Yuri!!! On Ice


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Yuri!!! On Ice
"With so much built around a prepubescent fantasy of what the perfect romance might look like, it runs out of places to go and often feels too safe for there to be any real tension."

It won Animation of the Year at the Tokyo Animé Award Festival in 2017, it's one of Japan's biggest-selling animé titles - so what makes Yuri!!! On Ice so special? A romantic soap opera set in the world of figure skating, it won't be everyone's cup of tea, but it has clearly hit the spot for many thousands of people. There seem to be three key reasons for that. Firstly, it focuses on a gay love story unlike anything else to be found in the genre (without the overt sexuality of popular yaoi); secondly, it has been praised for its depiction of an increasingly popular sport; and thirdly, many fans swoon over its characters.

The idea of developing a crush on a cartoon may seem strange to those who don't experience it themselves, but ultimately it's not so far away from the painted pornography of the Middle Ages or even the neolithic Venus of Willendorf. Viktor (voiced in the original Japanese by Jun'ichi Suwabe, one of the country's most prolific voice actors) is the primary object of desire, a Russian figure skating legend whom we first see performing in Sochi - making one wonder if the series is intentionally rebuking the homophobia on display during the Winter Olympics there in 2014. He has long been the idol of former junior figure skater Yuri (Toshiyuki Toyonaga), but the 23-year-old's own ambitions have been put on hold following a bad defeat and ensuing crisis of confidence. Yuri is bullied about his weight, which only leads to more binging on pork cutlet bowls, and he can't cope with the pressure involved in competition performance. He's still talented, however, and when a friend films him practising and it goes viral, he catches Viktor's attention. The next thing he knows, the star is naked in his hot tub and asking if he wants a new coach.

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Though this may seem sudden (and the power imbalance between the two means that the relationship initially feels a little creepy), what follows is a very chaste romance which, despite subtext heavy enough to be radioactive, hesitates to speak its name. There are lengthy walks on the beach, lingering wistful looks and passionate hugs. The rest is mostly out of sight. The real challenge it presents to Japanese viewers is in its sense of balance. though Yuri adopts feminine strategies in his approach to skating, his increasing confidence as the series goes on means that he can't be understood as a continually submissive character, raising questions in a culture which still tends to assume that one man in each gay couple will take on a 'female' role.

Alongside this relationship, most of the drama comes from infighting within the wider group of contenders for top skating prizes - a chance for the series to produce more delicately animated young men for its fans to lust over. The youngest of these is also named Yuri and resents having to compete for his name as well as for titles; his inability to communicate without aggression, even when he's trying to be nice, provides some of the series' comedy and presents our hero with an antagonist without turning anybody into a real villain.

There's relatively little homophobia in the series, which sometimes feels odd (especially when Yuri and Viktor discuss living in St Petersburg) but the whole seems rather like an experiment imagining what life might be like for same sex couples without all that unpleasantness, and the result is a safe space for teenage viewers exploring their own emotions.

The main problem with the series is that it's very repetitive, with each episode focused on a particular skating tournament. Professional skaters have praised the animated ice dancing but if you're not already familiar with the moves you may find yourself lost and even bored. After a while, the central relationship comes to feel similarly staid. With so much built around a prepubescent fantasy of what the perfect romance might look like, it runs out of places to go and often feels too safe for there to be any real tension. Those who are attracted to cartoons, however, may find themselves sufficiently distracted by the frequency with which Viktor loses his shirt and sometimes more.

The animation is of variable quality and sometimes uses mixed styles in a way that looks quite peculiar. At its best, however, it's up there with the finest hand-drawn manga. The characters are permitted considerably more anatomical detail that is the norm in animé, something that really matters in the depictions of skating.

If none of its key elements appeal to you, you're likely to find Yuri!!! On Ice rather tedious. If you like even one of them, however, you may enjoy it a great deal.

Reviewed on: 06 Oct 2018
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A young figure skater develops new confidence and is inspired to pursue his dreams when the man he has always idolised decides to become his coach.

Director: Sayo Yamamoto

Starring: Toshiyuki Toyonaga, Jun'ichi Suwabe, Josh Grelle

Year: 2016

Runtime: 240 minutes

Country: Japan


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