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The Unexpected Success of Yuuri!!! On Ice

Yuuri!!! On Ice seemed to come out of nowhere the end of last year, taking the anime community by storm. Marketed as a sports anime produced by MAPPA, directed by Sayo Yamamoto and written by Mitsurō Kubo; the series follows Yuuri Katsuki–a Japanese figure skater dealing with the aftermath of a series of crushing defeats on the ice. When his idol, Russian figure skater Viktor Nikiforov, appears at his family’s hot spring in Hasetsu (in Kyushu) and declares that he’s Yuuri’s new skating coach, Yuuri must overcome his own insecurities to take to the ice again and win gold at the Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final.

Since its release, YoI has received a great deal of positive support amidst both non-skating and professional skating fans, going so far as to have professional skaters from all over the world tweet about the series. It also recently won every category it was nominated for in the Crunchyroll Anime Awards 2016: Best Boy, Best Animation, Most Heartwarming Scene, Best Couple, Best Opening, and Best Ending. However, many have expressed dissatisfaction with the series’ successes, calling the its victories the product of rabid fangirls, accusing it of poor animation compared to its competitors, and ultimately discrediting the series as a female favorite for its ‘fetishization’ of gay relationships. YoI, however, continues to stand on its own, depicting complex characters, nuanced relationships, and displaying stunning animation as well.

At first glance, YoI looks like your average sports anime: you have the cocky newcomer, the underdog, and the pro. The underdog must come back from defeat and find his confidence, while the pro offers to help him out, and the the newcomer plays the role of the underdog’s rival. These tropes, though familiar, are only the stepping-stones for the characters that Yuuri (the underdog), Viktor (the pro), and Yuri “Yurio” Pilsetsky (the newcomer) become over the course of the series’ twelve episodes. Yuuri reveals himself to be extremely talented, yet his insecurities prevent him from skating at his full potential. Viktor, though a five-time gold medalist, finds himself uninspired in his skating. Yurio is a headstrong teen, yet truly cares and gives all of himself to his skating–his art. These characters drive the narrative and create something that transcends the expectations around the genre–rather than being about winning gold, the story becomes about these characters, their friends, and how they grow leading up to and during the Grand Prix Final. Whether they win or lose is secondary to their personal goals, and the relationships they build on the way.

Be it Yuuri’s developing relationship with Viktor, or the established history between each of the skaters, the relationships in YoI make up the cornerstone of the series. Each skater comes from a different background and has different goals: Yurio wants his professional debut to start with the Grand Prix gold, the Thai skater Phichit Chulanont merely wanted to prove that a Thai skater could be as good as anyone else and that skating could be fun, and Otabek Altin wanted to win the first gold medal in figure skating for Kazakhstan. Each of these characters is unique, yet finds common ground in their skating as Phichit and Yuuri trained together in Detroit, or Otabek saved and befriended Yurio from a gaggle of rabid fans. Even as Viktor and Yuuri fall for each other, the progression of the relationship is natural and honest, as it feels true to the characters and how they interact. Their first kiss makes perfect sense in the way the narrative is built, and fits with Viktor’s spontaneity and Yuuri’s desire to surprise the man who he used to hold on a pedestal, and comes to care a great deal for. It’s not overt or sexualized, and feels pure in its intent, which makes the impact of their feelings for each other all the more powerful. This honesty colors all of the relationships in YoI: no one character behaves or acts in a manner that feels disingenuous, and the characters grow beyond their perceived baseline tropes.  

Another success point for YoI is its animation. Working with Kenji Miyamoto, a former Champion skater, Yuuri!!! On Ice used actual footage of Miyamoto’s choreography for the skating segments, and generated beautiful renditions of the skaters’ movements on the ice. The opening in particular, choreographed to Dean Fujioka’s, “History Maker”, is a stunning piece, combining paint strokes and splatters with stunning skating movements and techniques. To be fair, some of the in-between frames are awkward, and there are a few jarring moments where the movements don’t match the backgrounds, but the overall impact is a breathtaking set of skating animation that few would even attempt, none the less achieve. YoI’s animators rose to the challenge overall, generating stunning performances that are pushed beyond simple choreography with the effective use of animation techniques.

Yuuri!!! On Ice provided a new look at sports anime that pushed beyond expectations regarding the narrative and the relationships within. Though some of the skaters feel restricted by their tropes at introduction, they grow in new, unexpected ways, and create an empathetic cast that draws the viewer in and keeps them watching as they continue to strive for their individual goals. The animation furthers the experience, and the genuine nature of the relationships puts to rest any criticism of ‘fetishization’ or sexualization of relationships for viewers. Yuuri!!! On Ice is a story about an athlete finding his confidence, and happening to fall in love and make wonderful friends in the process. It’s a story of hope and growth in a time where the world is uncertain, and reminds us all that we were born to make history.

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