It’s always an unpredictable experience jumping into a mainstream anime series you’ve heard a lot about. By the time you sit down to watch it, you’ve probably heard so much about it that it’s hard to know what to expect, or even to be able to predict whether you’re likely to enjoy it. So you take the plunge, wondering just what about the show, if anything, will live up to what you’ve heard. For me, finally getting around to watching Yuri!!! on Ice was no different. I’d heard people rave about it, talk about how overrated it was, and express their indifference about it—but what was I going to think of it? There was only one way to find out!
For all I’d heard about the series, I didn’t know much about its actual plot other than that it featured two rival figure skaters, and that it was a never-ending font of fanfic inspiration. Not much to go on, certainly, but enough to make me curious to see what all the fuss was about.
The story of Yuri!!! on Ice follows the competitive season of two rising stars in the world of figure skating, both of whom are named Yuri. Yuri Katsuki of Japan is featured most prominently in the story, and Yuri Plisetsky of Russia appears primarily as Yuri’s rival/frenemy. When we meet Japanese Yuri, he’s suffering from a crisis of confidence caused by his demoralizing defeat at the previous year’s Grand Prix Final competition. To process his feelings about what happened—and to give himself time to decide whether he even wants to continue his skating career—Yuri returns to his hometown of Hasetsu for the first time in five years. While there, he reconnects with old friends and spends time casually practicing at his old rink. During one practice session, he copies a past routine of the figure skater he idolizes most, Victor Nikiforov. Though he only does it for fun, he ends up recreating the routine perfectly. Unbeknownst to Yuri, a friend films the whole thing and posts it to the internet. The video goes viral, and among its viewers is none other than Victor himself.
Yuri’s skill and heart catch Victor’s attention, and almost before Yuri even realizes what has happened, Victor comes to Hasetsu determined to become Yuri’s coach and train him for the upcoming season. The grateful and delighted Yuri accepts, and what follows is an emotional, challenging, and tumultuous season. Through it, Yuri is able to reconnect with his passion for skating—as well as discover his budding passion for Victor. As the season comes to a close, it’s clear that their time together has changed Yuri and Victor for good.
Yuri!!! on Ice was a unique viewing experience for me for a couple of reasons, one of which is that it’s the first and only sports anime I’ve watched. I’ve heard a bit about some of the other mainstream sports anime that have come out in the last decade or so, such as Prince of Tennis and Free!, but haven’t watched them, mainly because most sports-related content in general doesn’t really appeal to me. (Like many nerds, my relationship with sports is, shall we say . . . complicated.) I’ve generally assumed sports anime would either confuse me, bore me, or both. However, figure skating is a sport I’ve always found appealing in pretty much any context, so I knew my curiosity would eventually get the better of me where Yuri was concerned.
The thing that struck me most about the series was how, well, normal it felt. Most anime have plots that are sci-fi or fantasy based, or that at least have some kind of outlandish element to them, so to watch a series so grounded in the real world felt strange, if only because of the lack of strangeness itself. But at the same time, it was refreshing to hop into the series already knowing what kind of setting I was going to be dealing with, without any need for worldbuilding. The other side of this, though, was that the series started to feel a bit repetitive toward the end. The series as a whole is basically the chronicle of one season of skating, so there are inevitably a lot of training montages and similar sequences of skating routines. Most of the time, this wasn’t a negative thing, and it felt in keeping with the theme and purpose of the show, but I found it sometimes made it a little too easy to tune out what was happening.
Another aspect of watching Yuri that was new ground for me was the presence of a gay romance. Though I’ve seen anime that feature the occasional queer character, I’ve seen few, if any, that present these characters in romantic relationships the way Yuri does, or at least hints at doing—Yuri and Victor’s relationship in particular is more of the “will they, won’t they” variety (so much so that there was more than one moment where I wanted to yell “Just kiss already!” at the screen). However, it’s also quite a healthy relationship, and is presented in a way that I found both refreshing and delightful. Their interactions are either filled with passionate emotion or characterized by sweet, heartfelt caring—along with a little tough love when the situation calls for it. The way Yuri and Victor’s relationship grows and changes over the course of the season was the highlight of the series for me, and it’s easy to see why the series has launched a zillion fanfics. There’s just so much unexplored potential, and so many scenes filled with subtext of various kinds, that it’s almost impossible not to find oneself imagining what’s happening behind the scenes and within the gaps of the story, or the many directions things could go after the conclusion of the series.
Beyond the plot-based aspects of the series, another feature that stood out to me was the animation—unsurprising for such a physical, expressive, visually focused story. Because of the flowing, emotive style of movement that characterizes figure skating, animated skating routines could so easily look choppy and strange. Aside from a few rough moments here and there, this wasn’t the case for Yuri, and one of the best examples of the smooth, flowing animation style is shown in its gorgeous opening song. For the most part, I felt that instead of watching animations of figure skating, I was watching people skate; those people just happened to be animated. Circling back to the plot, I found that the animation served to highlight an important story element: namely, the exploration of masculine beauty that is a main theme of the story overall. Though the sexual aspect of this concept was brought forth to some degree, it was more an exploration and celebration of that beauty for its own sake. I can count on one hand the stories I’ve seen that delved into this concept in any way at all (at least in a way that isn’t played for laughs), and to see it presented in such a beautiful and compelling way was beyond refreshing.
Yuri was overall a fun and easy series to watch, and my primary thought upon finishing it was that I wanted more. This was both positive and negative, I felt. On the one side, all good stories should do this to the reader or viewer to some extent, and Yuri does it in an enjoyable way. However, on the other side, there is the possibility of leaving too much hanging at the end, and it’s a line that Yuri definitely flirts with. It’s hard to say whether this is because the series creators are hoping to tell a much longer story, because the story got away from them, or for some other reason. Whatever the cause, this aspect left me feeling that not only is there a lot of untapped potential for this series, there are also some potentially missed opportunities. In short, while a lot was said or insinuated throughout the course of season 1, the season overall felt like a lot of set up for things that may or may not come to fruition.
Yuri!!! on Ice is only one season long thus far, which I was surprised to discover, given how popular it has been both in Japan and in the US. I was even more surprised to find that there’s no confirmed season 2. There’s some talk of a film coming out, which is a double-edged sword for fans. It means more Yuri, but this also means there probably won’t be another season of the anime for a while yet, so a movie will be small comfort to fans who were hoping for a continuation of the experience they got with season 1. Until another season is confirmed, we can only hope that at least some of the story’s potential will be explored in a second season one day (and console ourselves with the fanfiction in the meantime).