Perhaps last year’s biggest anime, there was no getting away from Yuri!!! on Ice hype, especially if you have a predilection for this kind of homoerotic, overly passionate sports anime, as I do – for whatever reason. As moé fizzles out and straight male anime fans begin to tire of idol shows, this style of female-targeted anime only grows in prominence.
Certainly, homoerotic sports and games shows are nothing new. Prince of Tennis had many of the same tropes, and the underlying passionate rivalry is what made me love Hikaru no Go so much. Haikyuu!! is incredibly popular just now, and with a long list of basketball, soccer, cycling and imaginary card game-based manga and anime provide more and more fodder for the ladies of Ikebukuro Animate. Arguably, Free! brought the subgenre more to the fore, mixing atypically good art with homosexual overtones. So the path was clear for an anime like Yuri!!! on Ice.
The choice of figure skating was no surprise. Japan has for a few years now been giving a lot of attention to Hanyuu Yuzuru, a slim, pretty-faced young figure skater who won gold in Sochi. He won hearts with his optimistic attitude and love of Winnie the Pooh, and has since gone down the usual ‘talent’ road with photo books and acting appearances. While it would be a bit much to say he’s single-handedly responsible for the current prominence of figure skating over here, he’s certainly a central figure. Thus the choice of skating for last season’s homoerotic sports anime came as no surprise.
Indeed, the main problem here is that nothing was a surprise. There was a sense that this was a groundbreaking show in some way – for example, there was some fuss over a moment that was maybe-or-maybe-not a kiss. And then the main pairing exchanged rings that could have been a platonic symbol or could echo engagement. They bathed together, lived together and often drove one another to tears. And I guess there were a lot of people in the audience thinking boundaries were being pushed for a mainstream anime. After all, Free! never went this far. But for me, I kept thinking of No.6 and how much more realistically and respectfully it portrayed a gay relationship in an relatively mainstream Noitamina anime.
Not that the anime needed to be groundbreaking to be enjoyable. With good characters, compelling pacing and interesting relationships, it could have been great fun. The problem was that for me, I didn’t connect with any of the characters, find them realistic or likeable. The main character, Yuri, struck me as self-pitying, judgemental, unkind and ungrateful, which was bad since he was meant to be the heart and soul of the piece. His enigmatic mentor and love interest, Victor, did what he was meant to do, being an impetuous, compelling, often bizarre selfish genius type – he was what he was meant to be, but that doesn’t mean I like that kind of character type. Then there was the other Yuri, young Russian Yuri Plisetsky, who is a skinny, feminine, totally beautiful 15-year-old Russian boy. His appearance is cute but his personality is harsh and cruel, and though his tsundere side occasionally makes him more sympathetic, he was still a totally unlikeable brat. Most of the other characters are the kind of total oddballs that often populate sports anime, though mostly a little too exaggerated for the overall tone.
The only characters I actually liked were Phichit from Thailand, who strove to please others and whose main fault was just being dull, and Kenjirou, a chirpy younger skater who idolises Yuri, does the cutest skate of the series and then gets relegated to the cheering division for the remaining episodes.
In technical terms, the anime had some nice fluid skating animation, but often looked scrappy or made bizarre decisions in terms of camera distortion, especially when it came to Swiss Christophe’s ‘sex appeal’ skates. I can’t say I felt strongly impressed by the skating animation, and it often looked awkwardly rotoscoped.
Certainly the show was light and often funny, and some of the cross-cultural observation was insightful, and I’ll probably watch a continuation if and when it appears, but overall I have to say I felt Yuri!!! on Ice was mediocre even in the fujoshi-bait world of homoerotic sports anime.