Let’s face it, it was only a matter of time before I reviewed this show. We all knew it was coming. I mean, it was only the biggest hit of the year when it came out.
The thing is, I’ve had a bit of a hard time working on this review. While there’s plenty to talk about where this show is concerned, most of that has already been said, and discussed, and debated, and dissected, by so many people, that it doesn’t really leave me a lot to add.
Still, I really enjoyed this show a lot, and have wanted to talk about it for a bit now. So, while I probably won’t be adding anything to the conversation, I’ll at least be getting that need to talk about it out of my system. Which, as a writer, is more like a burning itch in the brain than anything.
Seriously. When you are a creative person, and you have something that you want to do, it’s like having a having a piece of your brain on fire. The short fiction piece I posted last Wednesday, Powerhouse, is like that. I’ve had that character clawing at my mind for years. I just finally couldn’t take it anymore, and had to put her out there in the world. Just took finding the right way to do it, a way that I was personally satisfied with.
So, this is kind of going to be the same thing. It’s more my need to write this than it is any sort of new insight, or relevance to the general conversation of the show, that drives this review. Sometimes, though, that’s all you need. Just the desire to do something.
Which, given the themes of the series, seems somehow fitting, you know?
Also, it seems an incredibly appropriate point in time. Japanese figure skaters in the Winter Olympics were just skating to the Yuri On Ice music, after all.
Look at me, being topical. Crazy, I know.
Yuri on Ice is a 12 episode, 2016 series from studio MAPPA, maker of such things as Terror in Resonance, and the Garo franchise. The studio has only been around for about six years, and they’ve had a good few successful shows, most of them Garo related, so it’s a bit surprising they’d take such a huge risk with a show like this. After all, figure skating isn’t really the sort of thing you ever expect to see an anime be centered around.
Plenty of other sports, sure. Baseball has had their share. Basketball more than a few. Figure skating, though, that one caught me off guard. Not a slight against figure skating, mind you. Just not something you expect to see pop up as the subject of an anime series, where, let’s face it, giant robots and epic fights for the sake of friendship generally rule the day.
The story follows Yuri Katsuki, a twenty three year old Japanese figure skater, who has just suffered a series of crushing losses in international competitions. Dejected, and suddenly uncertain about his career, Yuri returns home to figure out what he’s doing with his life, and what comes next.
While there, he visits the skating rink where he use to practice, and first developed his love of the sport. Run by an old friend, Yuko, Yuri decides to show her something he’s been practicing, an extremely complex routine performed by the world’s top skater, Russian champ Victor Nikiforov. Unknown to Yuri, Yuka’s young, precocious triplets are filming the whole thing, and upload it to the internet, making Yuri a star.
Mostly because he nailed the whole routine, doing it so well he attracts the attention of Victor himself, who travels to Japan, puts his career on hold, just to be Yuri’s coach, and get him back on track. Horrified that his idol, the man who inspired him to become a figure skater, is suddenly here, and offering to coach him, at the cost of his own fame, Yuri struggles with what he should do. Making things worse, Victor’s apparent heir to the title of Russia’s greatest skater, Yuri Plisetsky, soon arrives demanding Victor return and keep his promise, to choreograph a routine for him at his senior division debut.
Yuri number two, or Yurio as everyone starts calling him, is also known as the Russian Punk, and in the face of his aggressive style Yuri starts to back down. However, Victor came all that way, and saw something in him he felt was worthy. With his confidence somewhat boosted by this, Yuri decides to fight back, and soon, finds himself in an unofficial face off with Yurio over who gets Victor. This, in turn, leads to Yuri’s incredible comeback in the world of figure skating, and a relationship he never expected to have.
There is a lot going on in this show. A lot of characters, and a lot of plot, all driven forward by the characters. Basically, it’s like catnip for me, as I love a good character driven story more than I do pizza, which is a thing I also love a lot.
I was a fan of Samurai Pizza Cats, by the way. Pizza, cats, and giant mecha. What’s not to love?
Anyway, back to Yuri.
The first big thing about this show that I loved was the extremely well written characters, starting with Yuri. When we first meet him, he’s pretty depressed. His losses have demoralized him to the point he’s considering giving up his career. This isn’t something that goes away easily, either, and most of his character arc through the series is about him learning to be confident, in himself, and in his own talent. This is a tricky thing to get right in writing, by the way.
If you present a character as being too weak willed, the audience kind of gets annoyed at them, and stops caring. If they gain confidence too quickly, though, then their initial introduction as someone lacking confidence kind of feels like a cheap lure, and the audience loses interest. How they gain confidence is also difficult to manage. Suddenly finding it all on their on may move the story forward, but isn’t very realistic, no matter how much we are told to believe in ourselves. Having it be given entirely by another character, though, robs them of any real development on their own, which trust me, people will notice.
Yuri, now, is a very well balanced approach to the character. While he draws a lot of his confidence from Victor, he also is willing to dig deep, and find his own personal strength, for a lot of reasons through the series. What’s great about this is, Victor gives Yuri a place to start, but much of his development is of his own desire to grow. The two things work in tandem, kind of the way they do in real life.
It reminds me of a scene from Fruits Basket, where Yuki comments that we cannot believe in ourselves, until we know someone else believes in us as well. Paraphrasing, of course, but that’s the gist of it. Yuri is the same. He wants to believe in himself, and it isn’t that others don’t, it’s that he feels they are obligated to. His friends and family, for all they support him, are people he knows love him, so their support feels more obligatory, than genuine.
It’s the arrival of Victor, someone who has no reason to believe in him, that starts Yuri on his own journey of discovering his own strength. Victor has no investment here, at least, at first. That basis of being impartial, boosts Yuri’s own confidence in himself, and as Victor’s involvement grows, that basis remains. It’s easier to believe in Victor’s belief, because it wasn’t always there.
This lends Yuri a sense of realism, as he gets better and better, grows strong, and more determined. His journey is fraught with danger, however, and he has a lot of points where he slips backward, falters, and has to struggle to recover. Again, it’s all very realistic. Yuri is possibly the most realistic character I’ve ever seen in anime, and honestly, that’s pretty damn refreshing, all on it’s own.
The flip side of the coin is Victor, who despite being one of the worlds best figure skaters, a five time champion, and is considered a genius in the sport of figure skating, is also a giant flake. He’s impulsive, forgetful, silly, and little more than a big kid most of time. He doesn’t often think things through, and struggles to figure out how to help Yuri after doing, what at first, seems like an incredibly impulsive thing in becoming his coach.
However, for all that Victor is a big ball of dork, he is smart, and prides himself on surprising audiences, and judges. However, at this point in his career, people expect to be surprised by him, so really, here’s no surprises left. This has left him uncertain as to the future of his own career, much as Yuri is. What is he to do now, that he can no longer surprise anyone?
The obvious answer, is to take a skater nobody expects anything from, and surprise the world with what he can do. This is his initial motivation for getting involved in Yuri’s life. He has a new surprise up his sleeve, something nobody expects. He’s going to coach someone, and make a champion of him. Of course, this is easier said than done, bu the marvelous thing about Victor, is that once he commits to a path, he doesn’t give up.
He knows Yuri has what it takes. He saw it, on the video. He just has to figure out how to inspire Yuri to believe it, as well. Which is where Victor is truly challenged. As Yuri struggles to gain his confidence, Victor struggles with how to be taken seriously, how to say what Yuri needs to hear, and how to bring out the best in his new protege. As a skater, he never had to worry about that. He just did what he did. Now, with someone else’s career on the line, he is challenged in new ways, and he struggles, fails, falters, and has to find his way, just as Yuri does.
The two characters present two different sides to the confidence coin. Yuri has none, while Victor has an overabundance. While Yuri is never annoying in his lack of confidence, Victor is never arrogant in his abundance of it. Both are kind people, good people, who have to learn how to get out of their own way, and use their talents, skills, and rely on each other where they are weak, to achieve their goals.
Then, there’s Yurio. Where Victor is never arrogant in his confidence, Yurio is. Arrogant to the point of being an asshole. Yet, despite that, he has a wonderful, strong, and amazing character arc, as well, as he learns how to be humble, without sacrificing his confidence in himself. Though he clashes with Yuri often, he slowly comes to see what it was about the young Japanese skater that drew Victor’s attention, and over time, comes to respect him, and even cheer for him, despite the two being in direct competition.
What Yurio discovers is that competition doesn’t mean you can’t respect, care for, and even admire you opponent. His own desire to best Yuri drives him to be better than he ever knew he could be. For all his brash arrogance, Yurio learns he can be better still, not just as a skater, but as a person. While he never really mellows, he finds in Yuri a worthy rival, one that he can he respect, and even see as a friend.
It’s a great trio of characters, that gives three different views on how confidence, or the lack of, can drive us, and how finding that thing that sparks us to try harder can to dig deeper, can only lead us to wondrous new heights.
Of course, I’m not going to ignore the elephant in the room. Victor and Yuri’s relationship is more than skater and coach, or even friends. It’s very clearly meant to be a gay relationship. Of course, this is all done in subtext, thought often, with rather obvious glaring text, as well. While at first, they begin as coach and skater, and become friends, they do eventually become more, though the show never explicitly states that.
Why, I can’t imagine. Now, bear with me a minute, because this is kind of important, and probably the only real knock I have on the show. There was no good reason, outside politics, to dodge the obvious in such an obvious way.
While neither Victor or Yuri are ever straight up said to be gay, neither are they straight up said to be straight, though Victor does put on the act very well. Rather, the characters, and their relationship, is slowly developed to be that of a couple, while actively avoiding calling them a couple. This actually bothers me a little.
I only have a few straight friends. Most of my friends are gay. The people I am absolutely closest to in the world are gay. They are always the ones who accept me, for all my strengths, and my flaws, wholly and completely. In them, I always find my family. It doesn’t matter to me that they are gay, because they are precious to me, and I love them.
It has, over the years, led me to understand that they do not live the lives they deserve to live. They are pushed into a corner, and told to stay. We have become more accepting of them, but not enough to ever really allow them out of their corner. We have made it a bigger corner, but a corner still.
This is not something I can accept. Until we are all free, none of us are. Until we are all equal, under the law, none of us are.
So, it bothers me to see Yuri and Victor’s relationship exist almost solely in subtext. I get that Japan is not that accepting of gay rights, but still. To hell with politics. If you are going to tell a story, do not compromise. Tell it, as it needs to be told.
Their relationship is obviously intended to be a slap in the face to the rather homophobic nature of the figure skating world, but as it is also meant to be a love letter to figure skating, I can get how they’d want to tread carefully. However, if you want to make an omelet, you gotta break some eggs. So, really, keeping their relationship vague the way the show did was kind of disappointing to me, as it is otherwise a wonderful story of two men falling in love. It’s never sexual, or mostly not anyway, but it is about the heart, the soul, and the mind, drawing two people together. That’s what love is, after all, and I kind of wish they hadn’t shortchanged that.
What the show lacked in commitment to Yuri and Victor’s relationship, however, it certainly did not lack in the figure skating department. With routines choreographed by real life figure skating champion Kenji Miyamoto, and animated by one of the largest collection of key animators ever assembled for an anime, these things are stunning to behold. It goes beyond animation. It’s fucking art.
Seriously, when Yurio finally commits to his routine based in innocent, selfless, love, it almost, or in my case did, bring tears to your eyes. It’s beautiful. Yuri’s routines, especially those set to his own music, Yuri On Ice as it is named in an obvious nod, are amazing to watch.
Miyamoto didn’t just choreograph the routines, however, he also skated them, for MAPPA to record, so that even the sound effects of the skates on the ice would be accurate, making Yuri On Ice one of the most realistic animes ever made. They even changed it according to the size of the arena, and the number of people present, to make sure it was all dead to life accurate. Every routine is beautiful, and the way they committed to the sound effects make you feel as if you are there.
That’s something really special. As is their commitment to showing more than just Yuri’s commitment. Each skater we meet is given life, making them people, who we come to care for. Their reasons for pushing themselves, for striving so hard, makes you want to cheer for them, as well. Be they arrogant, vain, proud, or just competitive, they are all realistically fleshed out individuals, who we know, and when they falter, when they lose, it hurts, because we know them.
It would have been easy to keep the focus on Yuri, Victor, and Yurio. However, that would have robbed the show of something it needed to be a success. Seeing that Yuri, for all that he wanted to succeed, wasn’t the only one out there who was driven by needs. It made him part of a larger community. It made his success a bit bittersweet. It let us see, that for all he wanted to succeed, his success came at a price for others.
That is the nature of competitive sports, after all. Not everyone gets to win. Even good people lose. They do not wallow in it, however. They get up, they congratulate the winner, and they are inspired to strive harder. It is very much a friendly rivalry, always pushing each other to be better. Without knowing the other skaters, Yuri’s own story would have been smaller, and lesser, for it was in his competition, that Yuri truly discovered his own greatness.
I guess, what I’m trying to say, is that this is a really great show, that could have been only so very slightly better. I guess that’ll depend on your point of view, of course, but this is one time, I have no problem saying if you don’t see how the series would have been better by being open with Yuri and Victor’s relationship, your point of view is stupid, and wrong.
In terms of animation, well, I guess I already gave this one away. It’s freaking gorgeous. The skating work is beautiful, vivid, and daring. The character designs are amazing. The fluidity of the motion is amazing. The routines are breath taking. Everything about this show is stunning, and while MAPPA has been around for a while, this is really going to be the anime that ends up putting them on the map, I think. Everyone is going to be wanting to match the quality of this show, and not many studios will be able to. Madhouse, and Bones, most likely, but speaking purely in terms of amazing animation work, Yuri On Ice has put MAPPA head and shoulders above their competition for quality.
The series was directed by Sayo Yamamoto, who hasn’t had a lot of work as a series director. Granted, he directed Lupin the III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, which as we all know, was huge, but before that, his only directing credit for a series was on Michiko & Hatchin, for the now defunct studio Manglobe, in 2008. I’m tempted to go check it out after seeing his work here, to be honest, though most of Manglobe’s work was, while good, a bit messy in places, as they pursued big ideas they couldn’t always pull off.
Still, Yamamoto has done other work, like directing the OP for Psycho Pass, which was amazing, and the ED for Attack On Titan, as well as Space Dandy. All stuff that was incredible, so he’s obviously got chops, and Yuri On Ice was the show that was waiting for him, so he could prove it. His work as a director here is just amazing. He knows when to be funny, when to be a traditional anime, and when to go for the throat of realism. He knows when to be cute, when to be coy, and when to be amazing. His camera work is stunning, his oversight of the animation incredible, and his ability to juggle a ton of balls just amazing.
No pun intended.
Yes, I’m an awful person, I know.
Much as Yuri On Ice is going to put MAPPA on the map, I think this show is going to put Yamaoto there as well, as a director with amazing ability, and most of all, the ability to deliver a solid hit, with amazing characters, tremendous camera work, and a really well balanced story.
Speaking of story, the series was written by Mitsurou Kubo, a manga artist, writer and radio personality. She’s worked on the mangas Moteki and Again!, though I know nothing about them, so I can’t say if they are good. What I do know is that she knows how to write really well fleshed out characters, who have drives, needs, wants, and personalities that make them stunning realistic. She can construct a plot based entirely on those characters, and make it incredibly relatable, compelling, and rich.
Basically, I respect her a ton, and hope to see more of her in the future. She’s got some major skills, and I look forward to seeing what the success of this series does for her writing career. With a little luck, we’ll be talking about her a lot in the future.
The music was done by two people. The fist, Taro Umebayashi, aka Milk, crafted most all of the insert songs the skaters perform to, including the now real life figure skating music Yuri On Ice. He’s also done music for Space Dandy in the past, but mostly, he’s known for his own musical skills outside of anime. The other, Taku Matsushiba, only has the background composition of Yuri On Ice to his list of anime work, but apparently, is a much more successful musician outside of anime. At least, from what I can find on him.
Together, they build one of the strongest soundtracks in an anime that I’ve ever heard. The background music is lovely, and helps build the characters emotional state just perfectly, while the insert songs for the skating routines are just amazing. The OP, as I mentioned a while back, is also stunning, and all of it together just really builds the show up even higher than it already was.
I want this soundtrack, so bad. I’m not even lying. I want it. I need it. I crave it.
Overall, Yuri On ice goes someplace almost no sports anime has ever gone, into the world of competitive figure skating, and tackles both the hard work, the passion, the beauty, and the demons, that lurk with in it. Despite it missing on key thing I think would have made it even better, the show overall is an amazing piece of work, in that it is entirely character driven, and focused entirely on what you can do with your life, if you can just find that one thing that drives you harder than anything else.
It’s about coming back, finding yourself, and others, and grabbing at your dream, no matter how far out of reach it may seem. It’s about learning who you are, and being okay with it. It’s about letting go of what you can’t control, and being okay with that, too.
Mostly, though, it’s about accepting yourself, and really, that’s a thing we can all learn to be a bit better at.
Except me. I’m awesome just the way I am.
Confidence, kids. Even if you ain’t got it, fake it like ya do.