Is there any more defining moment for a sport series than the match?
In the world of competitive sports drama, matches are the base units of the narrative. These games are time markers for the story’s progress and serve as an intersection of a work’s various thematic and interpersonal elements. Hot-blooded youngsters square off against cocksure veterans. Old grudges are settled while new rivalries take root. Personal foibles hamper execution, and strength of will clears a path to victory. No theme is too personal or disconnected to be barred from expression in the hallowed match, and no game is too important to not be decided at least in part by the emotional struggles beneath the surface. Then it’s on to thinking about the next event which means another round of training, introspection, off the court drama, and so forth. Sunrise, sunset.
Anime sports dramas are particularly skilled at this match-based narrative, and no sport – no matter how obscure or seemingly droll – is beyond the reach of the medium’s internal monologues and dramatic reaction shots. Everything from ping pong, to long distance cycling, to competitive bread-baking has served as the source material for anime. Compared to some of the more esoteric sports which Japan has tackled over the years, figure skating barely moves the needle.
So it is no surprise then that Yuri on Ice has such a passion for these all-encompassing competition sequences. The skaters pour themselves into their performances, and no aspect of a skater’s personality is barred from influencing a routine. If sports matches are bubbling cauldrons of physical skill and interpersonal drama, then Yuri on Ice won’t just join the coven – it will bring its own eye-of-newt and wing-of-bat from home, thank you very much.
Yet while the series sticks to the standard playbook of sports anime when it comes to game-based drama, it does take risks in other areas. One of the most surprising twists is its use of the “dream” sequence motif found in most of its peers. But in order to understand the uniqueness of these sequences, we must first explore what a “standard” match looks like in most sports series.
Often times in these sports dramas, there are two parallel streams in a single match – the play by play of the sport itself and the personal drama of the competitors. As the match rages externally between the opposing athletes, internally they wrestle with questions of identity, honor, drive, and more. This gives the author two potent variables to play with as a way of differentiating each individual game. While ostensibly each competition is going to involve similar sorts of actions from two relatively equal sides, the creators can spice up these encounters by adjusting either or both inputs. An otherwise normal game can be complicated by internal conflicts, while emotionally stable players may face new challenges on the pitch from unique physical skills their opponents have. In particularly dire or dramatic situations both of these struggles make an appearance. This often occurs during division finals or championship matches, raising the tension and excitement for the viewer.
In these areas, Yuri on Ice follows the standard formula but with added emphasis on the importance of the match for character expression. Because there is little in the way of direct conflict in singles figure skating, every time blades hit the ice we find out something about the competitors’ personalities – where their doubts come from, where they think their strengths lie, why they first began to skate, the inspiration for their routine, and who they think of when they perform. In many not-so-subtle ways there is a clear dichotomy between their time on the ice and off it. When they are out and about in their everyday lives they are often surrounded by doubt, confusion, and rejection. But once they begin their routines under the bright lights and expectant gazes of the crowd, the athletes find themselves in possession of a kind of clarity that the world outside the rink rarely allows for.
What makes Yuri on Ice so fundamentally different from many other sports stories is the ways in which it plays with our expectations. In so many programs with a competitive angle, there is an emphasis on uplifting what happens during an event from mundane to mythical. These “dream” sequences help add the bit of flair that a simple by-the-numbers retelling would lack. In a tennis show a player might serve the ball with such force that the opponent sees it as a meteor on a collision course with the earth. During a football game a defender’s tackle might appear to be harpoons launched before a crashing wave with a leaping whale behind it. A single bite of a skilled chef’s meal can send a character diving backwards to avoid a hail of slow motion melon projectiles, forcing them to contort their body into the shape of the melon itself.
Yuri on Ice is no stranger to this sort of hyperbole, and with good reason. These vignettes serve the same function that simile and metaphor do in works of prose, allowing the creators to express the feeling of something and evoke brilliant imagery where a mere description might not suffice. It breaks up what would otherwise be a simple recounting of events with color and creativity. These sequences uniquely leverage the medium of animation in providing wonderfully strange moments that can still exist in tandem with the existing fictional space. A standard film would need to use CGI to accomplish these moments which presents the mind with a separation between live action and fictional creations, while in animation the dream and reality are both animated and therefore exist at the same level of suspension of disbelief. Put simply – if you can accept cartoon characters you can accept cartoon metaphors because your brain has already bought into the fiction. These moments stretch the suspension of disbelief without breaking it, and add in a healthy dose of the unexpected and whimsical in the process.
It is the focus of these sequences which gives the show its unique flavor. In most sports anime, these altered reality sequences are offensive tools used to confuse an opponent. The protagonist shocks the opposition into fear of the incredible bestial power on display. A new style of serving the ball throws the other team into a state of confusion as the server takes on the aspect of an angry god. The hero’s cooking is so exquisite that it sends a judge spiraling off into (to borrow an idiom from a certain dubbed alien prince) another dimension of sensational taste. These instances are used as weapons to defeat an opponent, a continuation of the physical match in the realm of the mind. The characters in these shows use these moments to become larger than life as a way of dominating the opposition and exerting their power over others.
Yuri on Ice changes the target of these visions, and in doing so distances itself from its peers while reinforcing its core themes. While the skaters are capable of creating visions, they are not used on others as aggressive tools to attack a foe. Instead, the skaters send themselves into dream-like states. This subtle alteration drastically changes the emotional tone of the show compared to other sports programs. Rather than weaponizing these otherworldly experiences to overwhelm others, they instead launch themselves into another level of experience – in this way the skaters exceed the physical limitations of the sport and their own internal barriers to emotional progress. While they struggle with mundane problems that their anxieties keep them from overcoming off the ice, they can surmount these obstacles by taking spiritual journeys on the ice, free from the restraints of the mundane world. Their skating routines are outward expressions of inner truths, leaving their spirits unmoored from emotional burdens.
In these dream worlds, the characters can become something that far outstrips their normal selves. One routine may make the skater feel like a skilled warrior in a deadly game of cat and mouse. Another may become an avatar of sensuality that others say their gender is incapable of. Yet another might become the embodiment of national pride and a symbol of their home country’s hopeful exuberance. In fact, these breaks from the real world do not hamper their performance, but rather the more these skaters give themselves over to these heightened states the more successful they are in the competition.
The show does allow the skaters to influence the minds of others, but it is wholly unlike other sports dramas. The athletes do not assault opponents with their visions; instead, they discard the trappings of reality and give themselves over to the vulnerability in public displays of imaginative expression. In this exposed state, the most successful skaters invite the crowd to journey with them through the mind’s eye. This creates a fundamentally different dynamic as compared to other shows of this ilk: these are no longer competitive visions but communal ones. The best skaters are in fact the least guarded and the most vulnerable, because through exposing their fragile inner desires they take others on a journey through their most intimate feelings. This is not a narrative of dominating others through excellence, but uniting with one another in the shared vulnerabilities of passion, hope, and sincerity.
This is illustrated countless times for the viewing audience on and off the ice. The most successful skaters are the ones whose routines have ensorcelled the crowd, drawing them out of their hum-drum lives and to other realms of understanding. When a skater’s dream-space is distorted or disingenuous the crowd and judges lack the buy-in to their vision to make the athletes successful. A prime example is Georgi Papovich who envisions himself as a cruel witch/noble prince in relation to his former lover – while he might believe it, the object of his affections and the crowd do not, leading to frustration. While the skaters are all competitive in that they want to excel, one of the most common refrains after a performance (regardless of their placing) is that they have scored a “personal best.” Yuri on Ice wants its characters to overcome themselves rather than one another.
Furthermore, the explicitly dominant personalities do not find success in competition. Yuri Plisetsky, who initially seeks to physically and emotionally brow-beat Katsuki Yuuri to prove his superiority, is constantly frustrated in his endeavors. He only begins to achieve great things when he tears down the walls separating himself from those around him that he finds success in his craft.
This theme of community through shared dreaming is carried through by the examples set by the other skaters in these leagues. Time and again the audience finds that the most accomplished skaters are at their best when they are earnest with one another, genuinely hoping for each other’s success and invested in one another. The more they invite one another to live out their dreams together, the better they are able to perform for the crowds. In effect they are all each other’s biggest fans. In one example, Yuri gives a less-than-warm reception to a younger fan and Viktor scolds him to the point of shame and changing his ways. Yuri was rejecting the youthful naiveté of the younger skater, but Viktor quickly corrects him and puts him on the righteous path of this narrative – believe in each other’s dreams.
And truthfully that is the heart of Yuri on Ice. Rather than take the standard route of overcoming audience cynicism through characters’ expression of skillful dominance over others, Yuri on Ice fully embraces its own absurdities. It does not hide the pageantry or beauty behind discussion of “execution” or “technical acumen,” but rather gives itself wholly over to the fanciful joy of living out your dreams in front of the entire world. These characters draw strength from being who they are and encouraging others to do the same. The key to this setting is to live in the beautiful moments that the characters bring upon themselves. Yuri on Ice posits that to find the truth of who we are, we have to grab hold of our the inner self that we hide away for fear of judgment or ridicule and put it on full display for all to see. Rather than making our dreams about crushing one another to fight off our own insecurities, Yuri on Ice makes the bold statement that the more we are honest with ourselves and live out our dreams the happier we make ourselves and one another. The more we live the dream, the more others can live it with us.
In a way, when we are positive and proactive about being who we wish we were – the best version of ourselves – we can achieve the impossible if only for the briefest of moments. These dream selves are a crystallized embodiment of our spirit whose fragile purity can only be sustained in the sanctity of expressive art. Even though our hopes stand on a knife’s edge and we are surrounded by a cold and unforgiving world, we are at our best when we dare to be our best selves – in the spotlight for all to see.