The following article was originally published in the Miracle!!! on Ice extra included in the January 2017 issue of Animage. Scans for translation provided by Aliasanonyme. The interview has been translated by Twitter user @karice67 © 2016 Wave Motion Cannon
An anime original story and the original character designs: The challenges thrust at me
—Yuri!!! On ICE represents the first time you’ve worked on the original story for an anime series, isn’t it?
Kubo: Until now, none of my manga have been turned into an anime, so creating what would become the basis of an anime has been a first of all sorts for me. Being a manga author, working on the first episode felt quite similar to working on the first chapter of a serialized manga. But when it came to the point where we were depicting the full-blown competitions, I ran into the problem of “time.” Until that point, I’d used a lot of monologues to help viewers become absorbed in the programs, but had done so without really paying attention to how long those monologues were, or their timing—I just kept writing. But because skaters have to complete their performances within a set timeframe, I realized that there was a limit to the number of lines that I can write. So I started timing those monologues, like, with a stopwatch (chuckles).
—That’s a good point. We often find sports manga where the number of lines of dialogue or thoughts doesn’t match the time the characters would have had to voice or think them.
Kubo: Take baseball manga, for example. In the brief moment between the point where the ball leaves a pitcher’s hand and the point where it hits the catcher’s glove, we might see a commentator make an unbelievable number of comments (chuckles). Because it’s a manga, you can get away with it, but it’s really difficult to do that with an anime, where the pictures are moving. How many seconds are there between the jumps? How much can the announcer actually say in that time? How many lines would a reasonable monologue have? This is the first time I’ve taken on the challenge of creating a story where I’ve had to pay attention to “time,” and it really was tough. But it was also a really interesting experience. In the end, the director and staff adjust what needs to be adjusted when they storyboard the episodes.
—And since this is a show about figure skating, the balance with the music is also important, isn’t it?
Kubo: We placed orders for the music used in the performances based on what we needed for the story, but I didn’t go so far as to match the timing of the dialogue to the lyrics. We first decided the order in which the characters would skate and also where they would place, and then gave a lot of thought as to how we could make the most of that. For example, when depicting a character waiting for his turn backstage at a competition, the music of the ongoing performance becomes the BGM. So I tried to come up with a vignette to depict, or lines of dialogue, that would synchronize well with that song. Ultimately, I’ve also been leaving entrusting things to Director Yamamoto’s direction, so my names are, at best, just the basic foundation. There were numerous things that I would never have realized on my own, but whilst it was a challenging experience, it was also incredibly fun.
—Drawing names as the precursor to turning the story into animation is a rather unique way of doing things.
Kubo: Right. They’re names that are made to be passed on to someone else. In the case of manga, once you complete the manuscript, you just hand it over to the editor and wait for the magazine to run the issue. But in this case, other staff inherit what I’ve worked on to use in the next stage of the process. I’d like to include a lot of detail, but if I’m behind on a deadline, then it causes trouble for everyone else. So working out where to draw the lines was another thing that I worried about. It’s the first time that I’ve felt the pressure of working in a group.
—What other challenges did you have to tackle?
Kubo: Another one was working out how to incorporate non-figure skating scenes into the story. We didn’t really have a lot of leeway to include episodes that took place outside of the competitions, so we figured that we could show something of the skaters’ lives during the performances. But even though there were a lot of challenges, when I actually saw the completed animation, I realized that while manga could only capture snapshots of movement, those movements could actually be depicted continuously in this way…and I was just filled with emotion at that. Behind that achievement was an imaginative power that went beyond the names I had drawn. That we can create such rich worlds in this medium…anime really is amazing—I felt really keenly that the manga I’d drawn until that point still had a long way to go. But along with such reflections, I’ve also been inspired—like, “There’s more that I can do, right?!” Being involved in Yuri!!! on ICE has really been a great learning experience for me.
—You were also in charge of creating the original character designs. What specifically did that involve?
Kubo: Since you can say that creating the story pretty much equates to creating the characters, we were basically working on them at the same time. Ultimately, we wanted to create characters that fans would be able to love, that they would be able to empathize with. The experience that I’d gleaned from my years as a manga author, along with actual, real life skaters, became the foundation for that. The challenge was how to create something completely new after scraping together all that material and absorbing it into myself, how to show the gradual process through which a particular character changes as the story progresses… And when a character has been completed in that manner, how to get him to stand on his own… Hence, once we’d solidified the profile, personality and appearance of a character to a certain extent, then we’d do a test, something along the lines of “this person would undoubtedly take this course of action.” So there were a number of challenges involved in creating the original character designs as well.
The surprising secret origins of Victor and Yurio?!
—Could you share with us some of the key points of how you came up with Yuri, Victor and Yurio?
Kubo: Around the time the show was green-lit, the first thing Director Sayo Yamamoto said to me that was that she wanted to tell a story about the bond between a foreign coach and a Japanese skater. But after our first overseas research trip, the very first character I came up with was Yurio. Now that I think about it, the influence of anime from the latter half of the 1980’s pulsates strongly within me. Since that time, I’ve kind of liked brazen/cheeky characters with blond hair and blue eyes. So, since I was getting my hands into an anime original, I felt that I might as well go back to my roots and revive the characters I loved back then… In some ways, Yurio was born from entities that had become like my own flesh and blood, so he was very easy to write.
—After Yurio, who was the next character to be born?
Kubo: Appearance-wise, I believe it was Victor. The notion that he was a “living legend,” the strongest in the skating world, was something we’d come up with right from the start. Of course, even though he is an original character, because we were trying to recreate the figure skating world as realistically as possible, we figured that we’d get a lot of comments along the lines of “Oh, he’s really similar to this skater.” But because we wanted to be able to write him as freely as possible, well, if there’s any country that has strong and interesting skaters, it’s gotta be Russia (chuckles). And since the great Evgeni Plushenko is, in fact, Russian, we thought people would be likely to say: “He’s the model, isn’t he?” So we decided to make sure he didn’t resemble Plushenko, but if you think about it, his position in the world is incredibly close to Plushenko’s. So in the end, you might think that they are similar in some ways…but that wouldn’t be because we created Victor to be like him. The more important question is whether he has the right personality for the progression of the story.
—So you developed the characters based on the demands of the story.
Kubo: In terms of the performances, we’ve referred to real life figure skaters. From Victor’s sheer artistry to the tone of the entire work, we’ve taken bits and pieces from all of those skaters. Real life skaters are incredibly fascinating people, so I wanted to make Victor the most fascinating person I’ve ever created in my career as a manga author.
—And could you tell us about Victor’s appearance?
Kubo: His appearance is based on the American actor and director, John Cameron Mitchell. I saw the musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch for the first time last year, on Broadway, and was really moved by how much his fans still love him. He’s in his fifties now, but he’s still got this amazing sensuality about him—Victor’s hairstyle is based on his.
—Did you carve out his character based on that visual image?
Kubo: Whilst the demands of the story were our collateral, the appearance that we decided upon did have a big effect. After we decided that this would be how he looked, we worked on carving out his character such that there’d be a gap between his appearance and his personality.
—Certainly, in the first three episodes, Victor comes across as being quite mysterious, someone that you can’t quite grasp.
Kubo: In the course of writing this story, even I found myself wondering just what kind of person Victor is. From about episode 4, together with Yūri, I started taking a peek into Victor. It was like I was trying to grasp something that I still couldn’t see… Even as I was writing Victor, I was often caught up in those kinds of feelings. In that sense, you could say that Victor is a character that moved and grew together with the anime as a whole.
Yuri, the fascinating character that continues to overturn his creators’ expectations
—Moving on, then, how about Yūri?
Kubo: We wanted Yūri to have the most average-looking appearance of the lot, and that’s how he’s come to look the way he does. He’s not particularly attractive or striking, but though he seems so normal, he completely changes once he steps onto the ice—we figured that this could be what makes him stand out. I’ve created many of these “bespectacled individuals who don’t believe in themselves” in my own manga up to this point, but all of them were normal people—none of them were athletes like Yūri. So even though Yūri looks like someone who doesn’t have much self-belief, he actually does have, hidden within himself, that special strength that athletes possess. When we were conducting research for the show, we actually heard a lot of skaters say some rather unbelievable things. There were many times where we thought: “Wow, everyone has a pretty big gap between their appearance and reality, don’t they?”
—Did Yūri become a character that overtuns all your expectations?
Kubo: Hm…I guess you could say that. How can Yūri come to overturn my own and Director Yamamoto’s expectations? That was a thought that we kept in mind as we went about creating this story, so what was fascinating about Yūri kept changing with each and every episode. And in an interesting way. He’s the kind of protagonist for whom you can’t see what’s going to come next, so you feel insecure, but in a good way. We were able to face this story with our hearts going pitter-patter because “Yūri-san is like…dayum…!” and that’s just an amazing feeling to have as creators. Furthermore—and this is something that can be said not just about Yūri, but all of the characters—what was fascinating about each one of them has become even more rounded-out in the hands of the director and the animators, such that they are steadily becoming independent from me. Being witness to that process is something that has made me really happy, and I don’t think Yuri!!! on ICE would have become the work that it is if it had been a manga I was drawing by myself.
—When his score is announced after his performance, Yūri squints his eyes when he tries to see what he got. Is his eyesight that poor?
Kubo: It is. The glare of the ice is apparently pretty bad for your eyes, so many skaters have poor eyesight. But it apparently isn’t much of a problem when they’re performing. So if you actually go and watch a competition, there will be moments where, even though all the fans are going crazy at the scores, the skater him- or herself is going “Huh? What is it?” because they can’t see.
—And could you tell us a bit about the other characters?
Kubo: We wanted even the supporting characters to stand out so much that fans wouldn’t think “this one isn’t a sub, huh?” So, for each and every one of them, we went all out pitching as many details about them as possible. Even in the real figure skating world, there are many skaters with a lot of individuality. The news media in Japan tends to focus on Japanese skaters, such that even foreign skaters who win a particular championship are not covered all that much. But each and every skater is fighting in order to become “the world’s protagonist,” so we tried to make sure that they didn’t disappear into the background. As a result, fans have come to love characters like Minami-kun, even though they only appear in a handful of episodes, and that makes me incredibly happy. “Everyone, come on! Step up to the front!” That’s what we were thinking when creating all of the characters, and I think that’s why there are so many fans that have welcomed them into their hearts.
—Certainly, in watching Yuri!!! on ICE, my sense is that it wouldn’t be strange for any one of them to be the protagonist.
Kubo: In the figure skating world, there are many little things that hint at how amazing a particular person is. We have referenced many of them in this anime, and there are parts where we’ve tried even harder not to lose to the real world. We went to as many competitions as we could in order to conduct research, so that we could cram into the anime things like the atmosphere of the arena, the conversations of the people on the streets and the food they ate, the Internet culture and the information regarding the skaters.
The story of an inexperienced coach and a skater with a tofu-like mental stability
—Having passed through a whole range of experiences, Yūri and Victor have managed to reach the Grand Prix Final. From your perspective as a creator, could you please give us a commentary on what has happened up to this point in the story (episode 10)?
Kubo: The challenge for us in episodes 1 through 4 was to endear fans to Yūri, Victor and Yurio, so that’s what we devoted time to. In episode 5, we had the Chugoku-Shikoku-Kyushu regional tournament, which is where, for the first time, we introduced someone (Minami) who sees Yūri from an external point of view, so that we can explore further what kind of person our protagonist is. Until that point, the story develops largely through Yūri’s point of view, which emphasizes his view of himself as “a weak person who lost big,” but in actual fact, he’s the top skater in Japan.
—Once they leave Hasetsu, we as viewers also find out that he’s actually pretty popular.
Kubo: There are younger skaters who look up to Yūri and are chasing after him. After that, we plunge head first into the Grand Prix Series, but in that episode, we have a monologue from Yūri to share what he’s thinking during the short program, before switching to Victor’s point of view for the free program. Outside of what he’s actually put into words, I think that viewers probably didn’t know what Victor’s been thinking until that point, so that free program is the first time that the show conveyed what he thinks about.
—It seemed like, in his heart, he’s uncertain about how he’s doing as a coach.
Kubo: Episode 7 is the episode where that really comes to the surface. Victor is still inexperienced as a coach, he’s still growing on that front. But on the other hand, he’s also something of a god to Yūri, a living legend, and that’s why he can do something so unreasonable. When we spoke to real skaters as part of our research, we asked them “How do you want your coach to relate to you?” And their response was “Rather than someone considerate, I prefer someone who asks for something unreasonable.”
—Since that’s comes from the mouths of real life skaters, that’s really convincing.
Kubo: And on the other side, it seems that coaches are sometimes perplexed about how they should teach people that are, to a large extent, complete as skaters. For skaters at that elite level, more than the technical side, what the coaches deal with leans towards things like the issue of mental fortitude or how they should approach a particular competition. On that point, Yūri is similarly more or less a complete skater on the technical front—he just hasn’t been able to perform when it comes down to the crunch. It’s that one extra step that he’s been unable to take. Since Victor is the person Yūri has looked up to, he has the power to influence Yūri; and for Yūri, the inspiration he receives from Victor enables him to skate differently. But this chemical reaction between the two of them doesn’t fall into some kind of pattern. Rather, through the competitions from episodes 5 through 7, we wanted to capture the feeling of expectation that something different will happen in each episode.
—In episode 7, Victor goes so far as to say “I’ll take responsibility by resigning as your coach.”
Kubo: This moment shows how inexperienced he is not just as a coach, but also on the personal front. He’s trying to help Yūri, but what he does has the opposite effect. And things like this have happened in real life. Like, someone told me a story of how, during training, their coach told them “Ok, that’s it. Just get off the ice.” But when they did just that, the coach went off at them. I think that this kind of behavior—acting as if you’re trying to test someone when you get angry at them—is present in every kind of society. But if you hear that from someone you really trust, something along the lines “I’m behind you, but only under these conditions,” especially when you’re feeling incredibly tense, well, you’d snap, right? (chuckles).
—Yūri completely burst into tears.
Kubo: The drastic measure that Victor took, “If it’s so fragile, then let’s just break it,” is something that he can do precisely because he’s dealing with someone with a hidden mental strength. It’s a risky sink-or-swim move. That scene was based on the composition of a certain skater’s program. The idea is that it’s precisely by smashing your own weakness that you can make a new start; that was the theme behind an actual program that Kenji Miyamoto-sensei choreographed.
—And in overcoming that hurdle, Yūri was actually able to relax and face the rest of the competition.
Kubo: Because Victor stepped on and completely blew up that land mine when he was nervous, before he took to the ice (chuckles). But that was actually something that we wanted to do—we wanted to see how Yūri would change if all of his land mines had been tripped. Because that really is something that we can only do in fiction.
—So, on the one hand, this anime has been praised as a work that tries to be as realistic as possible, but on the other hand you’ve gone out of your way to include things that you can only do in fiction.
Kubo: I think that there are many real life figure skating fans who, when they see a skater who cannot pull off a jump that they used to be able to do, want to encourage them or do something that will help them. Well, in real life, there’s nothing we can do except cheer for them earnestly… But that’s precisely why I hope that, even if only in fiction, in staying by Yūri’s side and watching over him through Victor, they’ll be able to experience those feelings.
—Having overcome Victor’s unreasonable challenge, Yūri then shows us that he’s leveled up a little, in episodes 8 through 10.
Kubo: As a story moves from the middle to the later stages, it’s quite common for the protagonist to have something important to him or her taken away. We thought that it was about the right time to do that. That’s why we had Victor leave Yūri’s side momentarily in episode 8. In a long-running manga serial, it’s quite possible that Victor would fall sick or meet with some kind of accident, but we can’t take such a roundabout route for a one-cour anime. That’s why we had Makkachin steal and eat some buns instead (chuckles). Since Makkachin is pretty old, Victor has the premonition that his last season as a competitive skater might overlap with the last year of Makkachin’s life. It’s quite possible that he prioritized spending those last few months to a year with Makkachin over his own skating career. I’d say that that’s one of the reasons that he came to Hasetsu, and when I spoke with his voice actor, Jun’ichi Suwabe-san, about it, he told me that he felt the same way.
—And Yūri himself had been unable to care for his beloved dog when Vicchan was sick.
Kubo: I think that Victor was also worried about returning to Japan and leaving Yūri by himself. But Victor also has things outside of figure skating that are important to him. Or rather, because skating is so important to him, when the one who has supported him through all these years is in a pinch, he wants to run to its side. In reality, this would be very difficult, but it’s a situation that I wanted to depict, even if only in fiction.
—But without Victor there beside him, Yūri is unable to achieve the result that he was after.
Kubo: Because he has worked so hard to come this far with Victor, we figured that everyone would want to see whether Yūri could actually fight on his own, without his coach. But it’s only in that moment that he sees his own limits, and that the value of the people other than Victor sinks into him… In order to build up his feelings of wanting to win the Grand Prix Final with Victor, the preliminary steps that are episodes 8 and 9 are incredibly important.
Revealed at last in episode 10’s ED sequence!? The secret story behind Victor going to Hasetsu
—Finally, in episode 10, we see what the skaters get up to right before the Grand Prix Final.
Kubo: It’s akin to a light-hearted ‘fun’ chapter that you might find in a weekly manga serial. I also enjoy stories about what happens in the spare moments at competitions, so I really enjoyed writing this. Once the Grand Prix Final begins, we can’t do anything superfluous, so we wanted to depict some of the moments before the competition in order to show you a bit more of what the skaters are like.
—I was really surprised to see Victor jump into the pool in Barcelona in the middle of winter.
Kubo: When we went to Barcelona to watch the Grand Prix Final as part of our research, I actually saw some foreigners swimming at the hotel pool. When I was in the elevator, they had just gotten out of the pool and were standing there wrapped in their towels, their teeth chattering like crazy. I was like, “What in the world are these people doing?” (chuckles).
—The episode 10 ED sequence was also changed, wasn’t it?
Kubo: This was one of Director Yamamoto’s ideas. The music, too, was changed just for this one episode. And I believe that some fans are already aware of this, but that was my debut as a key animation artist—it’s credited under my real name of “Mitsuko Kubo.” It’s the first time that I’ve been asked to draw key animation frames, so I was really excited.
—And was it a scene from the party after the competition?
Kubo: It’s from the banquet after the previous year’s Grand Prix Final. Yūri got really drunk and went crazy, and those pictures are the evidence that was left behind (chuckles)—that ED sequence was planned as something like a flashback through which we could show what went down at the time. And the truth is that Yūri, drunk out of his mind, impetuously asked Victor to become his coach. So the episode 10 ED sequence also serves to bring the story back to the moment when Victor first came to Hasetsu.
—In episode 10, we get to meet a new character, Otabek Altin, in person for the first time. I’m really looking forward to seeing what kind of performance he has in store for us.
Kubo: Since we’re mostly seeing programs we’ve already seen before in the final, we wanted to include new programs by at least one new skater, so we had a skater from Kazakhstan come on board. He’s got a pretty flashy entrance, and because he’s Yurio’s first friend, I’d be happy if you could watch with a keen interest to see what kind of person he is. And I’ve called Otabek “Yurio’s first friend,” so what is Yūri to Yurio? Some of you might be thinking: “Is he no longer a friend, then, in some way or other?” Well, please keep watching the show until the very end.
The blistering battle between six skaters fighting for their first victory!
—What will the final episode be like? Could you give us a hint?
Kubo: It’s an ending that gives suggestions about their futures, and also of meetings that lead to new beginnings. There are many important competitions after the Grand Prix Final, and whether they’ve chosen to retire, or to continue skating competitively, their lives will continue. We’ve created a finale that we hope will leave you seeing that each person has many joys waiting for them beyond that goal of the Grand Prix Final.
—And could you leave a final message for the fans, one that also touches upon the highlights of the climax?
Kubo: This Grand Prix Final is what Yūri Katsuki has decided will be the stage of his last season. But at the same time, this is a story where all of them are battling to become the protagonist. The truth is, none of the six skaters in this final have ever won the title. Victor has been taking the title year after year, so all of them—from the younger ones in their teens to the oldest, Christophe Giacometti—have never, ever stood at the top of the podium. Whilst he was known as Victor’s rival, Giacometti had gotten used to being second. Phichit Chulanont is the first Thai national to have ever made it to the GPF. And needless to say, Yurio, Otabek and JJ have also come to Barcelona with the intent of taking the crown. Each and every one of them is betting on achieving their first win, and desperately aiming for it, so I hope that you will cheer for all of them. I entreat you to watch them through to the end of these last two episodes, through to the conclusion that awaits them. And as for Victor—does he return as a skater, or does he retire and turn to coaching? I’d like you to watch for the decision that he comes to as well. Please stay tuned until after the ED sequence, until the very end.