The season is officially kicked into gear now.
I’ve said for a while that my favorite thing about Yuri!! on Ice was the apoplexy among anime fans of a certain stripe when they found out it didn’t mean what they thought it meant. But that’s just starting to annoy me now, mainly because it would have taken minimal effort (or even consciousness) to discover the truth by now, and because so many of those fans have always taken the attitude that anime existed purely to serve their particular fetishes. Get over yourselves and watch one of the 30 other series this season that scratches your itch, and stop bitching about the occasional one that doesn’t (no matter what the title is).
Now, onto the series itself – and quite a splashy debut Yuri on Ice makes. This is a production that lets you know immediately that kiddie swim is over – MAPPA means business here. Directed by Yamamoto Sayo and co-written by mangaka Kubo Mitsurou, Yuri on Ice is a story about men’s figure skating – to the best of my knowledge the first full series to focus on that subject. Figure skating is not a sport that’s a particular fascination of mine – it’s one of those that pretty much disappears off my radar for four years at a time. But any sports series can grab you whether you follow the sport or not, as long as it tells a compelling human story. And so far, the results are encouraging.
The first question any figure skating anime in 2016 is going to have to answer is that of how it’s going to bring the actual skating to life. I very much appreciate that MAPPA and Yamamoto-sensei chose to go with fully hand-drawn animation, given that figure skating is such a dynamic and fluid sport. There are occasional “skips” and jerky moments, but for the most part the routines are really lovely – and I’d rather have that than more seamless CGI. Figure skating is art as much as sport (half the scores come down to “artistic impression” after all), a ballet on ice – and the effect of MAPPA’s work here is sort of an impressionistic take on the subject.
The hero of Yuri on Ice is Katsuki Yuuri (an excellent Toyonaga Toshiyuki), a Japanese lad of about 21 who as we meet him has finally cracked the sports big stage only to fail pretty miserably when he gets there. Yuuri idolizes the Russian four-time champion Viktor Nikiforov (Suwabe Junichi) – so much so that he named his poodle “Vicchan” (a poodle he got because Viktor had one). At 27 Viktor is a veritable dowager for figure skating, but the Russian contingent also features someone at the opposite end of their career arc, 15 year-old Yuri Plisetsky (Uchiyama Kouki). Yuri is young, arrogant and immensely talented (it’s interesting to note that it’s his spelling that matches the series title) and resents the idea of another “Yuuri” in the senior division drawing attention away from him.
Yamamoto and Kubo make a very wise decision in making the premiere more about Yuuri’s life journey than the sport itself. As he returns home to the small onsen city in Kyushu from whence he hails Yuuri is at a crossroads in his life, clearly unsure whether he still has the fire in the (rapidly expanding) belly to continue to try and be a world-class athlete. There’s an excellent misdirection when he meets childhood friend Yuko, who manages the local ice rink. The chemistry between Yuuri and Yuko is immediately obvious, as is the fact that Yuuri has always been in love with her.
The scene where Yuuri reenacts Viktor’s gold-medal winning routine (featuring four quadruple jumps, which both of them nail) is gorgeously shot, intercutting between the two men as they perform the routine. The fact that Yuuri spent a year learning this routine to show it to Yu-chan is beautiful – yes, he wants to rediscover the love of skating which flared in him when they skated together as children (imitating Viktor) but that’s not all there is here. But then we find out that Yuko is actually married to Yuuri’s childhood tormentor Nishigori Takeshi (Fukuyama Jun), and that they have triplet daughters – one of whom records Yuuri’s routine on a sumaho and posts it online, setting off the somewhat implausible chain of events that sets up the rest of the series’ plot.
Make no mistake about it, Yuri!! on Ice is very, very good so far – a class production that seems geared towards adults. But I’m cautious here, because I don’t know Kubo’s work and even more, because Yamamoto and I have a checkered history. I’m not a fan of her over-busy visual style generally – it works well here but I don’t know if I’ll feel that way after a cour of it – and I’ve never made it to the end of a show she’s directed without becoming highly annoyed with her grandstanding and creative choices. She’s a very talented woman, and maybe Yuri on Ice is the show where it all comes together and she and I finally click. I sure hope so, because this was a rock-solid premiere for a series that seems to have a world of potential.