Recently, I have been catching up on a lot of my never-ending stack of Blu-rays. One of these is the complete series of Yuri!!! On Ice, and wow: in 12 episodes, it left me spellbound through a combination of diverse characters, wonderful animation, and a brilliant use of music. This isn’t going to be a review, but instead more of a take on the powerful and important themes at play in this series.
-WARNING: SPOILERS FOR YURI!!! ON ICE AHEAD-
A quick summary of the plot, then, for establishing purposes – I shall go into more detail when I do my full series review soon. Yuri!!! On Ice picks up the story of Japanese figure skater Yuri Katsuki (Toshiyuki Toyonaga), aged 23, just after he has placed 6th of 6 in the Grand Prix Final – he is devastated and considering stopping his career in the sport, returning home to his caring family in Hasetsu, Kyushu.. However, then a video of him recreating the routine of his idol, the Russian current Champion Victor Nikiforov (Jun’ichi Suwabe) is posted online without him knowing. Victor views it, and suddenly arrives in Hasetsu to announce that he can coach Katsuki.
From here on, we follow the evolving dynamic of Katsuki and Victor, which is clearly different to other coach-student relationships. There are sparks there, and the admiration isn’t going only one way. Through the following episodes, as Yuri faces challenge after challenge – whether from himself, other skaters, or Victor himself – we see this complex relationship bloom in a way that compels you to keep watching.
As a story about two men feeling love for each other, it is undoubtedly important in terms of diversity. Crucially, I find, is that whilst this is an essential element of the anime that is Yuri!!! On Ice, it isn’t the defining element. By this, I mean that it is interwoven with the other main plot thread – that is to say, the quest for Katsuki to make his way to another Grand Prix Final and try to win Gold – and both informs and is informed by the other characters and their respective obstacles in love.
For example, straight off the bat, we see Katsuki go back to his hometown and subsequently Ice Castle Hasetsu, the ice rink he uses for training. He reunites with a friend, Yuuko Nishigori (Mariya Ise), and makes an internal offhand remark about how she is “cute”, which is a sign of how this treats people and their opinions in an open way; there aren’t thoughts that are closed off to people because of other aspects about them. This is, actually, when the aforementioned recording of his imitation of Victor happens, in front of Yuuko. We shortly discover that she is both married and has kids, as we become more and more aware of how Katsuki idolises Victor. In a scene that could have, perhaps, been a cliché of returning home and having a relationship with a friend Katsuki hadn’t seen for a while, Yuri!!! On Ice instead shows how people grow and go different ways – and, importantly, that these diverging paths don’t have to mean we can’t still be close to one another.
So, we immediately have these themes of love at play, romantic, friendly, and family. It’d be remiss to not mention the love for competition, and more specifically, figure skating, too. Yeah, I know, wow, I discovered a theme of skating in Yuri!!! On Ice, I’m a genius! It’s more than that, though; figure skating as a competitive sport is so expressive, and such a smart method to essentially show character development through competition. Every time Katsuki or one of the many other skaters (more on them in a moment) go onto the ice, they literally and figuratively have all eyes on them, and them alone, for the duration of that performance. These performances are rarely cut off or cut away from, either, except when memories or other crucial experiences are used to show the state of mind they are in.
Furthermore, the nature of figure skating matches up so well with the development of the characters and their emotions because the skaters have two routines they prepare – one for the short program, and one for the free skate, which together make up your score. They adjust them here and there, but the music and the essence of the routines are constant from event to event – so, brilliantly, there are multiple renditions of these routines through the series, allowing them to be clear and absorbing showcases for where the character is emotionally relevant to their last performance. Additionally, if you compare how Katsuki and Victor greet each other after each skate, the progress of their bond is fascinating; at times, slight disappointment, at others, jubilation (such as the end of the seventh episode, where Victor suddenly launches himself at Katsuki). In a similar way to how Your Lie in April shows emotion through music, Yuri!!! On Ice does this through figure skating (which notably also involves music).
Early on in the series, we are introduced to Yuri – no, another one. The Russian Yuri Plisetksy (Koki Uchiyama) was, before these events, going to have his routine made by Victor, so he – understandably – follows Victor to Hasetsu to confront him about the sudden change of plans. Yuri Plisetsky, at 15, is much younger than Yuri Katsuki; he has essentially the opposite personality too, ruthlessly determined to succeed. Victor decides that they will compete to decide who he shall help, with them both skating to the same track, but with different arrangements. One is On Love – Agape, and one is On Love – Eros, which mean unconditional and sexual love respectively. Predictably, Yuri goes for Agape, and Plisetsky goes for Eros; until Victor then gives them both the other one from the one they chose! They are straight away thrown out of their comfort zone, and faced with baring a new side of themselves in a public skate.
To get into the new mindsets, they both find a way to focus on this new emotion; Katsuki by imagining the pork cutlet bowl his family makes and he – and so many others – enjoy (yes, for sexual love – there are plenty of innuendos here), and Plisetsky through thoughts of his grandfather. This even continues to their choice of costumes (from those that Victor has worn before); Katsuki starts wearing a bold black outfit, and Plisetsky a sparkling white outfit, both showing new sides to the characters. They both perform well, but the connection between Katsuki and Victor during his performance leads to Plisetsky leaving before the results are even announced. He is still determined to win – perhaps even more so – and his love for both his grandfather and competition are unique to him and him alone.
Yet, beyond these characters, Yuri!!! On Ice keeps impressing as you get to the later episodes and the skating events within them. There are many new characters being introduced through these, and amazingly – in 12 episodes of around 20 minutes each – they seem to all get time to make you invested in their own ways of loving. We get focused scenes on them and their performances, which vary greatly both visually and in terms of music. Credit to the animation in particular, and how they brought alive the skating – more on that in the full review. I really cared about where each of them was going, whether they were a skater with a bright future or one that had been on the scene for a while.
There are so many, but to name just a few: Christophe Giacometti (Hiroki Yasumoto), who has often placed behind Victor in previous Finals and is set on taking victory with his vividly sexual skating; Sara and Michele Crispino (Sara: Marika Minase/Eri Ōzaki, Michele: Tomoaki Maeno) a sister and brother who have deep love for one another but also start to see that allowing each other to go on different paths is necessary; and Jean-Jacques Leroy (Mamoru Miyano), an incredible skater and musician who such confidence, and such a loving following which brings unexpected pressures. All of these separate people with their own matters of love they are dealing with are put together by figure skating, providing alternative perspectives as you are viewing.
Ultimately, the centre of Yuri!!! On Ice is the evolving love between Katsuki and Victor and how that affects them both. In my opinion, a reason it works so well, and is so emotionally engaging to watch, is because it isn’t immediately clear what the dynamic is – there are sparks flying on and off the ice, yet just as the characters aren’t certain what it means and how it is going to develop, neither do you. Even at the end of the series, where Katsuki wins Silver and he returns with Victor and Plisetsky (who wins Gold) to Hasetsu to potentially continue skating, it’s never said they are in a relationship. However, if you’re watching closely… the intimacy, the words spoken, and that skate together at the end; well, you can make you own mind up on what type of love that is.