kiss isn’t beyond the pale. Yes, the two are Japanese and Russian, respectively, and in Real Life Japan and Russia are awful when it comes to gay equality. But that’s irrelevant, because Yūri!!! On Ice is a cartoon and thus exists only on paper, in a universe necessarily different from our own. Still its effect on our reality is no small thing: it not only acknowledges a same-sex relationship, but normalizes it. We need that now more than ever as well.

Queerbaiting is bad because it is an empty promise. It rewards the idea that same-sex relationships aren’t real relationships. They don’t count, or they don’t happen at all. None of that is messaging we need. Yuri!!! On Ice is different because while these two might not outright say I love you, they sure as hell cross that line.

Go big or go the fuck home.

Go big or go the fuck home.

The fall. The story is this. Yūri is 23, Japan’s top skater, and going stale, balking in competition like Todd Eldredge at the Olympics. (Dating myself again . . . even older this time, huh?) His state of mind when we meet him: humiliated, depressed, overweight, and underconfident.

Victor is 27 and a five-time world champion on the cusp of retirement, well-loved among fans and competitors alike. And for years he has been Yūri’s idol.

When Yūri skates Victor’s most recent long program for his childhood crush, video of it (recorded without their knowledge) goes viral, and Victor is inspired to put his own skating career on hold—or in his coach’s very clearly made opinion, end it—and instead throw his efforts into coaching Yūri.

If that were all there was to it, Victor had the potential to be a Manic Pixie Dream Guy. But then there’s the Drop, which occurs post-credits in the final seconds of episode ten. Don’t blink or you’ll miss it. (Or it’ll be cut off, if you have the Crunchyroll app on a Sony device.) Victor flips from MPDG to an individual thinking mind when a flashback reveals a series of (conveniently forgotten) drunken stunts by Yūri after his failed first showing at the Grand Prix Finals (which Victor won, needless to say) the year previous. What’s this got to do with Victor?

It is the moment we see him fall in love.

That tiny shot betrays the iceberg of a true inner life beneath the surface, breathing fresh context into every interaction between him and Yūri since series start. It was no longer by a fluke, on a whim, that Victor transplanted himself to Kyūshū to become Yūri’s coach. It was the result of months of consideration, with a very personal and even selfish motive.

It’s why Victor comes on so strong early in the series; he hides behind the flirtatious bravado of a humble champion, subsequently dialing it back and allowing brief flashes of his own imperfections as he realizes that sober Yūri is more insecure and uncertain than twenty-glasses-of-champagne Yūri. But he knows wasted Yūri is in there somewhere, and he patiently awaits that spark while suppressing his own feelings.

His skating is incredible technically and even emotionally complex, but missing that je ne sais quois. In spite of Victor’s numerous golds and world records, his coach has higher praise for his rinkmate Georgi, who skates empowered by the rawness of his emotional life.

Chief among those things is vulnerability. Victor’s skating is not mechanical, nor stiff, nor cold or uninspired. He’s just completely masked, alone on some other plane of existence with no intimate human connection to tap into. Even if believably, it’s more like he’s mimicking emotions he has only ever witnessed. There are hints of this early on when Victor challenges the fiery Yurio to skate to the theme of agape (unconditional love), telling the boy that with his temperament the program is doing a better job of showcasing his greed, that confidence is good and all, but not ideal for this routine. Yurio’s response mirrors their coach’s opinion of Victor’s skating:

and he then accuses Victor of hypocrisy, claiming he can’t force him to express agape when Victor has never felt it himself.

But Victor’s isolation is most obvious when we finally get an episode from his perspective, in which he realizes that the “life and love” he receives from Yūri are an indicator of just how unhappy he was prior to meeting him.

Here was a man leading a lonely life of monotonous excellence, punctuated only by the changing of the calendar year. Victor put on a show of smiles and playful winks for the cameras, but beyond his professional contacts—coaches, rinkmates, friendly rivals—at series start we only see him interact with his dog. He is accomplished, but that does not mean he is fulfilled.

But then—Yūri. In his alcohol-fueled stupor he didn’t care that Victor was once again the top of their world, and that he himself had lost spectacularly. He may have been blackout drunk, but as Victor lingered quietly at the edges of a party that was rightfully his, Yūri plucked him up and made him dance. They were castes apart, but for a man of unparalleled accomplishment, being treated as an equal was invigorating.

The relationship. What innocently began as a plug-and-play tourney anime eventually confirmed its B plot in the romance—a patient, supportive, loving relationship between men, the kind of thing that even in yaoi only happens quietly and behind closed doors or around close friends, if the guys are lucky. Yūri!!! On Ice is thus also revolutionary in the context of this subgenre (not that it belongs to the subgenre, but the context is there) because it is a very public courtship. The two in question are world renowned in their sport, still very much on the public stage—and still very much affectionate with each other.

But that comes later; the first stage of their relationship is professional. The theme for Yūri’s two skating routines is love, with the short program focusing on his heretofore latent sensuality. Which Victor knows exists because that is precisely what charmed him in the first place.

To coax this sex appeal out of the inexperienced Yūri, Victor tells him to choose whatever it is that eros means to him. Yūri defines it as something that makes you “lose the ability to make normal decisions”. That thing, for him: katsudon. (He gains weight easily, so under his previous coach, Yūri was only allowed the dish upon winning a competition.) Victor initially throws his support behind this unique source of inspiration, instructing Yūri to become the most seductive katsudon bowl on earth. But this shifts from metaphor to playful flirting to serious as Victor starts leaving food out of the equation entirely and encourages Yūri to seduce him with his performance. And it happens rinkside, in full view of the cameras, with affectionate embraces and much whispering against ears. Similarly, all Yūri’s talk of katsudon recedes and he is left only with thoughts of pleasing Victor.

But Victor has been the object of Yūri’s admiration for well over a decade, so confidence comes slowly to Yūri. Imagine being a person of low self-esteem, meeting your hero, and finding yourself admired in return. It would be difficult to comprehend, if you managed to see it at all.

During a practice early in the series Yūri becomes fixated on the part in Victor’s hair, and without thinking he pokes the top of his head, as if testing the nature of his own fascination. For this moment his romantic attraction to Victor supersedes his anxieties about disappointing him, even if subconsciously. Victor recognizes this act for what it is and instead of flirting in response, with a faux seriousness he plays it off as Yūri teasing him for thinning hair and melodramatically collapses on the ice.

This is exactly the kind of reaction I recognize from my own experience as an insecure person with an understanding suitor; a playful rather than forward response takes the pressure off by saying simply “message received” while still reinforcing interest and trust. Yūri’s anxieties about his own feelings have been largely defeated by episode 7 when he manipulates Victor into exposing the crown of head, this time for the express purpose of poking him—showing that he has evolved a much firmer command of and confidence in his feelings for Victor.

So it goes both ways; it’s not one aggressive partner making the other uncomfortable with unexpected advances. When one makes declarations, the other rises to meet them. When one makes a move, the other reciprocates. Neither presses the other further than he is willing.

And it’s best exemplified on the night prior to the Grand Prix Finals. Yūri impulsively decides to buy a thank you gift for Victor, folding in a “good luck charm” for himself as well. The word Yūri uses here is omamori, so it’s more meaningful than some frivolous token. But there are no Japanese shrines in Barcelona, so he has to improvise. The fact that he improvises with what is literally a pair of gold wedding bands is of no small significance. While Victor had no part in this purchase, he is every inch invested in its exchange.

The conflict. The third stage of their relationship is far more unstable. They jump from sharing a public kiss in episode 7 to exchanging rings in 10 (some weeks later in-universe). This is unquestionably fast. And as it snowballs, what first reads as a trust-filled and healthy relationship is obviously occupied by unhealthy and perhaps even self-loathing people. Gender is not the issue here; self-respect is.

Yūri is not an Everyman. He is an expert, the nation’s top athlete in his sport. But his mental state makes him far more relatable than your average Everyman—to someone like me, anyway. I see so much of myself in him that it hurts. At series start he is practically absent of self-esteem and considers himself a low-rent skater, regardless of evidence to the contrary (like his hometown being plastered with billboards of him and the fact that he is the poster boy for figure skating on the Japanese Skating Federation’s in-universe website). He gets stage fright and crumbles under pressure.

He is avoidant.

He’s petty.

He is aware of his anxiety, its effect on him, and the necessity of working around it.

And this is the basis of the show’s two milestone emotional conflicts. Yūri enters the first day of the Cup of China like a lion, coming fresh off the boost of a new personal best score and a decisive win in the Japanese regionals. But even surrounded by friends and friendly competitors the second day comes crushing, and as Yūri splits at the seams we see that Victor may be a brilliant artist, but he is a much less sensitive coach. He’s never dealt with a nervous student and probably hasn’t himself felt nervous before a competition in years (certainly never to this degree). So his blind solution is to push Yūri to push himself by threatening to resign as coach if Yūri doesn’t medal.

Yūri’s gut reaction is horror. I was right. Here is my worst fear confirmed. He’s looking for an excuse to quit. But luckily he has the presence of mind to recognize the fault in his own thought process, and he sees through to Victor’s true intent. So instead of quietly self-destructing, he takes a leap forward and outright tells Victor what he needs.

How often have you seen that in anime? Or any dramatic fiction, for that matter? Despite the gravity of the mistake Victor makes, Yūri addresses it with aplomb, they both absorb the lesson, Yūri skates the program that earns him silver in the event, and Victor greets him with the Big Damn Kiss. Yūri even enjoys some schadenfreude in the fact that steely, composed Victor Nikiforov was moved by soft little Katsuki Yūri’s emotional outburst.

This is it. This is what I thought we were going to get for the rest of the series. Misunderstandings neatly addressed, worked through, relationship strengthened for having passed through fire.

But while the second major emotional conflict comes from the same place—Victor setting high-pressure consequences for Yūri’s performance as a skater—Yūri handles it much differently.

In Barcelona the pair meets up with a batch of friends (four of the other five participants in the Grand Prix plus a few of Yūri’s cadre), and when Chris draws suave attention to the matching rings, Epic Wingman Phichit goes Full Ally and proudly announces to the whole room that they just got hitched.

It’s a miracle he wasn’t live-tweeting and twitch-streaming the whole thing.

One episode prior, Yūri had pleaded with Victor to remain his coach until his retirement; the response is, “I hope you never retire.” (Holy shit.) What Yūri failed to mention is that he’d been planning to retire after the Grand Prix, making this competition his last chance to win gold. So when Victor not only corrects Phichit’s misunderstanding by saying no, they’re not wedding rings—they’re engagement rings—he just has to add this:

Meaning what Yūri hears is, If I don’t win in the next two days, I lose this person forever, not only as a coach but as a partner. I’m not saying that’s the reality of the situation, but it is what Yūri’s anxiety-addled reptile brain assumes is the reality.

So he fights. Yūri is not a confident technical skater, but his performance score is what saves him. Like Georgi he has a vulnerability that makes him a much more compelling performer than the distant elegance of Victor’s flawless routines. Interpretation—getting into character, acting out a story—is the bread and butter of his strengths as an athlete and the core that his programs are built around.

But the unspoken discrepancy between his and Victor’s expectations after the Grand Prix Final have Yūri placing too much focus on technical marks at the cost of performance. This is supposed to be his sexy routine, and instead of telling a story about the town playgirl he’s adjusting jumps and calculating scores in his head. Technically it’s flawless, besides one imperfect landing. But this single imperfection is enough to crush him because it feels like losing so much more than first place.

Furthermore, as Yūri observes Victor during the other skaters’ routines, he sees a man with a reignited interest in competing. (It doesn’t help that Yurio destroys Victor’s world record score for the short program.) Yūri reasons it would be difficult to return as a competitor as an active coach. So that night, before the long program—his last performance at the Grand Prix Final and perhaps as a competitive skater—instead of once again telling Victor what he’s thinking, Yūri delivers the most infamous line of the series.

He thinks he’s doing Victor a favor, but he’s also protecting himself. Typical anxietyball move. When you feel like you’re losing control of something, you’d rather destroy it yourself than watch it burn unchecked. I get it, man.

Then the finale opens with a half-baked, vague conversation about their careers, barely a minute long, and while it feels like a metaphor they don’t actually discuss them. In fact it cuts away from the meat of the conversation before it truly begins.

So after much consideration, the subjective lack of overt acknowledgement of their relationship is not the problem I had with the finale. I too am satisfied with the blatant intimacy that these characters share.

But that final episode comes hard and fast with too many loose ends to tie up in too little time. For me missing out on that discussion was not disappointing as an indicator of the health of their communication channels (though it’s still a concern as only one of them is Japanese, the other ostensibly would need not leave things unsaid). It had more to do with the structure of a good narrative. The episode does not depict an emotional discussion but instead tells us about it, punting by giving us a happy ending without showing how it happened. The best thing I can say about their relationship vis-à-vis the finale is that they decide to make their own decisions about their careers independently of each other, based not on the presence or absence of the other. That is A+ self-care.

Not to mention the stunningly romantic conclusion.

Story arises from conflict, and conflict has to come from somewhere. In a story that is primarily romance, that conflict is interpersonal. Like Chihayafuru, at its roots this series is couched in two very different genres: sports and, secondarily, romance. For the majority of the series the relationship between Yūri and Victor is so strong because they don’t have to create drama; the tournament setting takes care of that for them, giving them the narrative space to just get along. They incite drama for themselves, but there is none between them. And most importantly, what begins for Yūri as hero worship transforms into a more nuanced understanding of who Victor is as a person. While the finale stumbles, it is because this series isn’t primarily a romance that theirs is perhaps the healthiest relationship I have ever seen portrayed in fiction. Full stop.

And it didn’t just happen in a dark corner of a niche genre. It happened in a mainstream series, for all the world to see.

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