Reviewby Jacob Chapman,
Yuri!!! on ICE
BD+DVD - The Complete Series [LE]
Professional ice skater Yuri Katsuki has hit rock bottom. After a devastating self-destruction at the Grand Prix Final sets the tone for the rest of his competitive nosedive, he moves back home with his confidence shattered. But after a glimmer of passion inspires him to skate the world champion Victor Nikiforov's routine and the video goes viral, Yuri finds the Russian idol naked in his family's hot spring, demanding the opportunity to coach Yuri to the top. Unfortunately, Victor's been making promises to more than one Yuri, so the hotheaded new senior competitor Yuri Plisetsky soon arrives to call dibs on the rookie coach. If these two Yuris want to skate their way into the history books alongside Victor, they'll have to break the ice with a renewed passion for their fragile dreams—and then, just maybe, they'll discover even greater fires of love within themselves.
"Don't stop us now! The moment of truth! We were born to make history!" Back before Yuri!!! on Ice aired, this bold declaration in its opening theme was subject to an understandable degree of snickering. The song was adorably catchy, and the show did look promising, especially to fans of the director Sayo Yamamoto, who had not-so-secretly been trying to get an ice skating anime made for years at this point. But "born to make history" is a lofty statement for any TV show to make, so many viewers had prepared themselves more for pomp, cheese, and taut skater butts than an experience that would change their lives.
Flash forward to Yuri!!! on Ice's long-awaited English blu-ray release, and it seems those lyrics were right all along. This wasn't just the top selling anime series of its year, it was now one of the most commercially successful anime series of all time. Yuri!!! on Ice had became massive enough to get referenced regularly during the 2018 Winter Olympics, where two Japanese skaters (and close friends) made history of their own with gold and silver on the winners' podium. After years of effort, the ambitious vision shared by concept creator/director Yamamoto, writer/artist Mitsurou Kubo, and animation director/character designer Tadashi Hiramatsu melted hearts of fans all over the world, introducing millions to a new passion for ice skating and a rekindled belief in the power of love to achieve the impossible.
But let's not get too carried away. After all, this incredibly optimistic sports drama/romance combo didn't make history in a vacuum; it's easy to argue that Yuri!!! on Ice came into a world that was more than ready to embrace it. 2016 had pretty infamously hit society like a sack of bricks, with rates of clinical depression and suicide spiking dramatically, most alarmingly among teenage girls, and calls to suicide hotlines reaching a record peak in November, especially from the LGBTQ community. Viewed uncharitably, you might argue that certain groups of anime fans were ready for an escape into a world where beautiful boys could express love freely across the ice to a screaming crowd of supporters, regardless of its storytelling quality. At least, that was certainly an argument I saw floated by some viewers less-than-impressed with Yuri!!! on Ice's starry-eyed perspective, especially after it swept the first annual Crunchyroll awards.
The problem with this reductive view is that it assumes Yuri!!! on Ice is anywhere near as lightweight and fluffy as its sparkly cover art might suggest. (It's also just a gilded version of the more common "only horny fangirls care about this" argument, meant to delegitimize the show's audience and therefore its merits as a work of art.) Yuri!!! on Ice never equates optimism with naïveté or true love with a happy ending, and its impact comes as much from its empathetic portrayals of failure and miscommunication as victory and love. It does not take place in a fanciful snowglobe where gold medals and wedding rings solve our hero's problems. Instead, love and skating are intertwined as lifelong efforts against the true source of conflict in each character's incredibly personal journey: themselves.
From Yuri's crippling anxieties to Victor's depressed ennui to the impotent rage of Yurio's puberty-under-pressure, Yuri!!! on Ice's drama remains firmly on the most relatable enemy in most people's lives, the saboteur that lives in their own hearts. In fact, internal conflict is so central to the show's focus that external conflict barely exists at all. Even potential bullies like J.J. or Yurio are quickly played for laughs and even sympathy, failing to faze Yuri on the rare occasions where they try to intimidate him because he's too locked up in his own head. The sexual tension that builds between Yuri and Victor as they continue to work together professionally is never undercut with the melodrama of misunderstandings or romantic rivals; their fear of not being accepted by one another makes for enough drama even when they're communicating perfectly.
Shockingly, this lack of external antagonism in both competition and the pursuit of love never makes Yuri!!! on Ice feel light on conflict. Yuri!!! on Ice surpasses glittery escapism in its understanding that most people will never have sworn professional rivals (like in most sports anime) or whirlwind romances tossed in the throes of cruel circumstance (like in most romance anime), but that doesn't make their life's hardships any less cathartic to witness. Of course, if this level of nuance for an ensemble cast were easy to write, then everyone would do it. It's truly difficult to flesh out the diverse personal struggles faced by a dozen different ice skaters, because it requires an outstanding degree of empathy and a greater degree of talent to communicate to viewers. Fortunately, Mitsurou Kubo has just that level of talent and breadth of empathy. When her ability to draw great meaning from aborted tiffs over nothing or vicious cycles of insecurity and ego combines with the thrills of world-class competitive artistry on the ice and the magical highs of first love, Yuri!!! on Ice becomes a transcendent experience, both fantastical and all-too-real at the same time.
Audiences flocked to Yuri!!! on Ice not for escape, but for catharsis. This is evident from the very first episode, when women who were exhausted by a world that persistently pit them against other women may have seen themselves in the first altercation between two Yuris, both boys overwhelmed with insecurity under the assumption that their best efforts would only be compared to one another. By episode three, LGBT viewers were seeing themselves in Yuri's struggle to express eroticism in a heteronormative routine, eventually finding freedom by skating the part of a seductress rather than a playboy. By the seventh episode, viewers were pushed to the edge of their seats as Yuri's anxieties burst to the surface to threaten both his career and his relationship at once, driving home just how much these invisible struggles affect our real lives. When the announcer screams "love wins" for Yuri, it's a victory that came from the same battles that viewers face every day, even off the ice.
Yuri!!! on Ice's ability to confront and combat the cruelest unseen opponents of human happiness might be its greatest strength, but the show's more apparent heart and humor are what make it so much fun to watch. Just as Yuri's story avoids the pitfalls of contrived melodrama, it skates past comedy clichés in favor of the goofy, embarrassing, or even sexy idiosyncrasies that arise from the chemistry between characters. Everyone has their own story to tell, even if they get limited time to express it, from Phichit Chulanont's desire to share his unique dream on an international stage to Georgi Popovich's ludicrous quest for revenge that ends more gracefully than expected. The series' commitment to showing the majority of almost every skater's performance in its last two-thirds does leave some of these mini-arcs wanting, but the story's world feels more honest for the effort to give everyone a moment in the spotlight.
Of course, the same can be said for its persistently fluid skating animation, which stretches character models thin to the point of breaking even with the light handicap of repeating each skater's two routines throughout the season. Despite some unavoidable redundancy that follows this structure, these sequences remain engaging thanks to the little evolutions in choreography that result from each skater's growth, not to mention the fantastically eclectic soundtrack that drives the action. Taku Matsushiba supplies the series with orchestral arrangements both classical and original, while Taro Umebayashi plays an expert game of chameleon with pieces imitating everything from Canadian soft rock to movie-trailer electronica to Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals. Even if the series never manages to touch your heart, its globe-trotting ambitions are relentlessly entertaining.
Funimation's limited edition release comes in a shiny snowflake-peppered chipboard box, with a blue envelope containing a stack of art cards, a 75-page booklet with staff interviews sandwiched between character profiles and production sketches (most notably a storyboard sketch featuring Yuri's buttcrack from the end of episode 10 that was covered up in the final animation), and a super-sparkly button with Yuri Katsuki on it—provided it arrives safely during shipping, which early reports indicate may be a roll of the dice. Frankly, the nicest detail to this set are the lyrics to History Maker hiding just inside the lip of the box. On-disc extras include textless versions of the theme songs, including the special endings to episodes ten and twelve, a pair of dub commentaries, one more frivolous over episode 11 (with Sonny Strait, Micah Solusod, Chris Sabat, and Jeremy Inman), and one more in-depth with live-action interviews interspersed with clips from the show (Sonny Strait, Josh Grelle, and Jerry Jewell). Last but not least, this set includes Yurio's infamous Welcome to the Madness performance from the exhibition in Barcelona that concluded the series. While it is unfortunate that this pointed conclusion to Yurio's arc couldn't be incorporated into the final TV episode, getting the scene as its own extra ensures that fans get the complete routine with outstanding animation to squeal over.
The unprecedented success of Yuri!!! on Ice proves that great love stories are not frivolous fluff for fangirls (even if they happen to be about love between two men), and they do not see the start of a romance as the end of a journey. Learning to love yourself is often the greatest struggle a person will ever face, especially the many vulnerable viewers who were enthusiastically drawn to Yuri!!! on Ice. History is made when self-love grows strong enough to reach out and inspire the same personal victory in others. You can say that of the love between Yuri and Victor, the love of Yuri!!! on Ice's fans for the way it brightened their lives, or the love of MAPPA's staff that finally brought Sayo Yamamoto's long-held vision of an ice skating anime to life. Yuri!!! on Ice triumphs by encouraging viewers to love themselves, which is an escape that sends everyone back stronger in the end.
Overall (dub) : A+
Overall (sub) : A+
Story : A
Animation : A-
Art : A
Music : A+
+ Propulsive and thoughtful sports drama/romance that relies on complex feelings and careful growth instead of melodrama, wonderfully ambitious ice skating routines with sensuous direction, beautifully eclectic soundtrack, fearlessly inspiring and refreshingly easy to love
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