There’s a moment in figure skating anime Yuri!!! on Ice where main character Yuri Katsuki prepares to perform a short program on the subject of eros, i.e., lust. His gracefully compelling movements catch the eye while he skims across the ice, but his internal monologue during this routine consists of:
Forget thirst traps. Give me an anime guy who compares his burgeoning sex appeal to food, and I hunger.
Yuri!!! on Ice debuted in 2016 and wowed much of the Internet (along with actual professional figure skaters) with its charming mixture of figure skating drama and melodramatic romance. Japanese skater Yuri Katsuki begins the show at a crossroads in his career. He finishes last at the Grand Prix Final (the figure skating world championship) and, after a teary, apologetic phone call to his mom, disappears from public life. He re-emerges at his home rink in Kyushu, where he, out of shape and listless, performs a routine initially done by his idol, Russian skater, and reigning world champion Victor Nikiforov. Someone films Yuri’s performance, uploads the whole thing online, and the video goes viral. The footage becomes so popular that Victor himself shows up at Yuri’s parents’ hot springs inn and offers to be Yuri’s coach.
I should also mention that Victor’s buck-naked while offering up his services.
Yes, both the principal director (Sayo Yamamoto) and writer (Mitsuro Kubo) of the series are women, which goes a long way in explaining why Yuri!!! on Ice has attracted a ginormous female audience. The production team created a refreshingly sincere romance and populated it with a cast of ridiculously hot guy athletes. What’s not to love?
Anime shows can be notoriously subtle when it comes to portraying relationships. One of the most enduring and frustrating tropes in romantic anime is the confession of love in the middle of a train passing or fireworks going off so that the confessor gets their feelings out but the subject of their adoration is still mostly clueless. Even the heteronormative variety of relationship can wind up with just subtext and more subtext and a chaste kiss. In Yuri!!! on Ice, the developing courtship between Yuri and Victor feels bizarrely honest. It’s unapologetic about showing a same-sex relationship, with more actual text than subtext, and it’s not interested in destroying the relationship just because both characters are queer. The show supports the pair throughout the series. There aren’t any overly dramatic scenes of an accidental outing which derails either of their careers and forces them to retire from the sport. No physically debilitating injuries happen. No Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan levels of scandal occur.
And no one dies.
Yamamoto has stated that she didn’t want to portray a carnal love story but something more profound than the casual hook-up theme which pervades romance today. Victor’s first act as Yuri’s wannabe coach is to choreograph a new routine for him, the aforementioned interpretation of eros. As Yuri perfects this routine, he starts to imagine it as a dance of seduction, although his understanding of love is so pedestrian that he falls back on his love of pork cutlet bowls, a dish widely considered Japanese comfort food.
His intense yearning for Victor transforms his initial interpretation of the routine to him attempting to seduce Victor, as Victor has shown a penchant for also loving pork cutlet bowls. On the ice, Yuri only skates for Victor. Those feelings push far beyond striving for a coach’s acceptance and into wanting Victor for himself. This initial seduction happens so early on in the season that it's clear where the show’s endgame lies: not in the sex, but a mutual sharing of lives together. Later on, Yuri asks Victor to be his coach until he retires, to which Victor says that he hopes Yuri doesn’t retire for a long, long time.
My friends, they don’t wanna be apart.
Despite the refreshing portrayal of a same-sex relationship, Yuri!!! on Ice is not perfect. Homophobia is still a huge problem in Japan, and the production team still uses some subtext to keep their show broadcast-worthy, which includes the infamous "almost kiss" from episode 7. After Yuri nails his performance, he and Victor hug and their faces inch closer together.
The scene is in extreme close-up, and what happens next should be an enthusiastic locking of lips, but no actual lip-locking transpires. The enthusiastic reaction from the crowd at the competition speaks volumes about what happened between the pair, however.
Another moment where the show bends the subtext until just before it shatters is the ring exchange in episode 10. Yuri purchases two rings for himself and Victor, and the scene (set at a church, during the festive Christmas season) absolutely evokes a wedding.
The show has received some accusations of queerbaiting for these scenes, to which I say: I interpret Yuri and Victor's relationship as resoundingly queer. These obvert scenes are just one layer in their multi-dimensional love story. Yuri clearly wants Victor to show interest in him. Victor's feelings for Yuri transcend that of coach for pupil or friend for friend. They want to spend the rest of their lives together, but they can only contextualize their feelings through their one mutual experience: figure skating.
Yuri!!! on Ice is also honest about its portrayal of imposter syndrome. Yuri is the best male figure skater in Japan, and he’s hero-worshipped by the younger Japanese skaters. But Yuri is crushed by the weight of his own mistakes and his perceived ineptness, and he’s unable to see his actual worthiness. He can’t see past his failures until he discovers that Victor finds him worthy. Their relationship isn’t a cure-all for Yuri’s anxiety, but Victor’s acceptance allows Yuri to focus on training. Yuri stumbles and frets and worries, and all Victor can do is accompany Yuri on his journey towards the Grand Prix Final. Yuri eventually finds the strength inside himself to rely on himself, and not just Victor. His newly-found confidence comes from being loving and being loved.
But this is also a show about figure skating.
Yuri!!! on Ice has earned praise from actual professional figure skaters for its realistic portrayal of the figure skating world. Johnny Weir, former US national champion, was pleasantly surprised at the show’s accuracy. The international setting gives Yuri!!! on Ice another leg-up on other anime series: its diversity. Yuri competes all over the world, and logically, he’d encounter athletes from many other countries. But the actual number of non-Japanese, non-white characters in this anime is staggering. Yuri!!! on Ice has nationalities and ethnicities I’ve never seen in any other anime show. For example, the top US figure skater is a Mexican-American named Leo de la Iglesia, and Yuri’s best friend and rink mate is Phichit Chulanont, from Thailand.
He’s my husbando.
Leo is also my husbando.
So is JJ Leroy.
And Chris Giacometti.
And even Yuri has his moments.
The realism of the figure skating scenes is helped along by actual skating choreographer Kenji Miyamoto, who created all of the routines portrayed in the show, and is responsible for the magical beauty of the show’s opening sequence:
Yuri and Victor’s journey towards life and love is absurdly charming and ridiculously hot, and I wish the second season would hurry up and get here already. So, after the Winter Olympics ends and the real-life figure skating dramas fade away for another four years, it’s great to have something to tide fans over until the next Winter Games. If the athletic spectacle of figure skating captivates you, watch Yuri!!! on Ice. If the promise of an adorable relationship sets your fannish heart aflutter, watch Yuri!!! on Ice. Finally, if you, like me, thirst for a wide array of hot anime boys, definitely check out Yuri!!! on Ice.