**Disclaimer: Spoilers for the first season of Yuri on Ice.**
Show writer Mitsuro Kubo plays with gender, multiculturalism and sexuality in a fascinatingly engaging way in Yuri on Ice. More importantly, the show portrays a real, developing gay relationship.
MAPPA’s Yuri on Ice is a sports anime about ice-skating. Its cast of international competitors are charismatic and diverse, occasionally speaking in their own language and in the English dub, with an accent. Despite being a character-driven story about the reluctant Japanese ice-skater Yuri Katsuki and his coach - and former champion - Victor Nikiforov, the detailed level of attention given to the other skaters suggests an ensemble cast. Jean Jacques (JJ); another figure skater in the series, is conceited with an avid fan-base and clearly skilled but intimidated by the other skaters. Yet, the characters that have the most impact thematically are its clear leads; Yuri and Victor.
LGBT+ themes are often represented, or explored, in anime and manga as relationships labelled as Boys’ Love and Yaoi, which portray queer characters for women, fetishising that relationship.
Trans characters are sometimes used as a punchline, with male characters falling for the “trap” of liking a woman only to discover they’re a male-to-female trans-person. The character of Puri Puri Prisoner in One Punch Man is a good example, used as a "joke" for sexual predators, preying on the other heroes when hospitalised.
Yuri on Ice, however, resolves these concerns. The slow-burning development of Yuri’s and Victor’s relationship is realistic and beautiful to watch.
Victor and Yuri's romance is a subtle one that underlines their professional relationship during the show’s finale but is beautifully streamlined into the early stages of the narrative.
Victor giving up his professional ice-skating career to start a new life as Yuri’s coach isn’t purely a case of admiring Yuri’s talents. It’s a powerful message that Victor is giving up his established reputation to be part of Yuri’s life - a conflict that I’m curious to see MAPPA explore when Victor returns to competing next season.
What’s so wonderful about this representation is that it’s the first mainstream show that’s not only confirmed a same-sex relationship but made it an integral theme; Yuri and Victor aren’t in the background. Their relationship is clearly part of the plot and referenced both playfully and dramatically. It’s refreshing to see a series that doesn’t tease this potential romance and leave its audience confused. Their interactions and dialogue in scenes, for example, when Victor hugs Yuri as they watch another skater compete, depict a more realistic relationship to the overly-romanticised couples in Yaoi and Boys' Love.
The pinnacle moment in the series that sparked controversy was the kiss in episode seven. Their kiss was subtle and implicit, and some - such as myself - found it wasn’t enough to clearly define whether they were dating or not. According to Mitsuro Kubo, this is why the kissing scene was animated the way it was:
“If you make even a small mistake when creating the flow of the story that’s going to feel really unnatural,” Kubo told the Japanese anime magazine Spoon 2Di. “It was important to accumulate a series of elements that would make the flow up to that point feel natural.”
Small gestures in scenes leading up to the kiss suggested a romance, but despite how natural these were fans still weren't convinced the show had finally confirmed the gay romance.
“I’m glad we could show the necessary development leading up to that scene [but] after that episode aired, I got a huge response from Twitter replies and such,” she continued. “It’s kind of interesting, because Japanese people never asked about it, while foreigners straightforwardly ask, ‘so, which one is it!?’”
Indeed, there are other shows with well-written queer characters; but they often feel like a token accessory. Most studios draw characters that are gay with traditionally feminine features: tall, slim and emotional, but lacking individuality and a proper character arc, or simply include them for novelty value.
While Yuri on Ice is, at its core, about an ice-skating competition with no prominent female characters, it powerfully excels at presenting a realistic gay relationship. The gradual use of colour in the opening over the course of the series - simply compare the opening in the first to last episodes - symbolises Victor’s and Yuri’s developing relationship.
Moments where they struggled to come to terms with each other and the future are incredibly real and lovingly treated. Seeing this kind of representation on-screen; exploring gender and sexuality, is incredibly rewarding.
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