Yuri!!! On Ice is a surprise hit not only for its creators, but for its fans, both actual figure skaters and figure skating fans alike. Elite figure skaters have been showing their YOI love by taking to Twitter. For three ’90s figure skating fans, YOI triggered a lot of nostalgic and new love for the sport and anime. In this roundtable, they discuss why the show has resonated so hard with them and how it’s affected them in unexpected ways.
Kate Tanski: So after watching the first season of Yuri!!! On Ice I feel like what surprised me the most was how hard my figure skating fandom feelings came back. I hadn’t really thought about male figure skating in a long time, and then suddenly when I’m watching it, I’m thinking about all the skaters that I knew and their personalities and the politics of the quad and the scoring and the maths and the politics of older skaters and younger skaters. Like, this show dragged all of my knowledge and emotions back into the light of day, which I hadn’t anticipated at all.
Ginnis Tonik: You know how people often get caught in an internet rabbit hole of where are they now for celebrities? I do that, but it’s more like Where Are They Now: ’90s Figure Skating Edition! Well, and a little early ‘00s. After the 2002 Olympic figure skating pairs scandal, my fanaticism dwindled. I continued to watch the Olympics, but stopped not just watching and following the Grand Prix series, but also US Nationals, Europeans, and Worlds. I completely checked out, so YOI was like a surge of love. It feels like a love letter by a figure skating fan and not just an Olympic watcher.
Mel Perez: My family loved figure skating. We watched all of the competitions, argued about our favorites, and collectively criticized the judges for how they treated Surya Bonaly. I remember the moment I fell out of love with figure skating. It was during the Nagano Olympics. Tara Lipinski took Gold in the Ladies Singles, and I was mad about it for days. This particular day I was sitting on the stage in my gym, next to my gym teacher because I refused to dress out for gym. I spent a lot of time on that stage. During the class, my teacher kept talking about how wonderful Tara was. Each new compliment, each moment of praise grated on my nerves until I snapped, turned to her and said, “Michelle Kwan was fucking robbed.” Needless to say, my teacher didn’t take that well. In that moment, it hit me like a ton of bricks how subjective this sport was and that the judges, much like the rest of us are fallible and biased. The joy I felt before was gone, and I didn’t watch again until the past few Olympics. It’s kind of cool that the Olympics set in Japan killed my love and this Japanese anime brought it back. Watching Yuri!!! On Ice reminded me of how much I loved the grace and beauty of this sport.
Kate: Yes to both of these! (Also, never over how underappreciated and badass Surya Bonaly is!) I grew up in Portland in the ’90s, so figure skating was on the news thanks to Tonya Harding, even before the whole Nancy Kerrigan thing! And it was just so beautiful and elegant, and I loved the men, too, and even the pairs skating. Torvill and Dean dancing to “Bolero” is something I’ll never forget. And I really think that the attention the animators have paid to the skating, in terms of the costumes and the choreography, is great, and making those so recognizable to the styles of certain skaters and certain nationalities.
Ginnis: So, we are all in agreement that Yuri!!! On Ice brought back the fangurl feels, but do you see this going beyond eagerly waiting for the next season of YOI to returning to the sport again, at least more often than the Winter Olympics?
Mel: I have the 2016-17 figure skating schedule opened in a tab and plan to add it to my calendar eventually. The love is back, and I want to watch all the competitions! I need more fancy jumps and sequins in my life.
Ginnis: I am doing the same, Mel! I am actually thinking of getting a membership via Icenetwork.com, because I don’t have cable, and they cover the minor events and all the skaters. In the ’90s when figure skating was so popular, they actually showed skaters from countries that aren’t just a part of the figure skating dynasty. But the limited coverage you get now, even the Olympic coverage, just shows the Americans, the Russians, the Chinese, the Canadians, with a smattering of a few others.
Kate: I’ve definitely started paying attention to the sport again, although I haven’t reached that level yet. When I read that Nathan Chen landed five quads in competition I was just like OH MY GOD! And immediately needed to tell someone who understood why that was so important. But at the same time, it’s not just the sports that brings me back. It’s the characters, who I really do think of as “people.” They’re flawed, but they’re also amazing.
Mel: Rewatching the show, it struck me how much of a theme imposter syndrome is. It’s obvious in Yuri. From the beginning and from his first words, “I’m one of the dime a dozen skaters certified by the JSF,” it’s obvious he doesn’t think much of his skills or his place in the skating world (even though from what we’ve seen this season, it’s not easy to make it into the Grand Prix). It’s also there for Russian Yuri under all of his loud anger and even Viktor to a certain degree.
Kate: I agree with you so much, Mel! Like, I love that Yuri!!! On Ice doesn’t just address his insecurity in terms of athleticism, but also in terms of legacy. The scene where he meets with the junior skater who just can’t help but tell Yuri how much he’s inspired him, and how Yuri had no idea, and he still doesn’t, really. But we do as the audience. That’s a storyline that’s so under-utilized in media and I loved it. Also, I love the way they’ve captured the culture of skating with the competitions and the stories of the competitors. Like, I love Phitchit’s narrative of being the first Thai skater and the powerfully postcolonial nature of his routine done to “Shall We Skate?” And I also love Utabek’s story of being from one of the poorer countries of the former Soviet Union and that narrative. The show has so many levels of storytelling.
Ginnis: Yes, I think there’s a great balance of these universal themes like imposter syndrome, but also attention shown to the figure skating world’s own prejudices and biases. Phitchit’s story is a great example of that and is so relevant to breaking barriers in figure skating. It’s an expensive and elite sport. Speaking of that, I have to know y’all’s thoughts on the gender politics of the show! It’s obviously queer, but what of that do you see as realistic representation and/or providing a utopian space for more queerness in figure skating? Remember the hypermasculinity of ’90s North American figure skating? Michael Weiss? Elvis Stokjo? Rudy Galindo’s coming out? It’s fascinating how the sport has this outside reputation as not being “a real sport” and being too “feminine,” yet there’s so much internalized patriarchy in the figure skating world.
Mel: Figure skating is associated with grace and beauty. These are traditionally feminine traits. There’s a lot of intense physicality to it, too, but it’s done with artistry while wearing something sheer, possibly with sequins. I think the hypermasculinity was a response to the sport being seen as too feminine and thus lesser. By going all alpha male, they hoped to be seen as separate from the feminine and thus bad aspects of the sport.
Mel: For me, Yuri!!! On Ice is more of a utopia where being feminine isn’t a bad thing. There’s Yuri working towards being a prima ballerina. There’s Yuuri channeling a woman for his performance. There’s younger Viktor embracing a more androgynous look. There’s even Georgi in his pastels and makeup. These men are dancing beautifully, being outwardly emotional, and talking endlessly about different kinds of love. None of this is later mitigated by testosterone filled actions to reassert their masculinity. No one comments on it or accuses them of being too girly. Once you let go of the idea that these characters have to be alpha males in order to make up for being in such a “pretty” sport, you don’t have to worry about having them fight in the hallways to let out their competition driven aggression. Instead, they can have a nice dinner and be supportive of two of their rivals possibly getting married. They can even have visible emotional breakdowns on the ice that are warranted and normalized. There’s no boys don’t cry” here. These boys cry and are powered by love.
Kate: I think that’s part of what has drawn me back too. Yuri!!! On Ice has shown me figure skating can be and how it’s evolved. I remember the hypermasculinity of the ’90s. And I was worried when I heard the show had those themes in it. Like, I remember the way that Evgeni Plushenko challenged that with his routines and his long hair, but comically. His costume, his skating, they played with those stereotypes, but in a comic way, which was the only way you could get away with that in 2004. Johnny Weir also pushed those boundaries with his Gaga routines and his costumes, and I love him for that and for doing all of that in the face of such criticism. And I love that in some ways, Yurio is the fulfilled promise of that. It’s genuine and it’s gorgeous, and it gives me hope for figure skating’s future, and it makes me want to see that happen in real life.
Evgenie Plushenko, 2004 World’s Gala performance
Mel: So what are your expectations or hopes for next season? What or who do you want to see more of and is there anything you want to see less of?
Ginnis: I am definitely eager to see Viktor returning to the ice and what the implications of that will be for his and Yuri’s relationship. I also want to see more of the figure skating world, so a little bit from other disciplines flowing over into men’s singles would be nice. The brief glimpse we got of ladies’ singles with the story about the Italian sister and brother left me wanting more.
Kate: I am excited for everything, and that’s not like me at all. And I think that says a lot about the show. It’s character-driven, and it’s a sports anime, and I’m just as excited about the sports as I am about the characters. Usually, with sports anime, fandom just gets excited about the relationships between the characters, but with Yuri on Ice, they put so much effort into making the sports realistic and engaging that it’s just as engaging as the relationships. I think that’s why so many professional skaters love it!
Mel: I’m with Ginnis. I really want to see what the rest of the skating world looks like. They could do amazing things with the female figure skaters in terms of movement and costume. Let’s get some Pairs drama in here too! I’m also interested in seeing how Viktor plans to balance being a skater and a trainer for one of his competitors.