Yuri!!! on Ice is a 2016 anime that has captured a global audience through its beautifully choreographed animation, a strong emotional story, and compelling gay representation. Animation Studies 2.0 blog contributors Jacqueline Ristola, Mihaela Mihailova, Caitlin Casiello, and Evelyn Hielkema came together to discuss the show after it finished its run in Japan to dig deeply into the series’ impact as a whole.
Initial thoughts, reactions, and analyses: How do we approach the text?
Mihaela Mihailova: Much has already been written about Twitter’s favorite anime, from articles praising its effective portrayal of anxiety to behind the scenes glimpses into its fabulous costume design. I am looking forward to seeing where our discussion will take the ongoing conversation about this show. One thing that both fascinates me about YOI and makes for a good entry point into some of the thoughts I’d like to share later is not only the extent to which references to contemporary figure skating (and its recent history) color almost every frame of the show, but the skating community’s reciprocal interest in – and affection for – the show’s portrayal of their world. Despite having aired for only one season so far, Yuri!!! on Ice has already become part of professional skating (fan) discourse thanks to international stars engaging with the show and its fans on social media and elsewhere. Perhaps most notably, American figure skating star and gay icon Johnny Weir recently shared his newfound obsession with YOI in this interview (“I physically couldn’t stop watching.” Same, Johnny.), saying that the show made him feel “so at home and happy.”
Weir has also been tweeting about YOI, incorporating the show’s imagery and plot into his own professional life and persona:
— Johnny Weir (@JohnnyGWeir) December 27, 2016
Kazakhstan’s Denis Ten, the figure skater whom Otabek Altin is based on, has also used Twitter to express his delight for the show and to hilariously close-read certain elements of it in relation to his own life (his middle name, for instance, is YURI-evich which, as he points out “now has a slightly different meaning. Sigh.”) For instance, here the skater himself has provided a side-by-side comparison between Ten’s and his costumes:
A man named Billy Milligan had 24 different personalities.
I, now, have 2 alter-egos.
Denis Ted; Otabek.
Which one to choose? What’s next? pic.twitter.com/GpwUGZ2yBW
— Denis Ten (@Tenis_Den) December 17, 2016
Here, instead, he has offered a word of advice for Otabek regarding teddy bear handling etiquette:
Otabek, next time you’ll make it, I’m sure. I’m with you man. But don’t hold your bear like that please, he doesn’t seem to be breathing… pic.twitter.com/GpRkbWmODh
— Denis Ten (@Tenis_Den) December 22, 2016
Of course, no summary of professional YOI fandom would be complete without a mention of the lady whom both Denis Ten and Johnny Weir credit with getting them hooked on the show: Russian skating champion and proud otaku Evgenia Medvedeva. Medvedeva is a YOI aficionado who posts about the show regularly and even crafted her own Yuri Katsuki cosplay. Here she is, voicing the fandom’s collective desires in the fandom’s own language (of screenshots and memes):
— Evgenia Medvedeva (@JannyMedvedeva) December 15, 2016
Um, ok. In free program Yuri will made his best performance in his life and they will get married. Good night.
— Evgenia Medvedeva (@JannyMedvedeva) December 14, 2016
Having this fan professionals’ seal of approval has no doubt legitimized YOI’s depiction of the skating world. Reactions such as Johnny Weir’s line (from the aforementioned interview) about watching YOI, seeing the skating community’s secrets featured on it, and wondering “Who told?!” serve as both popular endorsements of the authenticity of the show and tantalizing teases challenging regular fans to find out more (Who told about what, Johnny? Was it the banquet scene?? Spoiler: no, apparently. Or so he says). At the same time, Denis Ten’s willingness to reveal and evaluate which aspects of his career and appearance Otabek “gets right” indirectly aids the show’s character development by further fleshing out Otabek’s persona and backstory. Finally, having tireless fanbassadors like Medvedeva lend their professional credentials to popularizing the show on and off the skating rink has not only enhanced its mainstream profile, but provided a fabulous real-time case study of the spread of celebrity fandom. Thus, recruiting actual figure skaters to the fandom is another way in which YOI has granted its fans privileged access to the skating world. Adding their voices, perspectives, cosplays, and homage performances to the conversation has contributed a more organic, dynamic, and unfiltered form of discourse to the already excellent homages and in-jokes featured on the show.
Caitlin Casiello: Denis Ten’s tweets have been the best. I remember watching the first episodes and feeling a little worried about what skaters might think. I wondered if it might be a little bit embarrassing for them. But they all seem delighted that this world was so lovingly drawn for them so I’m happy for creators Mitsurō Kubo and Sayo Yamamoto, who are obviously big sukeota (skating otaku). I’m glad there’s no evidence for Yuzuru having seen it yet, though; I’m not sure I could handle that. I was never more than a casual skating fan, but reading up on YOI/real life parallels also led me to the wonderful work of Machida Tatsuki, who retired abruptly after some setbacks similar to Yūri’s, despite being at the peak of his career. I don’t want to push him as a parallel too hard, but he’s a really lovely skater and I think resembles Yūri somewhat in figure.
As for my thoughts: when it finished a couple of weeks ago, I actually thought it was a very strange show, in terms of structure and plot. Every moment when I thought they would do something to build drama, they did something else which deflated the drama, just never quite doing what I expected from either a normal sports show or a normal BL-tinged anime. Overall this created, for me, a feeling of realism that balanced with certain fantasy elements of the romance and the scores. They never messed with the laws of skating order and competitions to give Yūri more dramatic wins (though they do fudge the scores/elements to give certain results). They focus on his results in very realistic ways: winning is important to everyone, but it’s never life and death. Similarly, the romantic elements of the show are clearly a wonderful fantasy—your idol shows up naked to coach you! what do you do?—that slides into a very realistic interaction involving little moments of disagreement and subtle touches, bigger miscommunications that are ultimately solved gracefully if never completely. Sports shows, even when they’re slice of life or aimed at women, tend to go hard on the drama; I think the series bible for Free! Eternal Summer must have had a line in it that was just “Nothing is ever too over the top,” even if it requires a sudden trip to Australia to pull it off. But YOI never felt over the top to me, even parts, like the ring exchange and Yūri beating Victor’s FS record, which should have. Despite how excited I was every week watching it, it was ultimately one of the few things which felt calming and relaxing in this dreadful fall season.
I also want to discuss one of the things which felt so overwhelmingly realistic to me about YOI, but which is getting a bit lost in all the sports! gay! excitement. When talking to people, especially to fans of the show who don’t watch a lot of other anime, it consistently comes up as a major factor in the show’s draw: its depiction of Yūri’s insecurity and his character arc towards self-confidence. As Misha mentioned, there was a good short article about this as a depiction of anxiety/mental illness. Yūri’s position as an unreliable narrator who doesn’t realize he has all these people around him who support and admire him is one of the most interesting choices the show has made, emphasized by the stunning reversal in episode 10, where, given Victor’s point of view at last, we see that Yūri has always been this charming, attractive creature to him and to their other friends, someone worth pursuing and respecting as a competitor. It resonates so well with my own experiences with anxiety and imposter syndrome, and I’ve also noticed fans picking up on and developing this psychology in fanworks in beautiful ways. This anxiety is the real key to what happens in episode 11, where Yūri seems to flub up his previously perfect SP for no reason and then spends the rest of the day tense and watching Victor watch other people; I can’t put my finger on how the show does this, but the whole episode feels very tense and anxious and caught in Yūri’s own head to me. There are some ways in which this could have been more developed, but I loved how the show contrasts Yūri’s view of himself and the outsider views of him we get from Victor and the other skaters as a way of taking apart how anxiety messes with your self-perception.
MM: I’ve also been thinking a lot about the depiction of anxiety and insecurity in this show (can well just acknowledge how good YOI has been for everyone’s mental health, at least judging from social media reactions?) and I agree with Caitlin’s take. For me, episode 11 is remarkable for two reasons: it gave us Yūri’s performance and the line “a beautiful monster continues to evolve to even greater heights!”, and it immersed the viewer in Yūri’s headspace, as Caitlin points out. I believe that one way in which YOI accomplished the latter is by denying Yūri (and the audience) the customary loving/reassuring/meaningful eye contact with Victor that the show has established as one of their most consistent modes of wordless communication. Specifically, this occurs after Yūri’s performance – that is to say, once Yūri’s insecurities have had a chance to resurface. I don’t think any other episode has featured more expressive shots of the back of Victor’s head. For a solid stretch of the runtime, his gaze is directed away from Yūri and (usually) towards other skaters. Example:
This is a shot of Victor watching Yuri break his world record, presented from the point of view of Yūri, who is standing below him on the stairs, having noticed that his coach is missing and gone off to find him here. I am ninety percent sure that Yūri’s brain has filed this image and captioned it “when senpai stopped noticing me.” Here, Victor appears uncharacteristically cold, detached, and expressionless. His bangs cover his eyes, effectively shielding them from Yūri’s gaze. While this scene could easily (and rightly) be interpreted as one of the introspective moments that serve as turning points in Victor’s personal journey towards his decision to get back on the ice, it is also clearly meant to convey Yūri’s imagined feeling of rejection and distance from his coach/partner. While Victor is likely simply lost in thought, to Yūri he appears gloomy and disappointed, as further emphasized by the monotone, oppressively grey color palette, so out of place in a show that revels in outrageous splashes of color. Even when he does turn towards Yūri, Victor is still not looking directly at him. Instead, the Russian skater gives this stylish askance glance:
This is a textbook example of subjective point of view. The camera angle serves as visual shorthand for Yūri’s feeling of being thrown off-balance. In that moment, his anxiety is so overwhelming that it feels as though the entire world around him is off-kilter and that he himself is struggling to regain his footing and perspective. It is a simple, yet effective representation of an inner sensation so powerful that it causes the environment itself to feel oppressive and stifling (note how dark Yūri’s space is compared to Victor’s). Moreover, framed as it is – higher up and at an exaggerated distance from Yūri, partially thanks to the focus – Victor’s solitary figure appears almost unreachable, suggesting Yūri’s newly resurfaced insecurities about their relationship.
Evelyn Hielkema: In this initial response, I want to sketch out a few themes I’m hoping to build upon throughout the conversation. Before that, though, I’ll just hum a few notes about how I learned about the show and how my perceptions of it changed in a few easy steps. When I first heard of the show, it was through the Japanese online press, and later through my infrequently-used tumblr account. My initial reception of the show was conflicted. I knew Sayo Yamamoto was directing, and I rather enjoyed Fujiko Mine and about a third of the episodes of Michiko and Hatchin, so I would at least give it a try despite not caring about sports anime.
On the other hand, I saw a few comments within my circle of leftist trans women and non-binary femme friends lamenting the fact that women/women anime, especially those written by and for women, are almost completely invisible except to a minority within an already small fan population. Despite maintaining some of that bitterness and being very cynical about mainstream gay-themed media at this point, I did end up enjoying Yuri!!! on Ice from beginning to end while intentionally avoiding the hubbub to keep myself sane.
I’ve already introduced a couple of the themes by accident in that anecdote, so I’ll waste no more time laying them all out. The first theme recalls what Caitlin says about the dramatic structure of the story: the show underplays the typical sports film beats and treating the sport as more than a skeleton for the plot. At the same time, it involves an expanding cast of characters making operatic gestures to indicate their transcendent affections for each other.
Mihaela has gone full bore into exploring the second theme already, which involves the nature of the show’s consumption: the dominance of fandom as a mode of discussing and consuming media and the ways in which it might occlude or marginalize other forms of collective appreciation. Fandom also shapes the way in which gay, bi, lesbian (and sometimes trans) representation has become linked to gay and lesbian visibility politics in some healthy and some potentially harmful ways. Finally, I would like to talk about the marginalization of women from male/male narratives and from YOI in particular, a subject I’ve had complicated thoughts on since learning the title was not a reference to the best anime genre.
Finally, since so much of my interest in Yuri!!! on Ice derived from associations with Sayo Yamamoto, I would like to reflect on how it compares with her earlier work. If I can get away with it, I’ll probably also talk about how YOI compares to the only male gay-themed show I’ve ever really loved, namely Kids on the Slope.
In sum, my relationship with this show has been impressed enough with it to at least contest some of my ingrained preferences against male/male anime and sports shows. I’m excited to see my view of the show evolve as we interact.
Jacqueline Ristola: Misha, Caitlin, I’m glad you mentioned both the realism of the series, as I find this manifests in multiple ways. One way is through the depiction of anxiety. Suffice it to say that the realistic depiction of anxiety from a highly skilled individual in a high stress environment is quite relatable to academics, and commendable overall, as accurate depictions of mental health in anime, and television in general, is hard to come by.
I also think the realism of the production, from how incredibly well-researched it is, to the beautiful animation of the skating programs, is drawing anime fans into the world of skating, and professional skaters to athletes to anime. Yuri!!! on Ice got me looking up figure skating performances, and reminded me of Evgenia Medvedeva’s recent performance dressed as the famous anime character Sailor Moon, skating to the Sailor Moon theme song. Like Misha pointed out, Medvedeva’s self proclaimed otaku stance adds to the variety of voices in the fandom.
As I dug more into the figure skating scene, I was taken aback by the amount of research and real life parallels that Yuri!!! on Ice pulls into its story. The skate programs were choreographed by Kenji Miyamoto, a retired ice dancer. Victor’s costumes are based off of real life costumes of gay figure skaters, with Victor himself resembling gay figure skaters. Roses are used as a symbol of homosexuality throughout the series, in reference to real life gay figure skater Johnny Weir.This is only the tip of the iceberg (pardon the pun) for the amount of research and easter eggs the series holds.
Jacqueline Ristola is a Masters student in Cinema and Media Studies at York University in Toronto, Canada. She graduated from Calvin College with a Honours BA in Film and Media Studies. Her research interests include animations and its various incarnations, with her current research project examining the cross-cultural aesthetic exchanges between the Japanese anime Samurai Champloo and the American animated series The Boondocks. She has published articles in Animation Studies and the film magazine Bright Wall/Dark Room. Her presentation at SAS 2016 explored the relationship between Waltz With Bashir and Persepolis to the documentary genre.
Mihaela Mihailova is a PhD candidate in the joint Film and Media Studies and Slavic Languages and Literatures program at Yale University. Her research interests include animation, film and media theory, early Soviet cinema, contemporary Eastern European cinema, video games, and comics. She has published articles in animation: an interdisciplinary journal, Studies in Russian and Soviet Cinema, Post Script: Essays in Film and the Humanities, and Kino Kultura. Her piece“Frame-Shot: Vertov’s Ideologies of Animation” (co-written with John MacKay) is included in Animating Film Theory (ed. Karen Beckman). Her essay “Latvian Animation: Landscapes of Resistance” appears in Animated Landscapes: History, Form, and Function (ed. Chris Pallant).
Caitlin Casiello is a Ph.D. student in the Combined Program in East Asian Languages and Literatures and Film and Media Studies at Yale University. Her current interests include Japanese pornography (live action, animated, pink, adult video) and queer filmmaking in Japan. Her master’s thesis, completed at Harvard University, focused on the legal controversies around and visual techniques of commercially-published pornographic Japanese comic books.
Evelyn Hielkema is a masters student at York University studying Japanese maritime environmental history. Her professional studies encompass the history of disease, global commodity and information flows, energy production, ecology, and the tangled thicket of state bureaucracy. Her one proper presentation was of “Panel Geographies,” a bizarre amalgam of media critique and political economy illuminating the relationship between American comics and the Middle East. To cap off her undergraduate career, she wrote an in-depth study of an American bureaucrat working in Iran during the 1911 Constitutional Revolution. In her spare time, she publishes the Tiger Manifesto blog at tigermanifesto.wordpress.com, reflecting on everything from Marxism to Christian kitsch.