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Now that the season has ended, I’ve finally been able to finish a piece that’s been in the works for the last four months. “What season?” I hear you ask, “Spring started a month ago!” Yes, and I’m certainly glad to have The Eccentric Family back! But the season I’m talking about concerns another major hobby of mine: just last month, the World Team Trophy marked the end of the 2016-2017 season of figure skating, a season that saw the sport reach ever greater heights as we build to the Olympics in Pyeongchang next February.
I’m sure many of you are well and truly over the show that endeavoured to capture the world of this sport, but please indulge me this one more time. I agree: Yuri!!! on ICE is not perfect; in particular, the challenges it faced in production were quite visible in the middle run of episodes. Fans of sports anime also complained that the narratives of growth and rivalry that they sought were weak or nonexistent. And most significantly, many viewers were disappointed (in various ways and to varying degrees) by an ending that, from their perspective, left the relationship between two of its main characters hanging. These issues undoubtedly contributed to the immense backlash that Yuri!!! on ICE faced earlier this year as it scored a host of awards both in Japan and overseas.
But at its heart, Yuri!!! on ICE is not a romance. Nor is it a story about someone just starting out in a sport that he will come to love. Instead, it’s a story about an elite athlete who, having come to the edge of a cliff, finds what he needs to rejuvenate himself and recommit to the sport that he loves. It’s a story about him forming new bonds—and reinvigorating old ones—that bind him ever more strongly to the ice. Furthermore, besides this narrative, the show is draped in homages to and memes about beloved skaters past and present, including the favorite skaters of Sayo Yamamoto and Mitsurō Kubo. And finally, I would argue that it speaks to the issue of gender stereotypes, which is salient both in the figure skating world and beyond. Let me address each of these elements in turn.
Yuri!!! on ICE through a figure skating lens
One of the greatest criticisms leveled at Yuri!!! on ICE is that it has a weak narrative. Unlike most sports anime or manga, it does not depict individuals just starting out, learning the ropes and growing as people as the result of the challenges and set-backs they face. Fans of sports and sports stories also felt that the core rivalry between Yūri and Yurio took a back seat to the other major relationship in the show. However, even that plot thread left many viewers unsatisfied when the show did not confirm that Yūri and Victor were romantically involved. For some viewers, including a few queer friends of mine, this ‘non-resolution’ could only be seen as yet another instance of queerbaiting or fujoshi-baiting. But even those who were able to reconcile their interpretations of the relationship with that ending continue to hope that it will eventually be confirmed.
Personally, however, coming to the show as a figure skating fan made a huge difference for me. Right from the start, I was captivated by the story that I saw Yamamoto and Kubo weaving. In the Hasetsu arc, I came to love Yūri, Yurio and Victor as they slowly set up the dynamics of their relationships with each other. In episode 7, I watched nervously as Victor shattered Yūri’s glass heart, and cheered as the latter put it back together himself, becoming stronger as a result. In episode 9, I wept for Yūri, who had decided to retire so that he could return Victor to the skating world. And in episode 12, I cheered silently as he landed each and every jump in his GPF free skate, carving his way into the record books even as Yurio took the gold by the slimmest of margins. I also loved finding out about the dreams of the other characters—especially Phichit and his hamster-themed ice show in Thailand! But most of all, having become a fan of Victor and Yūri over those 12 episodes, I rejoiced from the bottom of my heart when they both decided that they would keep skating.
One of the reasons these elements of the story touched me so much is my growing love for the real world of competitive figure skating. I’ve already written a longer history about my current interest in the sport—all I will say here is that it was reigning Olympic and world champion Yuzuru Hanyu who lured me into this fandom during the 2014-2015 season. But rather than Hanyu and the other top Japanese skater of the moment—Shoma Uno—it’s the previous generation of their countrymen whose stories are echoed in Yuri!!! on ICE. Around 2012-2014, when this project was forming in the minds of Yamamoto and later Kubo as well, Japanese men’s figure skating was a bloodbath between skaters who were all capable at medalling at major international competitions. Besides Nobunari Oda—who voiced himself in the 11th episode of the show—skaters like Tatsuki Machida and Takahiko Kozuka vied with Daisuke Takahashi (and later Hanyu) for the national crown. And among them, Machida was the late bloomer with a glass heart. Reading about him early in the show’s run really changed the way I saw Yūri’s story, and my heart bled for him when episode 9 came around.
Thankfully, Yūri found what he needed in order to keep skating. He found camaraderie in Yurio, and took inspiration from him as well as the other Grand Prix finalists, including his old friend and rink mate, Phichit. But above all, he formed an unbelievably strong bond with Victor, the skater he had long admired, and who had taken a break from competing in order to coach him. Such bonds can be found in the real world of figure skating as well. Videos on Youtube demonstrate just how well Hanyu and his rink mate, Javier Fernandez, get along, and similarly close relationships can be seen in earlier generations. You can also witness the strong connections between skaters and their coaches in the Kiss and Cry and other videos, or read and hear about the challenges of being or coaching an elite figure skater in interviews, podcasts and special TV programs. That real life skaters—including former US champion Johnny Weir and Kenji Miyamoto, who choreographed all of Yuri!!! on ICE’s figure skating programs—have heaped praise on the show is a testament to just how well Sayo Yamamoto and Mitsurō Kubo captured their lived experiences, and those of other members of their skating family.
Hang on, is that…?! Homages to RL figure skaters
But there’s another reason Yuri!!! on ICE captured the hearts of figure skating fans worldwide. When the show hit our screens early in October, it quickly became apparent that Yamamoto and Kubo had crammed it full of homages to real-life figure skaters. The first one I spotted was Victor’s Makkachin tissue case in episode 2, which I immediately connected with the Winnie the Pooh case that Hanyu is hardly ever seen without. However, as Weir later noted, mascot tissue cases were a thing even before Pooh became a familiar face on the boards, with his own Cheburashka being one of the first. In fact, there are several obvious homages to Weir himself in the show, namely the Swan costume from the 2006 Torino Olympics and the rose crown that a fan presented to him in Vancouver in 2010. Yamamoto herself has confirmed—through Kubo—that Weir is the skater that led her to figure skating.
However, fans of Weir’s generation of figure skaters would also have picked up on another homage right from episode 1—nay, perhaps even from the PVs. Victor’s golden skates are based on those of former world champion Stéphane Lambiel, who first donned them around 2014. You’d have to be a pretty hardcore figure skating fan if you knew this before animator Noriko Itō revealed it on December 21 though, as that was several years after he retired from competition. But as the story moves along, it becomes quite clear that Lambiel is another of Yamamoto’s favourite skaters. Though Victor’s life as a skater is not based on his (Lambiel did not dominate the men’s field in his day, and only started coaching several years after he retired), I’d argue that a lot of his mannerisms certainly are.
There are many other such homages and references in Yuri!!! on ICE, some easier to spot than others. The figure skating fans at the Golden Skate Forums were incredibly quick at picking them out, as were the Japanese fans they followed on Twitter and other social media. In particular, I’d like to point out a few that probably have meme status in the Japanese figure skating fandom. Remember how viewers were incredulous about JJ taking bronze with such unfair scores? Well, that was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the alleged score inflation that used to be attached to the name of a certain North American skater. Other memes that you may eventually come across in the skating fandom include the unfashionable suit and/or necktie, and, believe it or not, “Congrats on your marriage!” Whilst I truly loved the plot thread of Yūri rediscovering his love for skating, with Victor’s help, it is these Easter eggs that will have me coming back to the show again and again.
“That’s beautiful.” Yuri!!! on ICE on gender stereotypes and figure skating
But Yuri!!! on ICE was not just about memes and homages, it also encapsulates messages about some important contemporary concerns. The show may not satisfy people who were looking for a non-fetishised queer relationship, but I would argue that it has a strong, positive message about the related issue of gender stereotypes. This is achieved through two main facets of the show: the character arcs of Yurio and Otabek, and perhaps most importantly, the way that Yūri and Victor interact. And I find this incredibly important because questions of gender and gender roles extend far beyond figure skating to just about every part of our various societies.
Although Yuri!!! on ICE is a story about male figure skaters, it features several individuals whose performances incorporate feminine elements. Much of the fandom focuses on Yūri’s short program, as the narrative has him initially tackling it from the perspective of a woman. But the skater with the most feminine style (at least in terms of the programs we see him perform) is actually Yurio. The musical pieces don’t sound at all alike: “In Regards to Love ~Agape~” gives off a soft, ‘innocent’ image, whilst the music to his free program is more intense. However, the way that Yurio moves in both pieces is actually quite similar: soft and supple, with no sharp movements. Furthermore, choreographer Kenji Miyamoto did not perform these programs as he did all the others—it was the performer Kawanishi Honoka who took on the challenge. In fact, Miyamoto has noted that the choreography was specifically designed for Yurio to move in a feminine way.
What’s important about this is that no one complains that his programs are “too girly.” Not Yurio, even if he initially declared that he hates “this innocence crap” and would later replace a similar exhibition program with “the madness.” Not the fans or commentators, the latter of whom simply marveled at how he easily jumped his quads and triples with one hand raised over his head. And not the judges who rewarded his performances with astronomically high scores. The sole exception is JJ, who teases him about this feminine image with a “ladies first” in episode 8. This little swipe suggests that Yamamoto and Kubo have not forgotten that expectations associated with a skater’s gender remain a serious issue in the real world of figure skating.
This issue is often presented as being particularly problematic for male figure skaters who identify as gay. But what lies behind it are cultural and societal assumptions about what masculinity should be. Figure skating, with its sparkly costumes and graceful movements, is regarded in many countries as ‘a girly winter sport’—boys are encouraged to play ice hockey instead. Boys and men who choose figure skating are encouraged to tone down the sparkles, because “That’s feminine and then they’ll think you’re gay.” In other words, both being gay and being effeminate give rise to discrimination in the figure skating world. This is true even in countries like Japan—if you look at the comments on videos of Hanyu’s performances, you’ll find Japanese people complaining that he should dress and skate in a more masculine way. That he loves cute things like Pooh and often behaves in an incredibly cute manner probably doesn’t help.
Here’s the thing, though. Why is it not okay for guys to like cute things? Why is it not okay for guys to don sparkly costumes and do figure skating? Why is not okay for guys to be ‘girly’? Or for women and girls to be more ‘manly’? “OMG, how gay!” should not be an insult. But one step towards that is to create a world where “Oh, you’re such a girl!” is not an insult to boys and men, and where women aren’t criticized or otherwise discriminated against for not acting in a ‘feminine’ way. A world where our sex or gender has no bearing on how we should present ourselves in public or private. Hanyu is arguably at the forefront at breaking down these expectations in the real figure skating world, but it’s clear that there is still a long way to go.
This is why Yurio’s success in Yuri!!! on ICE is important to me. That he wins the gold medal in the Grand Prix Final, having skated two programs that are incredibly feminine in style and costume, only reinforces this critique of gender roles. In fact, Otabek’s story provides another boost to this message, because in seeking a more masculine kind of skating, he is presented as the outlier. Yurio’s graceful and balletic movements are suggested to be something that the skating world in the show places great value on. But the other characters’ fascination with Otabek’s style of skating shows that his style of skating is valued as well. As Kubo emphasized in December last year, “Within (this) world, no one is ever going to be discriminated against because of what they like.”
On Yūri and Victor and queer representation
This brings me to the elephant in the room: what is the relationship between Yūri and Victor? As those who follow me on social media would already know, my read on Yūri and Victor is that that they are not in what most people would call a romantic relationship. I do not have a problem with people who read them as a couple that are or should be engaged in the world of the show, but narratively speaking, that just doesn’t work for me. I’ve been criticized and insulted for this stance, and other people I know have actually lost friends for holding it. But does it really matter? It’s obvious that Yūri and Victor love each other. It’s also clear that they can’t imagine parting from one another. That’s how deep their bond is—as Kubo has actually said, they are soulmates. Given how broad the queer spectrum is, does it really matter whether they are confirmed to be in what most people would call a gay or homosexual relationship or not?
I understand the drive for better queer representation in media. I have a lot of friends who belong to the LGBTIQA community—or “the alphabet community,” as some of them affectionately call it—and I’ve heard from them directly just how much Willow and Tara’s relationship on Buffy meant to them. I know people who realized that they were queer because they recognized themselves in characters in the TV shows and movies that they were watching. I also understand the frustration that many people have with queerbaiting and queer erasure. An old friend of mine was deeply disappointed with Yuri!!! on ICE because that’s what the non-confirmation of the relationship meant to them, given how it was presented. How else would you read the exchanging of rings in front of a church if it did not entail an engagement?
But here’s why I don’t think it really matters whether Yūri and Victor are confirmed as a couple or not. Yuri!!! on ICE showed us two men in an incredibly close, affectionate relationship, a relationship where they were fine interacting in ways that might (and did!) elicit an “OMG! That’s so gay!” reaction from people watching. What’s really important, however, is that no one gave such a reaction in the show itself. Fans went crazy over the photo Phichit posted on Instagram, and were stunned at what Victor did at the end of Yuuri’s free skate at the Cup of China. And the commentators talked about Victor kissing Yuuri’s skates, the matching rings and their incredibly close relationship. But never once did we get a “That’s so gay!” much less an “Ewwww!” from any character, not even a background one. This close, affectionate behavior was portrayed as being ‘normal’, something that no one in that world discriminates against.
To me, this is the main reason Yuri!!! on ICE is groundbreaking. It sets no boundaries for how affectionate people can be with the people they are close to. It sets no boundaries for how people should behave based on their biological sex. And the fact that no one’s sexuality is brought up or questioned in the show suggests that whether someone is queer or not doesn’t matter either, at least not in that world. Even more importantly, it has had an effect in Japan. Whilst I only have anecdotal evidence gleaned from Japanese podcasts, Twitter and friends living there, there are definitely viewers who let go of some of their reservations about not only effeminate men, but also close, affectionate male-male relationships. By the end of the show, they had accepted Victor and Yūri’s relationship, however you might want to define it. If that’s not progress, then what is?
In sum, these are the reasons I loved Yuri!!! on ICE. As a figure skating fan, the story it told of the complex relationships that figure skaters have both with their peers and with the ice that they love so much shook me to the core. The homages that Yamamoto and Kubo crammed it with will have me trawling through the troves of figure skating videos available online, and rewatching the show year after year to see if I can discover anything new. And finally, I will always appreciate what Yuri!!! on ICE has to say about the gender expectations that permeate not only the figure skating world, but also the broader world in which we live. I hope that the show will be one of the factors that helps change these damaging stereotypes about who and what we should be.
Of course, there are many other things—both positive and negative—that I could say about Yuri!!! on ICE. I’ve left out what I think of the animation, the music and other facets of production, partly because that would have doubled the length of this post, but also because I know that my appreciation of them will only grow once I have Animestyle 011 in my hands. In fact, the animation and music have already attracted attention from other professionals—figure skating animator Eiji Abiko mentioned in an interview that both he and Junpei Tatenaka have been getting more offers to be action animators, and the song for Victor’s free program, “Aria: Stammi Vicino, Non Te Ne Andare,” was recently performed by a professional opera singer. We can also expect to see a bevy of skaters skating to some of the songs in the future. In fact, one of the skaters I mention above already has.
edit (16 May): You can also see Johnny skate to “In Regards to Love ~Eros~” here.
So let me finish by recounting how the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships again showed me just how well Yamamoto and Kubo captured the real world of figure skating. When my heart leapt into my throat as Hanyu took the ice for his free skate, and as I clasped my hands in silent prayer to watch as he jumped, spun and otherwise skated his way to gold, I recalled once again how it felt watching Yūri put down the free skate of his life in the final episode of Yuri!!!! on ICE. But it was a moment behind-the-scenes after the victory ceremony that sealed the deal for me. In the mixed zone, the newly crowned champion came through as reporters were interviewing Javier Fernandez, his rinkmate and the skater who’d denied him the world crown for the past two seasons. Fernandez, the defending champion, had missed the podium despite throwing down a perfect short program just two days earlier. Here, let me defer to one of the people who actually witnessed the moment:
All the skaters still have to pass through the rather cramped mixed zone, regardless of their final position, which is where Fernandez was when a certain Hanyu needed to get past at the end of the medal ceremony. There was but one route available to him, which was obstructed by the Spaniard. Hanyu came up behind him and touched him on the arm. Fernandez turned around to see the world champion take off the gold medal that was hanging around his neck, and put it on the 2015 and 2016 champion. The gesture astonished all those present who quickly realized that they had just witnessed something historic. The world champion had given his gold medal to his longstanding rival, to the skater that denied him gold in 2015 and 2016, to his training partner.
The pair exchanged a heartfelt hug, before Fernandez took off the medal and gave it back to Hanyu, who went back in the same direction with another gold medal in his hand that a journalist had handed him. 40 minutes after being named world champion, Hanyu rounded off a perfect free skate with a gesture fitting of any champion.
It is difficult to convey in words just how touching this moment was to those of us who’ve followed Hanyu and/or Fernandez through the years. And I have to admit that Yuri!!! on ICE does not quite reach these heights—I’d be hard pressed to think of any fictional story that does. But I still think that this one comes mightily close, with leaves me with just one conclusion:
Yuri!!! on ICE is a show that has captured everything I love about the figure skating world, from the personalities that populate it to the genuine love that skaters, coaches, officials and fans alike have for “everything on the ice.” No one—and I mean NO ONE—could have captured the essence of this world quite as successfully as Yamamoto and Kubo did. I thank them from the bottom of my heart for the experience they crafted, and I very much look forward to whatever else they have in store.
p.s. “We can’t stop, we won’t stop, we refuse to stop!!”—Sayo Yamamoto
As pretty much everyone has already heard, I’m sure, a sequel film was confirmed at the Yuri!!! on STAGE event on April 29th. Cue heaps of speculation over what it’ll cover! (Even as most fans are still recovering from the insane skit that the voice actors performed ^^;)
Personally, because we know from interviews just how much effort it took to create all the music and figure skating programs for the show, I suspect the film will be about our cast going to Worlds. It makes sense narratively, as this is the premier figure skating competition each season (except once every four years when the Olympics is on). To put it another way, this is the competition that skaters spend the whole season fine-tuning their programs for, testing their mettle in each and every competition they enter. Furthermore, we know that Yamamoto and Kubo were in Helsinki for Worlds, after which they traveled to St. Petersburg—hm… I wonder what they could have been doing there? Production-wise, this also makes it possible for the film’s release to coincide with the Pyeongchang Olympics next year, as the creators would not have to create new figure skating programs for most of the skaters. I’m looking forward to seeing new programs for Victor though, and possibly a new exhibition skate for Yūri and Victor both—anything else is a bonus!
 These aren’t the same thing. Some brief research suggests to me that there are two main differences. First, fujoshi-baiting is specific to the manga, anime and game industry in Japan whilst queerbaiting is currently more of an issue in the Western entertainment industry. And second, the primary target of queerbaiting is understood to be the queer community, whereas fujoshi tend to be straight women. There’s a longer discussion to be had about the interaction between these two communities and these two issues, though it lies outside the scope of this piece. ↩
 You can see them in videos of Lambiel’s performances in various ice shows. Blades and boots actually have to be replaced quite regularly—for example, have a read of what happened to Nathan Chen at the recent world championships in Helsinki—so Lambiel probably just decided one year to start using gold blades. Incidentally, Johnny Weir has also donned golden skates, with the earliest instance I’ve come across so far dating from December last year, before he started watching Yuri!!! on ICE.↩
 Miyamoto insisted that he could pull this off, that he could skate in a feminine way. However, Yamamoto and Kubo wanted to ask a female skater because Miyamoto’s body shape was so different from Yurio’s that it would have been difficult to trace during the animation process. ↩
 This variation—called a “Tano jump” after Brian Boitano, who popularised it in the 1980s—is more difficult to execute because it shifts the skater’s centre of gravity. Hence, judges tend to award such jumps with higher grades of execution (GOEs). ↩