Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past few years—and given the state of the world, I can’t fault you for the impulse—you’ve probably noticed the predominance of sports series in the anime and manga world. And if you’ve been paying attention to the genre recently, you might have heard of a little series called Yuri!!! on ICE.
Now the context in which you learned about this series might vary. You were disappointed to discover that, despite the title, Yuri!!! on ICE is not in fact about figure skating lesbians. (Guilty.) You were excited to see a mainstream anime series featuring an actual, non-subtextual queer couple. Or, perhaps, you followed the ongoing debate about whether the series is as groundbreaking as the fandom claims or is simply retreading territory that boys love series have been covering for years. But while all these discussions are well and good, I want to talk about something else. As an avid fan of multiple sports series, I am particularly interested in how Yuri!!! on ICE reframes the traditional athletic narrative by drawing from other influences.
For those who aren’t familiar with the sports genre as done in anime and manga, let me provide a quick rundown. A few main tropes characterize the traditional plot: striving to be the best, overcoming personal limitations, and intense rivalries between competitors. A lot of this has to do with the fact that most sports series fall into the shounen category. Becoming the best team in Japan is not very different from becoming hokage or the pirate king, after all. Even when sports series target an older audience, as demonstrated by seinen titles like The Big Wind-up! or All Out!, there remains a focus on facing down rival teams to gain that missing bit of knowledge to improve or grappling with a psychological breakthrough mid-game.
Yuri!!! on ICE, despite focusing on an underdog character in Yuri Katsuki, shifts attention from the physical shortcomings and resource deprivation that typically plague athletes seeking to unseat tournament favorites. Instead, it shines a light on the internal journey of one athlete working to reach his full potential. Part of this is because of the sport’s inherent nature; artistic figure skating is, by and large, a solitary sport. It is not a team sport. True, Yuri has a coach in Victor and a ballet teacher in Minako, but he skates on the ice alone. His performance hinges on his efforts alone. There are no teammates to compensate for weaknesses. There are no partners whose presence on the same field will push him to keep going when nothing is left in the engine. Rather than constructing a storyline based on traditional tropes, the series uses a different basis: the Pygmalion narrative.
Shoujo fans should be familiar with this narrative. It’s the transformation story, the makeover story. Yuri’s excellence on the ice depends on his evolution from pork cutlet bowl to beautiful ingénue who steals the heart of the playboy. We see this in the very first episode. Yuri, depressed from his loss, retreats from the competitive world and gains weight. But like a whirlwind, skating legend Victor Nikiforov sweeps into his family’s inn and becomes his coach. How is this any different from the manga about a tomboy who asks the hottest guy in school to help her find a boyfriend?
In fact, the relationship between Yuri and Victor forms the core of the series. At first glance, their interactions appear to follow the traditional younger athlete-older athlete mentor relationship found in many sports series. We recognize this dynamic, don’t we? Young athlete wants to become the best, but lacks the talent, skill, and experience. Thankfully, an older athlete–typically a disillusioned one–is there to show him the ropes. But first, they have to overcome some personality conflicts and disagreements. Sound familiar?
Maybe, but there are some key differences here. For one, Yuri does have the talent and the skill. Much is made of his endurance, which bestows an advantage in terms of jump sequencing. What he lacks the most is confidence. Victor, on the other hand, is inexperienced as a coach, to say the least. The abilities that make him a force to be reckoned with on the ice don’t necessarily translate to coaching. He offers to kiss Yuri as a confidence boost! Certainly not a standard method of athletic coaching.
Instead, their coach-and-athlete relationship follows patterns found in traditional romantic narratives. Yuri’s short program is intended to tell the story of a playboy, but his successful execution comes from assuming the role of the town beauty who breaks the playboy’s heart. His most energetic performance of said program originates from the determination to keep Victor by his side in the face of various competitors from his coach’s past. Even his quest to win gold in the Grand Prix Final becomes a stand-in for a wedding ring.
This subtle inversion is not a surprise given series director Sayo Yamamoto’s past works. Michiko to Hatchin highlights the women normally pushed into the background by 1970s-style exploitation stories: the girlfriend, the daughter, the partner, the stripper. Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine features the romantic interest of Japan’s most iconic thief and gives her a story separate and independent from him. As a result, Yuri!!! on ICE lacks the hyper-masculine tendencies found in other sports series. Other skaters are not presented as insurmountable walls who must be crushed to advance. Yuri supports his former roommate Phichit. Up-and-coming Minami idolizes Yuri. And everyone ignores JJ, whereas in another series, everyone would pick fights with the obnoxious skater. Instead, the hurdles to overcome are in Yuri’s mind. His biggest point of crisis comes when Victor must leave him and check on the health status of his precious pet poodle!
The confessional introductions to each episode further add to the inversion. These breathless, stream-of-consciousness recaps are common in shoujo romance series. Even when we finally get one of these confessionals from Victor’s perspective, the relationship focus does not change. Just as a shoujo reader waits to learn about the hot love interest’s backstory explaining his questionable behavior, Victor reveals why he became Yuri’s coach in the first place. It was not simply the whim of a bored ice skater who lost inspiration. His boundary-crossing actions and personal space invasions have a root cause. The pivotal episode ten is analogous to the shoujo manga trope of discovering that the heroine and the hero knew each other when they were children and possibly shared a first kiss.
Of course, the characters in Yuri!!! on ICE are older than your average sports series or even your traditional shoujo romance. They’re in their twenties. Victor, though a legend, is likely at his athletic peak due to his age. Yuri is aware that this is probably his last season. For that reason, the series cannot focus on the sport itself, on the end result of becoming #1. There is no bigger and greater goal waiting in the future, no stronger and more intimidating rival to defeat. Rather, the promise of the future rests in where the relationship between Yuri and Victor goes and whether they reach their happily ever after.