While 2013's Free is considered many things but perfect, its role in broadening an avenue in mainstream media for other fanbase-dubbed "manservice" works is undeniable, rekindling a bygone genre only previously seen by those who sought it. Yaoi isn't exactly new to the medium, the ever-ceaseless late 2000s cultural shift contributing towards LGBT acceptance's decay from a taboo to mundane facet in media. Just in 2002, t.A.T.u.'s "All The Things She Said" music video was banned by several broadcasters and countries for its "controversial" content where two women kissed. And today, Miley Cyrus dry humping everything barely merits a shrug from most people. If being desensitized has done anything positive to our current society, it's allowing others to express themselves openly without it being harshly shut down by a majority rule, which also carts over to anime... well, kind of.
Anime has always been pushing the boundaries of what's considered acceptable content for decades, striving in its brazen depiction of whatever it chooses to highlight. And no, I'm not just speaking on the mid 2000s boom of lolicon fetishism, I'm talking about all the way back to its humble beginnings, with titles like Belladonna of Sadness making waves in 1973 with its phallic imagery and sexually charged content that could still be seen as provocative, even by today's "no boundaries" standards. Content that ultimately went on to inspire the works of many creators, with one notable example being acclaimed director, Kunihiko Ikuhara; a man who's also credited for bringing an artistic touch to themes of sexual liberation through his various hyper-stylized works. Sexual decadence and open expression have always been a part of anime's arsenal, the only real change is how frequently they're being used.
Which brings us all the way to Fall season 2016, which alone has 4 to 5 anime titles that either overtly or hinted at homoerotic relations in some way or another, while just a decade ago, receiving 4 to 5 titles with these undercurrents in it within a year's time was considered a milestone. As the 2010s pass, our increasing rate of connectivity, information sharing and understanding of others has diminished miscommunication and heightened acceptance of alternative preferences, sexual or otherwise, resulting in a largely overlooked trivialization of sexual content in anime.
In some ways, Yuri On Ice could be seen as another byproduct of this trend, if only to a much more abrasive degree, positioning men in suggestive poses while participating in a sport used as a vehicle to portray who they are as people. And where something like Free boasts eye-grabbing swimming sequences, Yuri On Ice capitalizes on ice skating scenes that dwarf the efforts of most animated TV productions. Too bad it isn't enough to distract from the fatal flaws that plague the entire production. You see, Yuri on Ice tries its damnedest to shed light on its cast; a cast that is constantly reduced to doujinshi deviant art-bait clippings despite its honest efforts to mold them into believable personalities.
But the question is, does Yuri on Ice justify it? Is there a base purpose for its shounen-ai fluff to be there? I may not be Ikuhara's fan, but there's no denying each of his works deliver provocative, purposeful messages. There's always a constant need to stress freedom of expression with homosexuality itself just being another extension to further emphasize that idea. Self-indulgent at times but justifiable if you care for what he's trying to say. But what about Yuri on Ice? Does it actually justify these men's intimate devotion for each other or is it just trying to fetishize everything to draw out a marketable audience that usually takes in this content at their own leisure? Is there a purpose here outside of being titillating manservice? What I'm trying to ask in the most ignorant and offensive way possible; is Yuri on Ice just being gay for the sake of being gay?
— Views episode 6, guy figure skating grabs his ass "I think I'm gonna come"—
Well... I guess that answers my question.
Yuri on Ice is a harmless fanservice pastime dressed up as a coming-of-age story and cut from the same cloth as any other sports tournament anime, let's stop pretending otherwise. The sooner we kill the pretension that it's something more profound than that, the faster we could sit back and enjoy it for what it is; a fun, easygoing yaoi-bait show with pretty boys trying to balance characterization and fetishism on the same pedestal.
And as yaoi-bait entertainment goes, Yuri on Ice is definitely a show stopper when it comes time to take the games to the ice. Brought to life by Mappa, a young studio renowned for their presentation and audiovisual prowess, Yuri on Ice is yet another notch under their belt, boasting ice skating scenes so free-flowing that at times it's easy to believe that they might have been rotoscoped. It's this selling point that got most to give Yuri on Ice the stamp of approval, and understandably so. You don't really get this much effort from an animated TV production on a regular basis. But do I think that's reason enough to warrant all the appraisal it has gathered? Of course not. Those 5 minutes per episode aren't a saving grace for the other 15 minutes, especially when those 15 minutes often spend its time being a mishmash of basic fanfare for literally every sports story ever conceived or a roulette spin of yaoi/comedy for those who care for it.
Half of the ice skating involves numerous elements, like panning around the competitors in a news camera fashion with occasional audience reaction shots to round it out. When you realize that the actual dances are being overlaid onto different backgrounds with minor, sparse tweaks to delude, you find the show's highlights disappointingly operate on a limited dispensary. They retain their integrity as the show's highlights, but they're not all they're cracked up to be. And honestly, that aspect of it doesn't even bother me since the changes make every encounter fresh. What does, however, is its half commitment towards its characters in one direction or the next.
Trying to build legitimacy for its characters while simultaneously reducing them to objectified pretty boy specimen for the sake of manservice has left Yuri on Ice in a gimmicky realm where all of its achievements could only muster up to being "that show with the really nice ice skating scene," a sentence worse than death for anything looking to stand the test of time. From nobody's fault but its own, this anime has effectively built itself a glass ceiling that it could never surpass.
But enough of me taking the piss out of this show, let's go over the basics that it chooses to cover and what good it was able to do.
In the world of competitive figure ice skating, Victor Nikiforov stands as the person to beat, being a beloved and envied figure throughout the sport's industry, as well as a person of inspiration for newcomers trying to break into the field. With an elegant physique that exudes self-confidence and a natural knack for the sport, Victor is the complete package. One of the countless people that adore him is our main character, Yuuri Katsuki, a novice ice skater who idolizes everything about him, to the point where his sole dedication to the sport of figure ice skating derives from the infatuation that he has for the otherworldly reigning champion that's always occupying his TV screen. Through dumb luck and perfect timing, Yuuri is presented with the once in a lifetime opportunity to study under his mentor, the story subsequently dedicating itself to their blossoming relationship as it coincides with the world tournament that wraps everything up within it.
Yuri on Ice's flamboyant characters are given simple reasons for their ambitions, the show's format complementing its cast; ice skating being both the engine of characterization, every character's idiosyncrasies expanding on their personalities, and a divider granting those characters undisturbed time in the limelight, the story's short, 12-episode tournament format spurring frequent ice skating characterization and an inexorable sense of movement toward a definite finality. Ice skating characterization examples include Chris Giacometti's lowbrow episode 6 exhibition relaying his sexual and methodical confidence in appeasing the audience versus the protagonist's quick flashes that redeem his low sex appeal, Victor's unworried nonchalance regarding his envied, exceptional technical skills, Yuri's eccentric, soft style despite his fiery personality and even minor characters like Jean-Jacques, the show's JoJo stand-in, whose cockiness translates to a showboating spectacle. The theatrics, choice of techniques, tight turns, and loose gesture all coalesce into a final form that define who that person is on and off the ice rink—this characterization the show's biggest strength.
And perhaps this very thoughtful decision to characterize the characters' personalities is also the reason I find the whole thing to be a waste. Because despite itself, Yuri on Ice was a show that was never meant to appeal to me. So where I would usually outright dismiss something like this, it just so happens that there were nuggets of detail within it that I found appealing. An appeal that required me to drudge through content that I couldn't psych myself into caring for no matter how hard I tried.
And really, it didn't have to do much to make me like it, just either muffle the shounen-ai content down to a realistic degree or stop dancing around the idea and just fully embrace it. The show is suggestive of the possibility of there being an actual sexual interest between the main leads but at the same time, it only cock-teases this idea to maintain the illusion of the fiction it wants to sell. And once again, excuse my politically incorrect wording but if you're going to be gay, be all the way gay goddammit. Stop pussyfooting around. I don't need some full blown orgy like Sausage Party's celebratory ending, all I want is a clear yes or no for where they stand, none of this "just gay enough" gray area. Is it so hard for a male homosexual relationship to be taken seriously for once?
Now with all that being said, is Yuri on Ice worth the watch? Yes, but only if you have nothing else in your catalog. As it stands, it's not something I see any need to jump into. Yuri on Ice is that intermediary show that you pick up to pass the time on your way on to better ones. What it has that works is its wonderful ice skating scenes and the usage of it to inform the audience of who the characters are, as for everything else, it's either standard for its genre or serviceable to a very niche market.