Two athletes face off. A young, driven upstart and his older, more experienced coach.
The younger one is getting ready for the biggest test of his career, and he can’t handle the pressure. The coach doesn’t know how to deal with his anxiety. He gets angry, chewing out his protégé and threatening to resign. The drama is high.
And then they kiss.
The athletes in question are male figure skaters, and you’re watching “Yuri On Ice,” the most unlikely breakthrough anime of the year.
Produced by a relatively new studio named MAPPA, “Yuri On Ice” takes its cues from a lineage of sports cartoons, including “Slam Dunk” and “The Prince Of Tennis”?—?stories of young men working to beat the best and overcome personal problems. But the show’s transformation of queerness from subtext to text is unprecedented.
Let’s hit the rink to discover how this unusual hit is upending decades of LGBT representation in animation.
The titular Yuri is a young Japanese skater who retires from competition after a demoralizing loss. Years later, a video of him skating goes viral online and attracts the attention of Victor Nikiforov, a Russian skater who seeks him out and offers to train him for a comeback.
Each episode is stuffed to the rim with drama, but the 12-episode first season (which just finished airing in Japan) showed its colors in the seventh, when Yuri and Viktor kissed for the first time.
The internet exploded with surprise and delight. The kiss?—?a relatively chaste one, partially obscured by Viktor’s arm?—?wasn’t the first same-sex smooch in anime. It wasn’t the climactic part of the episode. What it was, though, was a clear and powerful indication of deep feelings between two men in a relationship that had been building for hours of animation.
Homosexuality in Japan is a difficult proposition. Despite its status as an enlightened, modern democracy, there’s still a significant stigma against same-sex relationships. Civil rights laws nationwide don’t protect sexual orientation, and many gay men and women choose to stay closeted. Same-sex marriage is also still prohibited everywhere but a few parts of Tokyo (which didn’t issue its first same-sex marriage certificate until 2015).
There’s an unusually large amount of gay content in Japanese popular culture, however. But that comes with a caveat: it’s not necessarily being made for gay people to enjoy.
In Japan, the majority of male-on-male romance and sex portrayed in comics and cartoons is made for women. Called yaoi, it started in the early 1970s and has boomed in popularity since. But if you look to it for a healthy view of gay relationships, you’re likely to be disappointed.
Many yaoi stories revolve around relationships between an older, dominant man and a younger, submissive one, dubbed “uke” and “seme.” That relationship can often border on abusive, both physically and mentally. Yaoi is also often tragic in tone, with these couples doomed to separate or worse.
It’s interesting to see how “Yuri on Ice” plays with these yaoi stereotypes, both embracing and dismantling them. Viktor is older than Yuri, but he’s not grooming him for a relationship. The mutuality in their power dynamic is a big part of the show’s appeal.
At first, that dynamic seems pretty standard. Yuri is laid low by doubt, and Viktor heals him and brings him to meet his full potential. On the way, romantic feelings flower between the two, but Viktor is always portrayed as the initiator, the one more confident in his body and his sexuality.
The show’s tenth episode introduced a surprising twist?—?a year before, Yuri had gotten drunk and asked Viktor to be his coach, actually initiating the relationship. This inversion of the formula that the show had been following all season added unexpected depth. And that’s what really drew people to a cartoon about figure skating.
One would think that the controversial subject matter would make the show a tough sell, but what’s really remarkable is how “Yuri on Ice” has become a mainstream hit. A report commissioned by Kadokawa Ascii Research Laboratories found that the show was the #1 anime mentioned on Twitter during its initial airing, with 1.4 million tweets compared to the runner-up’s 348,000. That’s a pretty huge enthusiasm gap.
It’s equally popular here in the West. Crunchyroll?—?the streaming service with exclusive rights?—?crashed under the pressure of too many users logging in to watch the finale.
Many anime series have flirted with gay representation before. So what is it about “Yuri on Ice” that finally broke through? It’s the depth and complexity of that representation. Yuri and Viktor aren’t yaoi puppets being smooshed together for cheap thrills?—?they’re rich, complex characters with a variety of wants and needs.
In addition, the level of detail paid to the figure skating elements is outrageous. Each character has their own distinctive style, and you watch them refine it episode by episode. Skating isn’t just the context for the romance?—?it’s the heart of how Yuri and Viktor communicate and bond.
It was with the show’s seventh episode that “Yuri on Ice” crossed the romance boundary. Not only did it feature the first on-screen kiss between the two leads, but also a flashback where Viktor performed in an outfit inspired by openly gay figure skater Johnny Weir.
Homosexuality in figure skating is a fraught topic. The sport has been stereotyped as a closeted gay one for decades. Athletes work hard to ensure that their routines aren’t excessively feminine to extract the most points from notoriously conservative judges. Despite a few openly gay competitors, the sport as a whole is stuck in “don’t ask, don’t tell” territory.
The series finale decided to start telling. It featured something that has never happened in real-world figure skating: a public performance with two men dancing as partners, as Yuri and Viktor take to the ice together in front of an audience.
Like many of the show’s best scenes, this climax wasn’t explicitly romantic. But by taking on a real-world taboo?—?two men skating together in competition?—?it’s obvious where “Yuri on Ice” was going.
Probably the most compelling aspect of Yuri and Viktor’s romance is that both members come from societies that treat gay people poorly. Compare Japan’s indifference to Russia’s outright hatred?—?the majority of Russian citizens support laws that discriminate against homosexuals. State-sanctioned motorcycle gangs hold openly anti-gay protests. TV anchors who are outed are immediately fired. Worst of all, a law makes spreading “gay propaganda” punishable by fines, jail terms and expulsion from the country.
For the show to feature two men from these countries experiencing a deep, loving emotional bond, one not exaggerated for titillation but carefully teased out in classic romance fashion, represents a bold and unprecedented leap for anime.
MAPPA hasn’t announced a second season of “Yuri on Ice” yet, but it’s almost a given at this point. They took a huge risk in putting the love between two queer characters front and center, and it paid off both financially and emotionally. Progress comes from unlikely places, and if it takes an anime to push gay rights forward in Japan, we’ll tune in for every episode.