Yuri!!! on Ice (YoI) is a new, extremely popular sports anime focused on male figure skating that premiered in the winter of 2016. It is well known for its high-quality animation, unique character development, and being one of the first anime to put queer characters in the spotlight by claiming a canonically gay couple as the face of the show. Exciting as that is, it’s only the tip of the iceberg, the world needs to be educated on what a special piece of work YoI is.
In terms of just including queers in the main cast, YoI hasn’t done anything special. There even exists an entire genre of anime called Yaoi, which is solely focused on male homosexual love, and a female counterpart called Yuri. Although these are fringe genres in Japan, there have still been more than a few attempts in the past to highlight queer couples in more mainstream anime. Keyword being ‘attempts’. What sets YoI apart is that it’s successful. Previous attempts to show queer love either focused too much on sexualizing the relationship and forgot to make the characters feel like people or just flat out pushed the couple to the side. YoI is unique because the featured relationship isn’t even explicitly sexual but still manages to portray the two as real, relatable, people that just couldn’t help but fall in love with each other. (examples in spoiler section)
Another thing that makes YoI so great is that it broke ground in more ways than just featuring queers. In the realm of anime, most shows turn out to be a predictable cookie cutter version of a story done a hundred times over. Sports anime may suffer from this worse than any other genre, as the narrative of an underdog high school team with a special new student and lots of fanservice (scenes designed to excite the viewer, usually with sex appeal) seems to be too easy to cash in on for most production companies. YoI avoids this narrative by choosing to focus on the lives of the cast outside of the sport to get the audience invested rather than just focusing on competition. Of course being gay is relevant here as well. Most queer anime ends up relying on cheeky fanservice that delegitimizes the reality of homosexual feelings with the pretext of just wanting to sell more copies to women. However, YoI decided to go beyond the precedent and developed what I like to call a kind of emotional fanservice. By creating a relationship that feels authentic the show still pulls in queer and female audiences while simultaneously giving viewers more substance to be invested in.
Beyond breaking boundaries, here are a few things I personally noticed while watching YoI that deserve acknowledgment. Since YoI focused on the top level of figure skating, the show had to include a cast of characters from plenty of different nations that the main character would meet at events around the globe, and the attention to detail in representing these different cultures is a pleasant surprise. Among other things, at the mid-point of each episode, a dish from one of the represented cultures is displayed with its name before and after being eaten. In the English dub, every voice actor has an accent accurately representing their nation of origin, which is something that’s almost never seen in anime production at the moment. Also, the show doesn’t fall into the trap of using classic problematic tropes to stay entertaining. For example, the main character wears glasses and was never called ‘four eyes’. On top of that, there’s a character that’s essentially a single, fifty some year old woman that drinks heavily, and not once is it brought up that she doesn’t have a man or that she needs to change her lifestyle. Although these types of jokes are typically sort of passing comments from angry side characters, nearly every big mainstream anime makes fervent use of this type of comedy that- intentionally or not- reinforces certain negative stereotypes, and normalizes a climate with conflict and bullying rather than one of respect like YoI does.
If all this praise has you thinking I’m just needlessly obsessed, I should point out I’m not the only one who noticed these things about YoI. In fact, YoI won more awards in 2016 than I can afford to mention in this short article, but some of the most prestigious awards included a few Anime of the Year titles. Most critics that contributed to those nominations cited the things I listed above in addition to the creator’s hard work at building a polished product. One really interesting result of the creator’s attention to detail was the constant featuring of Instagram use by the cast, which is something that is really big in the figure skating world right now. Their most impressive feat though, in my opinion, was that each routine was designed and skated by an actual professional figure skater in order to properly model the animation. What’s more is that the near 20 songs used for routines were hand-picked from over 1000 choices to appropriately represent the skaters and their national origins.
If you’ve seen YoI, I’m sure you’ve been waiting for this part, and if you haven’t then strap in, or better yet strap on because it’s about to get gay. Like I said before, the relationship in YoI is special because it isn’t explicitly sexual, but you may remember that I also mentioned the relationship is canon, here’s why. In addition to many a sentimental moment, in episode seven the main character finished a routine and is greeted off the ice by a kiss from his lover/coach. The kiss is covered by an arm- but it’s clear what was meant- and the creator even stated in multiple interviews that it was a kiss and the two are as canon as they come. But what comes later is even more shocking and important- the two get married!!… engaged?… something like that. While prepping for his last competition of the season, the main character buys matching engagement rings for him and his partner. They end up putting them on and saying something like vows in front of the Church of the Sagrada Familia in Spain while a choir sings nearby. I find it hard trying to recall times I felt more intense symbolism. Leading up to the wedding event there was also a moment where the two met up after being apart for some time and exchanged a few words, namely “will you be my coach until I retire?” In Japanese culture, that statement sounds dangerously close to a proposal that tends to be much more simple than the whole one- knee-western-tradition.
Marriage symbolism like this is actually super important because it’s making a political statement. In Japan, where anime is a primary source of media and where this story takes place, gays don’t have the right to marry or anything equivalent. So in the real world, the main characters couldn’t even fulfill their dream. The sentiment of this inequality has been causing a lot of uproar in Japan, which previously tried to stay quiet, passive, and content with the way things were. It’s also worth pointing out that YoI has received some criticism for not being more realistic in its portrayal of homophobia and acceptance. While it’s true that YoI isn’t realistic in that sense, I would argue that the way that the cast is immediately accepting of the relationship sets up a good example for younger people in Japan. Especially since they often have little guidance on how to act with regards to queer relationships.
All in all, regardless of whether you ever make the effort to actually go watch YoI, I think it’s important that more people learn about pieces of queer media that are affecting cultures outside of the U.S. because the queer community isn’t bound by borders. That being said, I think it’s obvious by now that I have a soft spot in my heart for this show and if you can find four hours to spare I give no less than my highest recommendation to Yuri!!! On Ice.