[Synopsis]: After a crushing defeat during the Grand Prix Figure Skating Final in Sochi, Russia, a crestfallen Katsuki Yuuri (Toyonaga Toshiyuki) returns to his hometown in Japan. Unsure of himself and whether or not to proceed with his career, Yuuri’s life takes an unexpected turn when a recording of him performing the routine of his idol and world champion figure skater Victor Nikiforov (Suwabe Junichi) goes viral. To his surprise, the video attracts the attention of Victor himself who abruptly flies to meet with him and offers to become his coach. With Victor’s help, Yuuri redoubles his efforts to win the upcoming Grand Prix and overcome the other accomplished skaters and his newfound rival Yuri Plisetsky (Uchiyama Kouki).
The story of Yuri!!! on Ice can best be distilled within two primary focuses. The first is the growth Yuuri experiences over the course of his journey, both as a figure skater and as a person. The second is Yuuri’s relationship with Victor which matters a great deal in regards to both of the previous facets of the show. When we first encounter Yuuri after his defeat in Russia, he sees himself as a failure and a lot of his development and his interactions with Victor are aimed at overcoming this self image – of coming into confidence and self-worth. This transformation is very pronounced and you get a keen sense of where Yuuri is at each step of his transformation. In this way Yuuri is a fairly endearing character.
Yuuri’s relationship with Victor is an interesting one. He idolizes him as a figure skating champion and is endlessly appreciative of his offer to mentor him however above all else there is unquestionably a romantic element to their relationship. In some ways this is well executed and in other ways it becomes rather problematic. The way Yuuri attempts to discern his feelings is very vague and is reflective of his own uncertainty. This feeds well into his meek personality and the unconventionality of the romance. Their bond has some charm to it and it adds meaningful depth to both of the characters.
Conversely, Yuri!!! on Ice opts to be far more suggestive than concrete in how it portrays their relationship. It leads the viewer along with insinuations and fan-service rather than truly committing to what in all reality should be an authentic relationship. The way the show skirts around a genuine portrayal of romance is profoundly infuriating and while some viewers might invest themselves in the show’s allusions more easily, I found its execution to be rather irritating. Moreover, Yuuri and Victor’s dialogue is very overt which means that they often speak their thoughts out loud. This approach of straightforward, internal exposition renders the dialogue a little plain and the show could have found a more tactful or artistic way to convey the emotions and thoughts of these characters to the viewer.
Yuuri and Victor aside, Yuri!!! on Ice presents a rather extensive supporting cast. Some characters such as Yuri Plisetsky, Christophe Giacometti, Jean-Jacques Leroy offer fairly memorable characterization and stand on their own within the scope of the show’s narrative. Yuri!!! on Ice is very interested in portraying a tournament scene full of potential champions and rising stars and to some degree it succeeds. Many of the other skaters and the remainder of the supporting cast leave a lot to be desired however. The way in which the tournament introduces them, provides them with an almost token backstory and motivation for winning, all before dismissing them felt awkward and forgettable. They exist for an ephemeral moment only to provide the audience with a less interesting story and the sense that Yuuri has some measure of competition before him. Some of these characters are better than others but many of them they don’t feel like they exist beyond the story they are given – they are written in simply to lose.
Perhaps the most striking component of the first episode of Yuri!!! on Ice was its fantastic character animation and choreography. With figure skating sequences choreographed by professional skater Miyamoto Kenji and the visionary Yamamoto Sayo at the helm, the visuals of Yuri!!! on Ice sported a lot of promise. This potential manifests in full form during the show’s first episode however it has a hard time ever rising to the same degree of execution afterwards. Yuri!!! on Ice was plagued by a variety of quality drops and issues and while they didn’t entirely compromise the show’s presentation, there were countless instances of very off-model character designs and awkward bits of animation. These things somewhat undercut the show’s strong sense of choreography and otherwise fluid animation.
On the topic of animation, there was a great deal of reused animation throughout the show. This is spruced up in various ways as to not be too obvious however once the sequence makes its 3rd or 4th appearance it starts to wear on the performance. This is somewhat forgivable however as most of the reused shots and sequences can be seen as a necessary evil in how the figure skaters repeat their choreographed performances. Though the characters often don’t look quite like themselves, their performances generally capture the kind of emotion they are channeling. There’s a kind of integral emotion, sex appeal, and femininity within figure skating and the way this manifests within the routines of the characters and their personalities is an interesting element of the show.
The last thing I’ll touch upon are the character designs of the cast which were quite good. Yuuri is very average-looking and unassuming which goes hand-in-hand with his self-conscious personality. The dissonance between Yuuri’s ordinary design and the person he becomes while skating is utilized well by the show to explore the changes within his mentality. Victor’s design is sensuous and poised and although this often obscured by the show’s crude sense of comedy, his design speaks well of his characterization. The other characters all sport both distinct and memorable designs as well and visually fit very well into the tournament setting though some fail to follow through on their individuality with their respective characterization. In a similar vein, the wardrobe of each of the skaters is flashy and dynamic and adds another visual element to their performances.
The core narrative of Yuri!!! on Ice is pretty straightforward. The story follows Yuuri, Victor, and the rest of the competition as they work to improve themselves and subsequently compete within the tournament bracket culminating in the Grand Prix Final. What’s interesting is that the show doesn’t proceed as traditionally as one might expect. The first few episodes establish a fairly standard underdog story however this isn’t the ultimate tone of the show. Though lacking in self-confidence, Yuuri really is a professional skater and is even more accomplished than some of the people he competes against. The story then becomes more focused on Yuuri himself as an individual and how he interacts with Victor rather than playing into such a conventional setup. It’s a story of self-exploration and empowerment threaded together by themes of competition, love, and romantic discovery.
Another important element of Yuri!!! on Ice are the figure skating performances which dominate the show in its later half. To some degree, the way in which each character skates is reflective of their mentality off the ice and the way their mindset drives their performance is one of the primary ways the show imparts significance to each performance. This is especially important for Yuuri and Yuri Plisetsky whose transformations are most apparent in how they skate. The show doesn’t allow for a lot of time outside of the competition and so the way it manages to explore characters is by using cutaways and flashbacks during their sequences. This can feel pretty disruptive at times and occasionally even felt like a means of cutting around animation corners. Rarely are the performances allowed the room to breathe and progress uninterrupted but when they are they are quite spectacular to watch.
The primary issues of the show stem from its problematic portrayal of Yuuri and Victor’s relationship and the lackluster characterization of the supporting cast. Given the numerous fan-service scenes and instances of suggestive dialogue, too often does Yuuri’s relationship with Victor feel like it exists for the sake of the viewer rather than for the characters themselves. It’s presented in such a way that, while their romantic interest in each other is genuine, the show skirts around ever actualizing what they are talking about. It implies that they are boyfriends, lovers, partners, etc. but only through the veil of humor and Victor’s own levity. It’s not as black and white as some of the relationship ‘baiting’ you might see in other shows but it certainly plays off of the viewer’s own desired perception rather than offering something authentic. It has a handful of endearing scenes that attempt to sincerely progress their relationship however these steps forward are somewhat undermined by the other aspects of their portrayal. There’s something legitimate in their attachment to one another but it would have been far potent had all of their scenes been explored as honestly as some others.
While it’s a hard thing to find concrete value in, I thought Yuri!!! on Ice had strong sound design. Within the presentation of figure skating there are a lot of minute details that you can play off of to heighten the immersion of the scene and the show follows through on a lot of these. The acoustics of the skating, the crowd in the distance, and the way in which the sound of the performance seemed to fit the size of the venue were impressive details.
The soundtrack was decent but didn’t present anything that stood out in my memory. The tracks to which the skaters performed to were varied and some were pretty engaging but others were far less memorable and distinct.
[Final Thoughts and Rating]:
One aspect of the show that I enjoyed but wasn’t able to highlight earlier was its use of social media. Through various media platforms and commonplace social networks, Yuri!!! on Ice is able to introduce characters, places, and events in a quintessentially modern way. The very premise of the show is derived from a video of Yurri’s skating going viral. The characters feel integrated in a true-to-life way and it was a very interesting and fun addition to the show’s presentation.
As a whole Yuri!!! on Ice is a bit of a mixed bag. It’s strength lies in the development of its protagonist and the various figure skating routines that attempt to distill the passion, personality, and drive of the show’s cast. Yuuri’s relationship with Victor, while compelling in several aspects, is somewhat tarnished by the underhanded way it is portrayed within the scope of the show. Art quality issues permeate the length of its run and the writing and dialogue is all a little too straightforward which leave a lot of the side-characters feeling uninteresting. The comedy feels natural within the tone of Yuri!!! on Ice however the gags and levity of the show somewhat upset the dramatic potential of its story and characters. The show’s stellar first few episodes set an incredibly high standard that the show had a hard time surmounting afterwards.
I gave Yuri!!! on Ice a 6 because, despite its various faults, it still managed to present something both charming and at times even beautiful. Though it had its share of production issues, the figure skating was often graceful and while it wasn’t executed to the degree that I wish it was, the way in which the routines of the skaters reflected upon themselves was engaging. At its core, the relationship between Yuuri and Victor was a good one and it worked well in regards to Yuuri’s development however I think a less manipulative display would have gone a long way for the show.
I would recommend Yuri!!! on Ice to those interested in the premise of the show and in its sport. There’s plenty of figure skating to go around and while it doesn’t handle itself in the same manner as a traditional sports show, it should appeal to that interest all the same. An additional facet of the show that may attract some viewers is that in dealing with Katsuki Yuuri and Victor Nikiforov who are 23 and 27 respectively, Yuri!!! on Ice presents a more mature cast of characters. Those uninterested in the bond between Yuuri and Victor may want to stay away from the show as it accounts for a significant amount of the show and what it sets out to accomplish.