Why was Yuri!!! On Ice so Groundbreaking? (And why should you watch it?)
*Warning, this article contains mild spoilers for the first season of Yuri!!! On Ice *
Over Christmas I found myself re-watching a lot of my old favourite shows and movies, including one of my favourite anime series; Yuri!!! On Ice. As I binge-watched all of the episodes in the week leading up to Christmas, I was quickly reminded of how beautiful and motivational this show is, and why it made such an impact on me when it was first airing back in 2016. Yuri!!! On Ice quickly became a mainstream anime, bringing in a fanbase outside of the usual anime fans and garnering worldwide attention. Figure skaters Miu Susaki and Ryuichi Kihara even skated a programme to Yuri On Ice in the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, the same song that the protagonist of the show skates to during his free programme.
Yuri!!! On Ice is a sports anime about 23-year-old figure skater Yuri Katsuki who is aiming to win the gold medal in the Grand Prix Figure Skating Final after his crushing defeat in the previous year. He struggles with his self confidence and mental fortitude, which prevents him from reaching his full potential. After a video of him skating the programme of world’s best figure skater Victor Nikiforov goes viral (whom Yuri happens to be a huge fan of), he shows up at Yuri’s house and offers to become his coach. The pressure of the world’s most sought after figure skater quitting to work with Yuri begins to weigh on him as he battles for the gold medal, facing lots of challenges along the way. The most important of those challenges being Yuri choosing to let others in and believing in himself. With the support of his new coach, he learns what it means to love and how to overcome your insecurities in order to achieve more than you ever thought you could.
This show is incredibly touching and inspiring for those who may be struggling to find the confidence to push themselves when they’re doing what they love, and to those who wish to overcome their mental blocks and become the best version of themselves. Yuri frequently talks about how he feels like the whole world is against him and that he needs to fight to get them on his side.
Yuri’s anxiety and self doubt is extremely realistic and therefore relatable; it can be unexpected and can pass quickly, or it can be long-term and completely throw you off. One second you believe in yourself and the next you look around at everyone else and wonder if you’re good enough. Sometimes you just need to cry and let the feeling pass in order to move past it and grow, and other times it’s something you need to work at. Yuri’s ups and downs allow him to grow and let others in, and he’s able to acknowledge how much he has developed since we first saw him. He is an extremely inspiring character, especially in the setting of a sport that constantly challenges your mental fortitude in order for you to win.
One of the other things about Yuri that I find very relatable and interesting is how closed off he is with others about his feelings. He has a very strong support network around him, yet he still feels very much alone and can’t open up to others. He talks about how allowing other people to comfort him feels like they are ‘intruding’ on his feelings, so therefore he pushes them away. The great thing about his and Victor’s relationship, is that they take things at a pace that is comfortable for them. Yes things don’t always go smoothly, but they never try to force each other to open up before they’re ready and are constantly trying to be aware of the other person’s feelings.
Yuri even talks about how he appreciates that when he opens up, Victor is there to meet him where he is. They don’t try to overstep those emotional boundaries, and their relationship progresses slowly at first, not acting on their feelings towards each other until the Cup of China event when they are overcome with emotion. This allows Yuri to safely begin to open up and trust others with his feelings, which helps him to grow both as a person and an athlete. This love that he comes to know becomes the theme for his programme and allows him to build his confidence as a competitor. As he declares at the start of the season, he is stronger for knowing love.
The specific love he shares with Victor is extremely important in modern society, especially coming from a genre that usually either completely censors or fetishises LGBTQ+ relationships. Co-creator Mitsurou Kubo stated at the time of the show airing, Yuri!!! On Ice is set in a world where discrimination of the LGBTQ+ community doesn’t exist and anyone can love anyone of any gender without consequence. The phrase ‘Love Wins!’ is even announced in the show; a very modern movement that isn’t so common in Japanese pop culture. It was very bold of a Japanese show to even be featuring a gay couple as the main protagonists (amongst other non-straight characters), let alone to be so openly supportive of the community and even supporting gay marriage whilst it currently isn’t legal in Japan. Imagine how encouraging it is for young LGBTQ+ athletes to see people like them being represented in sport, and the characters aren’t facing threats or abuse for a change?
Not only is Yuri!!! On Ice one of the first mainstream anime series that features an openly gay couple, it was a show that brought in a fanbase outside of the usual anime fans and garnered worldwide attention, including that of professional figure skaters who supported the show. One of the main reasons for this is how accurate and realistic the show is, which was due to the extensive research done by the creators. This work didn't go unnoticed, with Yuri!!! On Ice winning in every category it was nominated for during the 2016 Crunchyroll Anime Awards, just weeks after the season's last episode being aired.
The show's creators put a lot of time and effort into the preparation for the show, travelling around watching skating events and tapping into the world of competitive figure skating, using real places and events to aid the show in its creation. The skating routines were even choreographed professionally and performed in order for the animators to reference this when animating the skating programmes. Unique songs were composed for each character’s programme, and real costumes were even made. Now it is not uncommon for creators and animators to travel to other countries for inspiration and visual references, but how often do you hear about real props and choreography being created to prepare for animation?
Though not without its comedic moments, Yuri!!! On Ice shows a realistic depiction of someone dealing with anxiety and self doubt and how it has ups and downs, but ultimately shows that you can overcome your struggles and do well despite how difficult it is. This story follows the underdog as he faces the world when he feels like it is against him, his journey of self acceptance, and his and Victor’s blossoming relationship. This series is extremely motivational for anyone dealing with self doubt and insecurity; the LGBTQ+ society and figure skaters alike. (And for those of you who are worried that you won’t understand the ins and outs of figure skating, everything is helpfully broken down for you as the series goes on). You can check out the entire subbed and dubbed series on Crunchyroll and Funimation.