Graphic by Chrys Marr (She/They)
“Yuri On Ice!!!” is probably the most well known modern anime acclaimed for its LGBTQ+ themes and characters. Similar to “Given,” a show I talk about in more depth in my previous Gays In Anime piece, “Yuri On Ice!!!” is a show in which the characters have complex, stand-alone arcs separate from their sexual identities. The show intimately deals with bigger issues, like overcoming insecurities, general self worth, and confidence. It’s not a piece of queer media about being gay per se, but one that allows queer characters to simply exist in their own complex realities.
“Yuri On Ice!!!” is an original animation that premiered on October 6th, 2016. It was produced by MAPPA, directed and written by Sayo Yamamoto, scripted by Mitsuro Kubo, and under the chief direction of Jun Shishido. A prequel film was scheduled to be released in 2019 but has been delayed due to difficulties operating within COVID-19, despite the show’s generally overwhelming popularity and warm reception. As a project, it was extremely ambitious. It centers around the life of Yuri Katsuki, a 23-year-old, Japanese professional figure skater at a make-or-break moment in his career and the subsequent results of him accidentally recruiting his longtime idol and Russian national sensation Viktor Nikiforov to be his new coach.
Throughout the span of 12 episodes, quite literally dozens of ice skating choreographies are showcased. To not only draft these routines — which have been praised by actual professional skaters for their accuracy and attention to detail, some of which even have original compositions — but to animate them as well was a large task and a hefty contribution to its ambition. Add on top of that the central relationship being the budding romance between Yuri and Viktor, and you have an expensive, labor intensive, and risky project that managed to succeed beautifully.
In all respects, I found “Yuri On Ice!!!” to be a feat of nature. It seemed to be a project destined to fail, and yet it was largely regarded as one of the best animes of its season, becoming the eighteenth most lucrative media franchise in Japan in 2017. Perhaps it has to do with the intense wave of popularity of sports anime at the time, or perhaps it was the pure ambition of it all that garnered people’s disbelief and subsequent curiosity. I would argue it was the agonizingly ambiguous nature of the relationship between Yuri and Viktor that really sucked people in.
It’s interesting to write about this because in my mind, Yuri and Viktor are canonically in love, engaged, and have kissed on live television by the end of the show. However, it is apparent that on the basis of very stringent technicalities and deflective narrative choices, some would not agree with this perception.
One of the main sources of critique for the show is indeed its portrayal of Yuri and Viktor’s romance as something that remains just under the surface of what is shown, as if a lawyer scripted it with the intention of pleading for plausible deniability in court. Yuri and Viktor’s relationship builds, but it’s not discussed explicitly. They kiss, but it’s not fully shown; they buy matching (engagement) rings, but it’s under the pretense that they’re good luck charms. It’s always almost, almost, but never really there. It always makes sure to provide an out for people who don’t want to believe it’s a romantic relationship, no matter how roundabout the method may be.
As a result, “Yuri On Ice!!!” became a hotbed case study for discussions of types of representation and whether the kind utilized within the show aids, harms, or altogether disregards the LGBTQ+ community. It brings up the glaring question: To what extent do writers owe it to their queer audiences to have their character’s sexualities on clear display and, conversely, why do queer people and characters alike have to scream their sexualities from the rooftops for people to believe them and respect their existence?
Both ends of the spectrum are frustrating, and it’s difficult, bordering on impossible, to say that one is the “right” perspective. However, in the specific case of “Yuri On Ice!!!,” I think it’s important to realize that while the surface-level title of Yuri and Viktor’s relationship was never made truly clear, the extent of the emotional bond and love, romantic or otherwise, they have for each other cannot be questioned. They also notably break away from the typical character types seen in the yaoi/boys’ love genre of anime, and are so achingly human with complex personalities, experiences, flaws, and insecurities, that the resulting relationship between the two of them feels more genuine than any other I’ve seen in practically any other anime.
This doesn’t mean that I didn’t desperately want to see Viktor declare Yuri as his fiance on international television, but it does mean that I saw them as more human, and as a result I almost understood why they didn’t do something so dramatic and out their relationship. Another critique of the show was that it was unrealistic in the lack of homophobic pushback the two skaters would have likely received within skating circles because of their relationship. However, I think the fact that the bond between Yuri and Viktor was so strong that we began holding them up to standards of reality speaks volumes to the extent of how expressively they are drawn. In this way, I came to love and respect them as people, not as written characters, and to view their ambiguity as their own choice rather than a decision pushed by a writer.
This phenomenon is not unheard of. Some writers, even openly queer writers, give their characters so much depth and agency that the choices the writers make are based on what they think that character would truly want, rather than their own personal agenda. The characterization in “Yuri On Ice!!!” had me truly believing in this philosophy. The relationship between Yuri and Viktor was displayed as so intimate, so tender, I almost felt like pushing for them to be forthright with their relationship was a breach of their privacy.
This was how I came to terms with the lack of clear-cut “representation” in the show, but it doesn’t negate the other side of the argument or invalidate people who wished for them to be more forthcoming about the romance. What I think it does show, however, is that you can still enjoy this show even if you do feel that way. No piece of media will ever be perfect. Nothing will ever handle such a fiercely delicate topic in a way that doesn’t leave at least some people feeling dissatisfied, and with how much discourse there is within the LGBTQ+ community on the topic of representation, I honestly think it’s unrealistic to expect that anything that can satisfy everyone, especially something like “Yuri On Ice!!!” which wasn’t created by a queer author.
“Yuri On Ice!!!” is more than good, even bordering on beautiful in my eyes. It was honestly the show that “saved” 2016 for me, and I still distinctly remember how I broke down after the kiss Yuri and Viktor shared in the seventh episode. At that point, it had been the only LGBTQ+ inclusive anime I’d ever seen, and the vulnerability of it all shook me to my core. Despite some of the community’s misgivings about this show, I believe that the emotional intensity it displays is valuable to a point that transcends technicality, and should be revered for what it is: a deeply moving story about overcoming your insecurities through newfound confidence and self love, told with two men deeply in love at its core.