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Interview: The Staff Behind Yuri on Ice

by Rose Bridges & Jacob Chapman,

Yuri!!! on Ice is one of the biggest anime hits of the last few years. Its messages of love and overcoming self-doubt, alongside its stirring portrayals of competitive figure skating, have reached global audiences well outside of anime fandom. With the announcement of a sequel film and numerous fan events in Japan and elsewhere, the series shows no sign of slowing down.

Nowhere was this more apparent than at AnimeFest 2017 in Dallas, held August 17-20. The headline guests were Yuri!!! on Ice director Sayo Yamamoto, writer and original designer Mitsurou Kubo, and character designer and chief animation director Tadashi Hiramatsu, who spoke to packed panels and offered autographs alongside various actors from the English dub. Anime News Network was fortunate enough to sit down with these three talented creatives to discuss the Yuri!!! on Ice phenomenon.

ANN: When you first decided you wanted to make an anime about ice skating, did you also know that you wanted to tell a love story? At what point in imagining Yuri!!! on Ice did you discover that element?

SAYO YAMAMOTO: My intent with Yuri!!! on Ice was not to be a "love story" in the narrow sense of a "love affair," or "carnal love." At least when you say "rabu sutorii" in Japanese, that would be the context of those English words. The whole answer to this question is answered by Yuuri in his speech at the end of episode 5, leading into the Grand Prix Series.

MITSUROU KUBO: Our idea about love in the context of Yuri!!! on Ice, as expressed by Yuuri Katsuki in episode 5, was already written before production began. So the theme has always been there in terms of what love means to the context of Yuri!!! on Ice as a whole.

TADASHI HIRAMATSU: This theme would not be in the context of coupling specific characters together, but the very general concept of what love is for each character.

Yuri!!! on Ice is a very global story compared to most anime. What kind of research went into portraying so many nations and cultures believably?

HIRAMATSU: The production schedule was very pressing, so I wasn't able to go overseas to do personal research. I based some of it on some personal experiences I'd had abroad, but the bulk of the research came through photo references, online material, books, music, and film.

YAMAMOTO: As for Ms. Kubo and myself, we went to all the matches in China and Russia and also the Grand Prix Finals, and a lot of story elements were inspired by these field trips. Actually, Yuuri's words at the press conference in episode 5 were written on the plane when we were traveling to one of these matches. We do need to do much of our work at our desks, but that's not the only place where inspiration comes, and those field trips definitely contribute to our efforts.

KUBO: For example, Yuuri losing his nuts in Barcelona was based on a real-life experience that one of our friends went through. Those moments may not be essential to the plot, but the details from these field trips add color to the story. So that's one of the rewards of traveling overseas to do field research.

I am from Detroit, and one of my friends trained at the Detroit Skating Club, and she said that the depiction of it in the show is very accurate.

YAMAMOTO: I'm glad to hear that, and I really envy you! Detroit is one of the holy sites that nurtured many great Japanese skaters.

KUBO: It was through figure skating that we got interested in various cities, and it gave us the desire to visit them. So figure skating itself has been a great inspiration for us.

Victor and Yuri are from vastly different cultures, so they must work hard to communicate their love to each other throughout the series. What do you think is most essential to the surprising strength of their relationship against such great odds?

KUBO: When you have two fictional characters get into a deep relationship, there's a trope that this has to have a specific significant meaning. As Coach Victor and Student Yuuri think about what their relationship is, the result is meant to be seen through what their figure skating is about. Be they lovers, friends, or rivals, the two of them could only have something that is meaningful to them, and a lot of that is open to misunderstanding from other people. So I took the most care to depict a strong relationship between the two of them in a non-verbal form as much as possible, told mostly through their actions and the course of the story, so that their relationship would not be seen in any too-convenient mold.

For much of the series, there are an astonishing six skating routines per episode! Mr. Hiramatsu, what was it like managing that kind of workload for the team?

HIRAMATSU: It was very hard. There was the challenge of animating the individual routines, with each of them performed by different skaters, so the music and choreography would all be quite different. I didn't directly animate the routines, but the animation director would ask me to brush up on the expressions or the poses of the characters, so that was most of my involvement. As production went on, the schedule got tighter, and fatigue built up for the staff. So the challenges kept on piling up and getting bigger.

Anime is often sexually explicit, but Ms. Yamamoto's work portrays sexiness in a way that you do not see in other anime. How would you describe your instinct or philosophy for conveying such eroticism through animation?

YAMAMOTO: I don't really like to succumb to common notions of eroticism. If I can't get excited by it myself, then it's not the kind of depiction I want. So it has to be something much more accessible, and something that I find to be true to life.

Since you are so skilled at portraying the sexiness of both men and women, do you approach the depiction of male and female bodies differently? Or do you consider them more similar than different in eroticism?

YAMAMOTO: For me, I don't see much differentiation, I just have to feel the sensuality for myself. If I can imagine a male person being sensual in that way, then it works for me, and I feel the same for females. It's not really the gender, but the charm of each individual, that I really want to feel and depict in my work.

Ms. Kubo, Yuri!!! on Ice was your first time writing for anime, and it is an enormous hit! How does this make you feel about writing anime in the future? Are you considering other original projects for animation, or just focusing on Yuri!!! on Ice for now?

KUBO: Yuri!!! on Ice was the first time that I was involved on an anime project, and personally I consider that you have to be working in a particular field for at least 10 years in order to gain professional trust. They say that when you draw manga, you have to continue drawing manga for at least 15 years before you can call yourself a manga artist. This is the kind of time one must invest to earn that professional dignity. My role on Yuri!!! on Ice was made possible with the help and support of many people. I don't think I personally have gotten to the point where I have the professional credentials to say I can do anything for anime, and in fact, Yuri!!! on Ice was my project only because I worked with director Yamamoto. There is really no room for me to be involved in any other anime project. In fact, I was recently at an anime convention in Japan, and the production team from another studio asked me if I'd be interested in working with them. But I declined, saying that Yuri!!! on Ice has my full capacity, and that's all I can do.

There's a strong theme through Yuri!!! on Ice about the direct relationship between personal feelings and artistic expression. Which skater's relationship between their feelings and their expression spoke to you most as an artist?

HIRAMATSU: For me, and this might not just be limited to figure skating, but when someone tries to put on their best for a performance, what they're feeling internally at that moment might not be directly related to what they're trying to show. Everyone does strive for perfection, but what's reflected is always more complicated. When I look at characters like Yuuri Katsuki, J.J., or Georgi Popovich, each of them have their own internal conflicts in the moment. I find it interesting that those the elements add a personal touch to their performance that is unique to them.

KUBO: This would also not be limited to just figure skating, but when you are a manga artist and not an athlete, anyone who is writing a sports story must come to the question of "I'm not an athlete, but how am I to think like the main character and draw a manga about them by myself?" But then I look at figure skaters, and they may not be ballet dancers, but they might use ballet music for their performances. They are not stage actors, but they use songs from musicals for their routines. They do what they can to come as close to what they're depicting through their own method of expression, which is figure skating. And when you look at a character like Yuuri Katsuki, he has his "eros" that he may not be aware of himself, but he is the only one capable of bringing that out. It's that kind of closeness to your own depiction that is inherent to all the skaters in the series, and that really gets me back to the spirit of being a creative talent myself, because it's all about getting as close as possible to your subject. So I receive my encouragement from the various characters, and as they strive to express themselves on the ice, I try to do the same through fiction. So I resonate with a lot of the characters.

Yuri!!! on Ice has an extremely eclectic soundtrack. What was the process of developing diverse pieces for each skater like, and which pieces were you most excited about? During the choreography process for each program, did the music, character's personality, and skating influence each other in any unexpected ways that changed what you had imagined at first?

YAMAMOTO: In terms of selecting the soundtrack, I discussed this with Ms. Kubo in pre-production and we came up with ideas for music that would match the personalities of each character. I would relay that to the music producer, Keisuke Tominaga, and his team would come up with the music that would match what I wanted. In the context of the story, my favorite track is a difficult question to answer, because I would have to say all of them. But in particular, "Yuri!!! on Ice" was the most challenging song to use, and yet at the same time it is the most representative of the show.

Kenji Miyamoto is a choreographer who likes to bring out the best elements of the skaters. I thought that he would be able to apply his technique to animated characters, and in fact it worked out very well. In terms of later alterations of the choreography based on other elements, the only change that was ever made was during Yurio's exhibition skate, when his glove comes off. At first, it was going to be taken off by a spectator, but I thought that would not resonate as much with the viewers, so it gets taken off by Otabek instead. I would not say there was much change in choreography from what Miyamoto originally conceived.

At what moment did you first realize that Yuri!!! on Ice was becoming such an enormous success, and how surprised were you by this phenomenon?

YAMAMOTO: I would say the moment that we realized its success was when the Yuri!!! on Ice movie was greenlit, because it's very rare that an original story gets greenlit for a sequel or a continuation. There are some times when original stories have pre-promised sequels, but that's usually an intended continuation on the part of the label or publisher, and it's not really done for a story that's coming directly from the creator. In fact, everyone except for us was puzzled by the concept of Yuri!!! on Ice, asking "How are you supposed to sell this show?" It was really only the three of us who had faith in our show. So when the follow-up was greenlit, we thought that was a really quantifiable measurement of success.

HIRAMATSU: The announcement for the movie was done at an anime event in Tokyo, and Ms. Kubo and I were there. There was an explosive reaction from the audience. That was the moment when it dawned on us, that sense of "Is this what it's like to have a hit?"

KUBO: It is rare for Mr. Hiramatsu to go to anime events, but he was there at that moment to realize that Yuri!!! on Ice was this big success. For me, my experience was different, there was a specific moment when I felt this was a different kind of success. Yuri!!! on Ice was picked up by very few stations for broadcast, and even then, I felt like I was the only one who was in a position to promote this show. If an anime is based on a preexisting manga, then the popularity of the manga would be the promotion material. But when it's an original story and I'm the only one who can talk about it enthusiastically, I have to take on that great task. I told management that I would take on any interview requests so that I could promote the show, and I also tweeted a lot to get the word out. But I got a specific feeling when episode 7 aired. That's when I started getting a lot of comments not just domestically, but suddenly from overseas, all thanking me for Yuri!!! on Ice. It was a puzzlement because I would get comments before, but I'd never been explicitly thanked for working on any series. Episode 7 was the moment when I couldn't follow the replies to my Yuri!!! on Ice tweets anymore, so I realized that the show would sell itself from this point on. I realized the success was already there.

YAMAMOTO: On the topic of how it came to be that Ms. Kubo single-handedly fielded most of the interviews, there are actually a couple of reasons. First, the reality was that before broadcast, Yuri!!! on Ice had not actually garnered so much attention yet, and so there were not actually so many requests. Once the show started to broadcast, however, we were fortunate to receive a flood of interview requests. But by that time, as the director, I was pulling multiple all-nighters just to ensure we could deliver the next episode on time. Basically, I just did not have any time to allocate toward the press. Thankfully, our production side took our workload into consideration and managed the accepting and rejecting of all interview requests. Because of this, I never really knew how many or what kinds of interview requests we were actually receiving. I wasn't intentionally trying to avoid interviews, but the simple truth was there just wasn't enough time.

Fortunately, Ms. Kubo worked with me very closely on the Yuri!!! on Ice story and character development. I was confident that she could represent this work exactly as I would, and I was elated when she agreed to answer the interview requests for us. Thank you again, Ms Kubo, I really appreciate it!! For those of you who may not know, Ms. Kubo is also a TV and radio personality, and her skills at conversing are amazing! Truth be told, one of the reasons I invited her to this project was because I really enjoyed listening to her talk on the radio.

Now, I'm just so glad I can meet with fans and finally participate in these interviews together with Ms. Kubo and Mr. Hiramatsu!

Thank you so much. I really love Yuri!!! on Ice. It's had a big impact on my life, so I am honored to have this interview with you.

ALL: Thank you very much.

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