Yuri!!! on Ice is super gay. Like, gayer than all other sports anime, gayer than most other anime full stop. Just super super gay. Which is exciting because it’s like ‘Yay, unashamed, full-on representation!’ and it’s great. But then you look at the framework it’s taking place in and it’s like what I imagine it was like watching Will and Grace in the nineties, because under no circumstance will anyone let these two dudes kiss.
They go as far as they can, winking and nudging and maintaining the plausible deniability that no, they were just hugging, just two friends having a nice platonic hug. Calling it a cocktease would probably be inappropriate given the circumstances but one cannot deny that looking at it through a queer lens results in an experience that is all sorts of unfulfilling. At least we have the fanfiction, and this time they’re not even queering the canonical straights.
The basic setup is that after a defeat at the Grand Prix of Figure Skating, 24 year old Yuri Katsuki feels like he’s aging out of competition. When his childhood idol Victor Nikiforov arrives and offers to coach him, he decides to take one last chance to fulfil his dreams, go for the gold. Outside of the first few episodes the main drama is focused around the competition, the qualifying rounds, building routines, the friendly competition that exists between the cabal of world class figure skaters.
Its irrepressible charm lies in its good nature, sure you get almost the majority of each episode being these elaborately animated performance competition pieces, the show making you aware that these guys lives are singularly honed to the point of perfection at one specific thing. They are figure skaters, more so than anything else, and their dedication to this craft has to be assigned a numerical value in order to mean anything.
That’s insane right? I’m not wrong in thinking that that’s crazy? It would at any rate drive me spare, but given the nature of the sport we ain’t gonna be dealing with a team dynamic here. This ain’t football, or rugby, or a swimming team, or a cycling team (Jesus I watch too much of this) we looking at direct competition. If the models of relationship we see here are to be taken seriously, then the metaphor in play is that if coach and athlete are like a romantic couple, then competitors should be friends.
The show creates this real healthy image of positive masculine competition. It ain’t a perfect image, these guys all got their flaws, self-obsession, perfectionism, ego, doubt, and these all come through when we watch them. MAPPA made the choice of giving each character their own key animators, so we get to see difference there, but when we looking off the rink though, when we see these characters hanging out, we see characters able to dissociate competitive personas from their personality.
This great, and something we need to see more of, because masculine forms of competition are not expressed purely through sport nowadays. Dudes raised to be so competitive, it’s tiresome, we see a world that is only able to comprehend discourse in terms of winners and losers, of teams and clubs and groups and inclusion and exclusion. Yuri on Ice suggests a world where competition is less important than compassion and acceptance. If you define your life by the competition, when you off the rink you don’t have anything.
This also plays into the central relationship, I think it’s pretty explicitly stated that Yuri and Victor ain’t been in a proper relationships before. So the series uses this conceit to deconstruct how queer relationships typically play out in anime. The series fakes us into thinking the couple are gonna play out one way, and then regularly pulls the rug out to say, ‘Yeah, that’s sorta a shitty way for things to be.’ It’s not one sided too, both fall into acting in these bad ways sometimes, bad ways we accept because we see them so often.
Then someone gets their feelings hurt and we get to see it fixed, by acting human, by being vulnerable, by being emotionally available in a way that we don’t too often get to see between gay couples in anime. It’s such a dichotomy because the show allowed to present us this really emotionally fulfilling relationship, it just isn’t allowed to label it as such in any way. It’s killer because it stifles any recommendation that I’m able to give, saying that you have to understand how the form has to contort itself in order to tell the story that’s on its mind.
I still recommend it though, hopefully this success will be a stepping stone to the future. Hopefully they’ll be able to get away with more in season 2. From the words of the producers we know they’re trying their best, that all we can ask of them. In the meantime I’ll be satisfied with just spending more time with these sweet sweet ice boys.