Over the past few years, there have been a plethora of sports-themed anime, including ones dedicated to soccer, basketball, volleyball, baseball, swimming, and bicycling. They have become so prevalent that anime conventions now have “sports anime” photoshoots instead of ones for individual series. Themes that are common to these anime include hard work, teamwork, competition, friendship, victory, and loss. Now, whilst most of these anime so far have been devoted to team sports, there have been few mainstream series dedicated to sports where the focus is on just the individual himself or herself, perhaps partially due to East Asian society’s focus on the team over the individual. That is, until “Yuri on Ice” skated its way onto the anime scene, and this time, the focus is on individual figure skating, not couples figure skating.
First of all, it is important to note that whilst the anime’s title is “Yuri on Ice,” there is no lesbian overtone or flavor in the series whatsoever, as the focus is on MEN’S figure skating. The title is partially derived from the two rival main characters, Yuri Katsuki of Japan, and Yuri Pilsetsky of Russia, with the former contemplating retirement after a disastrous performance in a competition and the latter a young prodigy only focused on victory. A series of unusual circumstances leads to the famed figure skater Victor Nikiforov to announce a one-year hiatus of professional figure skating to become the coach of Yuri Katsuki, with the promise of a gold medal in the “Grand Prix Champions,” much to the chagrin of Pilsetsky and other worldwide figure skaters. Perhaps the first instance of the series’ tone and theme is shown at the end of the first episode, where Nikiforov enthusiastically declares his intentions to an utterly flabbergasted Katsuki.
This scene is just to give the viewers a taste of the relationship between Nikiforov and Katsuki, and there are various instances of shonen-ai where the two display physical and emotional affection towards each other, and there are a multitude of layers to this relationship. Coach-pupil? Life partners? Boyfriends? Friends only? This degree to which this affection is displayed in a mainstream anime is quite uncommon, especially with it being so centralized on just this one relationship. It is extremely heartwarming, with its significant ups and downs, plus each individual trying to connect with the other emotionally, resulting in a much more genuine portrayal of a same-sex relationship versus something like “Descendants of Darkness.” But it is not the only thing that stands out in this series. Yuri Katsuki is not shown as having oddball or an extreme level of abilities, but is portrayed as an ordinary, if skilled, individual, with his abilities and passion severely masked and hampered by his lack of confidence and introversion, which leads to him being extremely relatable rather than an individual to aspire to. His portrayal, along with that of the more abrasive and aspirational Pilsetsky, is contrasted with the more lighthearted Nikiforov, whose carefree attitude oftentimes leads to unwanted attention, jealousy, and anger amongst competitors and fans. The rivalry between the two Yuris is inherently there from the first episode, though thankfully develops, waxes and wanes so as not to become one-sided only, as the young Russian is not the only one pursuing the gold medal in the Grand Prix Champions.
There is more focus on rival characters in “Yuri on Ice” versus other sports anime, with many being recurring, and each is portrayed as a representative of their home country, much like an Olympic athlete. Now, this is where the series begins to unravel, as it is very evident that the multitude of characters and the desire to also inject backstory and motivations has created a bit of a mess. There are around a dozen figure skating competitors, and when combined with family members and coaches easily overwhelms the series, which only has 12 episodes to cram in all of the content it wishes to portray. It tries hard and juggles, and the amount of detail that it portrays is admirable, but viewers will either laser-focus in on one character or confuse one character’s profile with another. Some characters are on screen for only a few minutes, only have a few lines, or are only focused on for a few episodes before disappearing into the background, and combined with the various skating competitions, makes keeping track of things during the series a lost battle. However, as each skater must perform to his choice of music, the selection and variety presented here are most excellent, from uplifting tracks to ones of angst, with instrumental pieces intertwined with selections from musicals. For me, the character who most needed more attention was the Kazakhstani skater Otabek Altin (not introduced until 2/3 of the way into the series), and while most of these characters are portrayed in a positive light and are driven by their own unique passions, I could have done with less of the obnoxious JJ Leroy of Canada.
The other big fault with “Yuri on Ice” is with the skating itself. Whilst the animation and choreography are smooth and complex, being more than sufficient to hold one’s attention with the skaters’ flashy, dramatic moves, anticipation as to what will happen next, ranking, and scoring, there is a lack of focus on the actual skating techniques themselves, the process of searching for music, preparing a routine, and practicing. Sure, one gets told of the actual moves that each competitor utilizes, which when combined with excellent music makes for some amazingly choreographed routines, but figure skating is more than just technique. It is not a repetitive motion or a sport where one responds to an opposing team. As such, one would encounter issues such as figuring out whether to construct a difficult routine for more points or a simple routine which would be easier to execute. How does one decide which moves to incorporate into a routine, either for more points or aesthetic appeal, taking into account skater skill, stamina, and choice of music? How does one bend the leg for a specific move, and how does one distribute his or her body weight? How does one determine the height to jump or twirl the body for a proper landing after a spin? These issues are inadequately touched on, perhaps having been deemed unnecessary and pushed aside for either more time dedicated to the competitions or relationship between Nikiforov and Katsuki. Or perhaps the directors had run out of time.
And that’s the main issue with the series: time. At 12 episodes, the series did not have enough time to fully explore the elements it introduced. I wouldn’t call it half-baked, as the series fully utilizes the time that it is given to get the most out of its story and couldn’t have done any better. However, it always felt like it was dropping easter eggs and cramming things in just to get things accomplished before the ending theme was played in each episode. Speaking of the ending theme, do note that in episode 10, there is more story content after the ending theme is played, unlike the other 11 episodes. However, the frantic pacing was at least consistent throughout the series, which thankfully ends on a very conclusive note. There is evidence that the series will receive a second season, and it desperately needs it.
A second season would give the series another opportunity to display its strengths and another opportunity to fix its easily correctable weaknesses. Even without a second season, there are enough reasons to watch the first. This is a very heartwarming series, portraying a sweet relationship and intertwining it with enough drama and tension to hold the viewer’s interest and excitement during each episode to want more. It touches on themes of passion and hard work, along with touchier subjects such as anxiety, overcoming one’s fears, and remaining confident to see a task to completion. There is also balance and depth, despite its limited time and fast pacing, and the franchise has the potential for a whole lot more. Shall we skate? Well, you should.