Thursday, December 22, 2016

REVIEW: Yuri!!! on Ice, Season 1 (anime TV series)

Yuri!!! on Ice is a sports anime focused on men's figure skating. At the moment, it's one season (12 episodes) long, although I've heard that there may be a second season.

This review contains spoilers. I tried not to talk too much about how the skating worked out, but there were things I wanted to say about the character relationships that meant I had to go into spoiler territory. Reminder: I've begun posting my TV series and movie reviews on LibraryThing, where I'm able to use spoiler tags.

Review:

I know I said I was probably going to wait a while before writing my review for this series, give myself more time to process, etc. But I think I’m just going to get it out there. I may write another one after it comes out on DVD.

Yuri on Ice is a sports anime starring Katsuki Yuri, a Japanese figure skater who is trying to recover after completely flubbing the Grand Prix Final. In order to get his love of figure skating back, he imitates the latest performance of Victor Nikiforov (spelled “Victor” in Crunchyroll and “Viktor” by a lot of fans). A recording of his performance is uploaded to the internet, sparking a lot of talk in the skating world, and Victor himself inexplicably arrives and announces he’s taking a break from skating in order to be Yuri’s coach. It’s like a dream come true for Yuri.

The bulk of the series is devoted to the newest Grand Prix Final, but throughout it all are the threads of the characters’ various relationships, including the possibility of romance between Yuri and Victor.

I wouldn’t have thought that a series in which viewers have to watch the same performances multiple times could be so exciting and engrossing, but it was. Even if I had seen a particular performance several times before in previous episodes, it never felt stale - it always said something new about the characters and their relationships.

My favorite characters were probably Yuri and Victor (of course), Russian Yuri (from here on out called by his nickname, Yurio), and Phichit, although there were several other characters I found myself rooting for at one time or another. I really felt for Yuri’s struggle to get a gold medal in what he thought would probably be his last Grand Prix Final, and his struggle with anxiety was gut-wrenching. Victor was a mystery for much of the series, but a fun one. He completely won me over during episode 10, when the motive for many of his actions was revealed. I only have a few complaints about this series, and one of them is that I could have used at least one more episode from Victor’s POV. I’d have liked to see more of Victor as he was before he decided to drop everything and rush to Yuri’s side.

Yurio was one of those characters who grew on me as the series progressed. I loved watching him become a stronger skater, gradually open up, and actually come to like Yuri (and Otabek!). I wanted Yuri to win, of course, but by the end of the series I also wanted to see Yurio soar. The way the final episodes handled his performances, and tied his final one into Yuri’s, was just wonderful.

And Phichit! His performances were fun, but I mostly loved him because he was so friendly and supportive of Yuri. And the Yuri and Victor pairing. Phichit was basically an audience stand-in at times.

The show was focused on male figure skaters, but happily it opted not to ignore women. Usually I’d expect to see one, maybe two women in a series like this. There’d be someone’s stereotypically motherly mother, and maybe one super-cute girl who was destined to be a prominent character’s girlfriend. Yuri on Ice looked, at first, like that's what it would be limited to: Yuri’s mother and Yuko, Yuri’s childhood friend. Except Yuko got married and had three kids while Yuri was away. While I would have liked to see even more female characters (I’m greedy like that), I loved the variety in the ones that were there. Probably my favorite of the bunch was Sala (Sara?), an Italian figure skater who put her foot down and forced her twin brother to get past his unhealthy dependence on her. I also liked Anya. Although she didn’t have much of a speaking role, her reaction to Georgi’s creepy final performance was perfect.

I loved this show. Episode 10 made my heart feel like it was going to burst. Episode 11 made me cry for a character I hadn’t previously liked much. And episode 12 just made me cry, period. That said, while this series was close to being my idea of perfect, it did fall short in several ways. I’ve already mentioned that I wished there had been another episode from Victor’s POV. I also occasionally had some issues with the artwork. Then there was Chris, who was kind of icky, what with his habit of literally climaxing on the ice. I have no idea why so many characters thought he was sexy.

My biggest problem with this series, however, was the ambiguity in Victor and Yuri’s relationship, which continued until the very end. The more I think about that, the more it disappoints and bothers me. Victor spent many of the early episodes blatantly flirting with Yuri, while Yuri blushed and backed away. I had heard that one of the episodes halfway through the series would have an onscreen kiss, but I have to say, other people’s definition of “onscreen” is significantly different from mine. The way that moment was staged left it unclear whether they’d actually kissed or whether they’d just hugged and their lips had only been highlighted for greater viewer squeeing.

Episode 10 looked like a turning point, explicit recognition that the series would have a central gay romance that would end happily. I expected something clear and unambiguous: maybe marriage (I was less convinced of this than other viewers), maybe a true on-screen kiss, or maybe just dialogue spelling out that, yes, the two characters are in a romantic relationship. And none of that happened. I’ve seen people say that fans who wanted unambiguous recognition of Yuri and Victor’s relationship really only wanted fanservice, and to those people I say “nope.” Like I said, I would have been fine with just unambiguous dialogue. There are so very many anime series that tease viewers with potential gay relationships and never go beyond that. Yuri on Ice looked like it took itself more seriously than that, and I was so disappointed that it never took those last few steps.

J.J. got to unambiguously propose to his unambiguous girlfriend. With Yuri and Victor, viewers got Victor repeatedly doing things and making comments that indicated he was attracted to Yuri, and indications that Yuri was probably attracted to Victor, but also repeated denials from Yuri (“he’s just my coach, this is just me thanking him!”), a light and possibly jokey tone from Victor, indications that Yuri saw their flirtations at the Grand Prix Final as just another part of his performance, and a final scene that, while lovely, was yet another ambiguous skating performance. The series came so close to officially recognizing them as a romantic couple. I don’t think an unambiguous final episode was too much to ask.

Wow, this review is long. Anyway, that’s it. I’m a little worried that my issues with the way Victor and Yuri’s relationship worked out have tainted the series for me, but I think I'm just a little sore right now and will get past it. I’d still recommend watching this. I’d just caution potential viewers not to expect too much from a romance standpoint. It’s weird - Yuri on Ice is somehow simultaneously the best show I’ve seen in months, and also possibly my biggest disappointment of the year. This show was so good! But, as lovely as all the skating and hints of romance were, explicit representation matters, and in that respect the series was a failure.

I've heard that there's going to be a second season. If that's the case, I hope that the issues I've mentioned in this review get dealt with. Unfortunately, I don't really have much trust in that at the moment. I'm sure I'll watch that season, but I'll also scale back my expectations.

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