So, the Grand Prix final was last weekend – the real one, that is. And the event in Marseilles, France, went pretty well for the Japanese, as they took first and third places on the men’s side. And the world’s most famous Yuri on Ice fan (though Johnny Weir is a late contender there), the adorable Russian teenager and World Champion Evgenia Medvedeva, captured first place in the ladies’ event (and proceeded to skate off to the kiss-‘n-cry with an onigiri plushie). And art is imitating life as well as life art, as YoI cast real-life Japanese figure skater Oda Nobunari (who claims to be a a direct descendant of Oda Nobunaga) as himself doing the color commentary on this week’s broadcast.
The funny thing is, I didn’t watch a moment of it (until catching a few highlights late) because, quite honestly, I don’t really find figure skating all that interesting as a sport. I usually watch it at the Olympics every four years but almost never think about it in-between. You don’t care about that, nor should you, but it is a reflection of what a good job Yuri on Ice has done in managing to make figure skating interesting to someone not really interested in the sport. Haikyuu has done the same with volleyball but as with Haikyuu, what I find interesting isn’t so much the sport itself but the way it’s used as a means to reveal the inner workings of the characters who participate in it.
We’ve seen more of Yuri’s inner workings revealed than anyone else’s, of course – and it hasn’t always been a pretty picture. Yuri’s story is compelling not because he’s an exceptional athlete with boundless concentration and determination, but a self-doubting 23 year-old not sure what he wants to do in life (and that’s a lot less common in anime). I’ve come to believe that Yuri on Ice shouldn’t be all about Yuri winning the Grand Prix Final – that it would actually be kind of a cop-out if he did. All Viktor has ever asked Yuri to do is skate the way he wants to skate, and to be himself. I don’t think his arc should conclude with a miraculous victory against impossible odds – it should conclude with him skating a program free of regrets and self-defeat (a true “free skate”) and skating off into the sunset (well, until the inevitable Season 2) with Viktor.
Now, I suspect that’s going to be a minority opinion – but if ever I had reason to doubt my own perverse and contrarian inclinations, the fact that I’m rooting for J.J. at this point should be all the proof I need. We’ll see next week what actually happens, but it’s fair to say Yuri didn’t achieve either the commonly accepted goal for him or the one I set – he once again kind of wilted under the bright lights. He didn’t skate terribly apart from using a hand on the ice after his first quad, but it was neither a flawless or memorable program. It’s painful to watch Yuri skate like this because we all feel doubts, and we all know what frustration feels like. I don’t care if Yuri wins or not – I just want him to slip the surly bonds of Earth and dance the skies on laughter-silvered wings.
So what of the others? Phichit skates second (the order determined by the reverse of their placement after the preliminaries) and he’s one of only two skaters behind Yuri after the short program. That seems to confirm what I’ve felt all along, which is that he’s not a serious contender to actually win. Just being here is a victory for Phichit – for himself, for his country – and he can skate freely and with feeling, and without errors, though his low difficulty still leaves him behind Yuri. Chris (no stripper pole) is in third, still driven to try and prove himself to Viktor and acutely aware that he’s running out of time (and seemingly confirmed to be in a relationship with a man and a cat).
That leaves three to serious impact the proceedings, starting with Yurio (who actually skates before Chris). As ever, Yurio is a compelling presence on the ice – a combination of a child’s grace and freakish athleticism. My sense in watching him is “this is the future”. Yurio is too young to understand the concept of patience, really, but, he seems an unstoppable force that will sooner or later have his day. And it could be sooner, as he’s leading after the SP. Also interesting is watching Viktor watch Yurio, and watching Yuri watch Viktor doing so. Viktor surely feels many things here, as this is the next generation of a great tradition he was at the head of for a decade. And Yuri feels many things, too, though the sense is that he’s still insecure enough to be frightened when he sees Viktor looking with affection and admiration at Yurio.
The surly stealth figure, Otabek, is the one who stands closest to Yurio (likewise he skates a personal best) and it’s a really striking program, in purely skating terms the most interesting one of the episode. We haven’t gotten a lot of emotion from Otabek but his program is passionate and kind of primal, a folk dance on skates that would surely have scored highest under the “artistic impression” half of the old scoring system. Viktor is again struck by what he’s watching, and he’s absolutely right in calling it “exotic and fresh” – and Yuri’s is again unsettled by that admiration. Yurio, of course, is thrilled by his new bestie coming out ahead of “the pig”.
Oddly enough,though, it’s J.J.’s performance which is the most dramatic of the episode in purely dramatic terms, in part because it’s so unexpected. But it’s also the most, well- dramatic. Seeing him totally buckle under the pressure is rather shocking and brutal, but buckle he does – all of his brassy cockiness and aplomb crumbles under the weight of the moment. It’s a reminder that everyone in a story like this has a story – this is the biggest moment of their careers for most of them. And purely as a sports fan, I find guys like J.J. interesting – it’s easy to hate on them, but it’s often the athletes who have a sense of themselves and the moment as being larger than life who rise to true greatness in sports. What J.J. needs, seemingly, is just the opposite of Yuri – he needs to understand frustration and experience humility in order to grow into a true champion. The question is, was the short program alone that lesson – or just the doozy of a first step into a significant sinkhole on his career path?