The Fall 2016 Anime Preview Guide
Yuri!!! On ICE
How would you rate episode 1 of
Yuri!!! on Ice ?
What is this?
Yuri Katsuki grew up idolizing Russian figure skating ace Victor Nikiforov, but he failed miserably in his first chance to skate on the same ice as his hero. One year later, Yuri has returned to his hometown in search of new direction. He visits a local skating rink, where he performs a perfect copy of Victor's latest routine for one of his childhood friends. What was supposed to be a private performance goes public when a video of Yuri is posted online. It's not long before Victor himself shows up at the local hot spring and announces that he wants to be Yuri's coach! Yuri!!! On ICE is an original anime work and can be found streaming on Crunchyroll, Wednesdays at 3:00 PM EST.
How was the first episode?
Yuri!!! on Ice is easily one of the most anticipated series of the season, and based on the first episode, it's not hard to see why. It's one of those cases like Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju where I feel compelled to acknowledge its quality even though I probably won't ever watch another episode of it.
Certainly it's the most visually impressive anime so far this season. I had serious doubts that a sport as visually intricate in its movements as ice skating could be properly pulled off in anime, and anime's track record on this hasn't been great; past attempts have almost invariably involved such a heavy use of shortcuts and stills that you never adequately get the full sense of movement and flow that these ballets on ice require. Studio MAPPA and director Sayo Yamamoto have worked some true magic here, though, creating elegant displays of ice skating that even encompass some of the sport's most complicated moves. Even beyond those scenes the animation and visuals cut few corners, though I did find the incongruity of some of the more caricatured comedic shots to be jarring compared to the grace and beauty of the series’ normal animation.
The course of events here also has strong merits. Yuri is a step beyond your ordinary male protagonist, but without being extreme in any direction. He has his doubts about his direction in life but isn't content to wallow in them and doesn't require some crystallizing event or revelation to try to get his act together. He may be downtrodden, but he still clearly has a passion for skating. He laments a lost opportunity for love but doesn't seem to be dwelling on it, either. He even has problems managing his weight, which you almost never see in anime studs. In all, he feels a lot more real and relatable than most anime male protagonists. In fact, that sense of realism pervades the first episode (comedy caricatures aside, of course).
The twist at the end is a somewhat interesting one. I had expected some circumstances which would cause Yuri and his idol to cross paths, but the idol becoming his coach? And yet it makes sense, as Victor had to see the talent that Yuri has when he mimicked Victor's performance and gave faint indications that he might be ready to move on to something else. The homoerotic vibe radiating from Victor is a little too powerful to ignore, which makes me wonder if the industry, at this point, is even capable of making a story like this without including such leaning. And frankly, I don't think the content even needs that kind of lure to hook its viewers. It's good enough without it.
Everybody has a different idea in their head about what makes the best character animation. Some people love rotoscoping to achieve naturalism and some people hate it. Some people think cartoony exaggeration brings more humanity to characters, while others might see it as an easy distraction. It's hard for me to quantify what I do and don't like from character animation, especially because I can't draw myself, but I do know that Sayo Yamamoto, the director of Yuri!!! On ICE, has my number. I can't get over how good these characters look, and I don't just mean that I find them attractive. I mean...they are. This show's sexiness is definitely one of its main appeals. Victor may be this show's ridiculous Adonis, but I'll still even take dorky little Yuri over most stiff and sterile bishounen-of-the-week. (Lookin' at your puppy faces and plastic abs on this one, Free! boys.) It's not so much about the character designs. It's about how stunningly they move.
True to her pseudo-realistic, subtlety-driven, and extremely sensual style, Yamamoto's ice skaters move like human figures you feel like you could reach out and touch. Everything from little halting gestures to the way their hair or clothing falls to the way lighting shifts along the curves of their bodies (yes even when they're curves on dudes) is impressively tactile and warm, which is striking when most of the episode takes place in chilly snow and ice. I was absolutely stunned by how good this episode looked from a production standpoint but also just how much ice skating there was in it. Even the most well-animated sports shows like Haikyu!! tend to conserve the action to a few matches interrupted with plenty of running commentary to spare the animators' wrists, but Yuri On Ice peppers its entire premiere episode with a variety of different routines and jaw-dropping animated choreography, all while tying them into a simple but immediately endearing story.
Sensitive, dedicated, and chubby Yuri is an easy lead to love, an everyman who's outstandingly talented at ice skating but becomes his own worst enemy in competitions. His seiyuu has a naturalistic-sounding cadence that also makes him feel refreshingly grounded, but Yuri's insecurities and passions are conveyed best by the meticulously rendered visuals that overpower your senses throughout the episode. Even when you're not watching beautiful skating choreography, the show is always a visual marvel, communicating sensory detail, humor, and little cues of body language beautifully. Yuri!!! On ICE sucks you into its 2D world with all five senses, a feat only talented artists at the peak of their powers can achieve.
On that note, the show is also extremely homoerotic. This show begins with guys pair-skating to the opening theme together and ends with a surprise shot of man-ass and implied full frontal. (Insert your own "more like yaoi on ice" jokes here.) Wanton pleasures aside, if you want a charming story, outstanding art design, and physical animation that gives you a little more "sex" than just "fanservice," this is the anime of the season to watch.
I had pretty high expectations for Yuri on Ice entering this season. The show is the pet project of Sayo Yamamoto, one of the most talented young directorial voices in anime, and anime-originals generally tend to have higher ceilings than adaptations in the first place. Based on this first episode, my hopes seem very likely to be validated - this was a terrific premiere from start to finish, offering a wide variety of compelling strengths.
First of all, Yuri on Ice looks beautiful. A show focused on figure skating somewhat demands fluid animation, and Yuri on Ice is no slouch there - all of the figure skating sequences throughout this episode are fluidly animated and simply beautiful, clearly demonstrating how much care went into not just animating these cuts, but researching figure skating form. On top of that, the show has a wide variety of lovely backgrounds, and is defined by a penchant for the simplified, striking color palettes that show up in a great deal of Yamamoto's work. Yuri's initial failure at his first grand prix is given stark evocation through a palette focused almost entirely on blue and white, with heavy dashes of shading for contrast. Couple that with the attractive character designs and flavorful gags, and you've got a generally excellent visual production.
Beyond that, Yuri on Ice is also very good at tethering us to Yuri's feelings. From the moment Yuri locked himself in a bathroom stall to apologize to his mother, I knew we were in safe hands - in fact, it was actually the focus on hands in that sequence, where the camera conveyed Yuri's feelings of shame and powerlessness through his slack grip, that sold me. Later scenes were equally strong in other ways, whether they were using Yuri's sense of loss at his dog's death to evoke his overall shame at wasting his talent, or simply conveying the sensation of waking up feeling numb on a snowy morning. Yuri's world feels very tangible in all respects.
I was also pleasantly surprised by this episode's sense of fun. The promotional materials had me expecting a generally somber production, and there were certainly some sad and tense moments here, but they were counterbalanced by lots of silly, expressive faces and some easy banter between Yuri and his hometown family. The jokes here felt simple without being either intrusive or lazy - no gags overstayed their welcome, and everything had a sense of energy and personality.
Overall, I have basically no complaints about this premiere. My only real concern is that the show might not be able to maintain its performance animation for a full season - anime tend to put their best foot forward in that regard, and if Yuri on Ice can't keep that up, later drama might end up falling flat. But “it might not stay this good” is a minor complaint, all things considered. Yuri on Ice is a keeper.
I really, really don't like watching figure skating on TV. There's something about listening to the commentators nitpick every routine through endless slow motion replays that completely kills the experience for me. Yuri On Ice offers an antidote for that particular problem, as a work of fiction allows us to be right there with the characters instead of viewing everything through the lens of a dry sportscast. A dramatic sports anime focused on an activity that requires some creativity along with athleticism? Sign me up.
In the weeks to come, the show will likely work on developing a traditional rivalry between Japanese protagonist Yuri Katsuki and the young Russian Yuri Plisetsky. For now, however, I really like how this episode focuses almost exclusively on the first of the two Yuris. He's enough of a sad sack that the show can sneak in some humor at his expense, but it's also clear that he still has the fire in him to keep competing. Comeback stories are a dime a dozen in this genre, but they can be extremely compelling when they're done well. Yuri's moments of doubt help to humanize him, and there's just enough wit in his frequent inner monologues to keep him from sounding too mopey.
This is also a very immersive series, due in part to the strong sense of place that we get from Yuri's hometown. This episode spends as much time on Yuri's old friends and family as it does on him, and they help to give the setting a lived-in feeling. We get the impression that for as well known as Yuri is, life in his hometown has gone on without him. Much of this is presented in a humorous way, but there's just a little bit of melancholy behind it all. If you've ever gone back home after several years away, the emotions in this episode should feel pretty relatable.
It helps, of course, that Yuri On Ice is a very pleasant series to look at. The characters designs have a lot of personality without going over the top, the backgrounds are impressive, and holy heck does this series look good in motion. The parallel action of Yuri and Victor's skating routines is a sight to see, and it's worth watching even if you ultimately decide that the show as a whole isn't your cup of tea. There are some early signs that this is also going to be a “handsome guys being handsome” kind of show, but there's more to it than that. I expect good things from this one.
Ice skating is basically ballet while wearing skates, and for that it's always had my admiration. Since I'm clearly never going to get my Swan Lake anime and there hasn't been a good ballet show since Princess Tutu, this was one of the shows I was really looking forward to. Wonderfully, I was not disappointed, even if this does have some elements that detract from the episode as a whole.
It's worth mentioning that the story's title does not refer to a lesbian romance, but rather to two guys named Yuri: fifteen-year-old Russian figure skating up-and-comer Yuri Plisetsky and twenty-three-year-old Japanese figure skater Yuri Katsuki, who's in a bit of a slump. When the episode opens, Katsuki has had one of those terrible weeks that's caused by a confluence of unrelated bad events, with the most crushing being the death of his beloved dog, Vicchan. All of this leads to him flubbing his routine at an international competition, earning the scorn of Plisetsky, but mostly to his own disappointment in himself. Also performing at this competition was the great Russian skater Victor Nikiforov, who has been his idol since he first began skating seriously – he even named his dog for him. Now he feels he has let down his family, his hometown, and himself, and even worse, he wasn't home for Vicchan's passing. That may seem like a small enough thing, but losing a pet is devastating, and I admit to getting teary when the first thing Katsuki did upon getting back to his family home was to visit his dog's memorial. (I recently lost a cat – the pain doesn't go away, even when you're trying to push it down.) Katsuki is really about ready to give up on himself, and when Plisetsky confronts him in the men's room and tells him that the skating world doesn't need two Yuris competing, that's pretty much it: Katsuki packs up and goes home, mentally if not physically quite yet.
Clearly this is going to be something of a redemption story, but really, the only person in whose eyes Katsuki needs to redeem himself is himself. When he goes to the local skating rink to show the woman he's loved since childhood what he's been working on, it's clear that he's amazingly talented – it's one of Victor's routines, and he performs it at the same time Victor is on the world stage. The animation is good enough for us to see that Katsuki's version of the dance isn't quite as polished as Victor's, but the rawness makes it more appealing; Victor is skating for the prize, while Katsuki is skating to express himself. One of the woman's children takes video of Katsuki and sneakily uploads it, where it promptly goes viral. Katsuki assumes that he's becoming a laughing stock, but that's just a marker of his own insecurities, because the unexpected arrival of Victor (and his dog, which looks like Katsuki's – is this show trying to break my heart?) says otherwise.
I do have my concerns about this show going forward. The type of figure skating Katsuki does is done alone, so I'm a bit worried that there'll be an attempt to generate too much homoerotic subtext, which is fine on its own, but would feel a bit out of place in this particular story. Not that Victor isn't lovely to look at – and we can have fanservice without anything else, which is my hope. Some of the side characters have the potential to be truly annoying as well (looking at you, Minako-sensei), and the little pauses where a chibi Katsuki explains things didn't work for me and felt far too gimmicky for the story being told. Of course, as long as there keep on being gorgeous scenes of ice dancing, I'm probably in this for the long haul – I may never get another ballet anime, but this is close enough for me, and I want to see Yuri overcome himself.
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