Yuri!!! on Ice
by Gabriella Ekens,
How would you rate episode 7 of
Yuri!!! on Ice ?
Yuuri is such a strong person. We knew that already, but this episode reveals how deep that well of strength goes when Yuuri manages to turn a moment that might, in a more conventional show, lead to a sustained falling-out with Victor into a greater understanding between them, alongside an onscreen confirmation of their feelings for one another. Up until this point, I could have bought arguments of plausible deniability regarding a romantic relationship between Yuuri and Victor, but as of that on-ice smooch, you'd have to be willfully denying this relationship not to see it. Just things that heterosexual say to other heterosexual men!
All this happens because Yuuri is too freaked out to sleep the evening before the long program. The poor guy has some pretty crippling anxiety issues, and the high standard he set for himself during the short program has only ramped them up to eleven. Of course, the perennially chill Victor has no idea how to deal with these issues. He spends most of the competition quietly worrying while Yuuri visibly melts into a pile of nerves. Victor resorts to increasingly desperate measures to try and calm Yuuri down, attempting to isolate him from the ongoing competition and eventually making his critical mistake. At this point, Victor somehow gets it into his head that acting harsh toward Yuuri will somehow help, resulting in a cruel bluff: if Yuuri messes up the free skate, he'll resign as his coach. This idea is exactly as terrible as it sounds – Yuuri breaks into messy tears, and Victor immediately tries to backpedal (even offering a kiss as a quick and easy emotional band-aid), but Yuuri isn't having it. Instead, he starts chewing Victor out for his insensitivity. Yuuri obviously just needed some reassurance. He's used to blaming himself for his failures and feeling like he's a burden to people, so of course he's been tormented by the idea that Victor secretly wants to leave him. As his coach, it's Victor's responsibility to be in tune with Yuuri's emotional state, so he should have known better than to inflict literally the worst psychic wound he could have inflicted at that moment. This moment could have destroyed Yuuri. But instead of allowing Victor's mistake to cripple him, Yuuri manages to recognize that Victor was the one in the wrong, work through his anger in a constructive way, and ultimately forgive him. In the end, they come to a greater understanding, and their relationship ends up stronger than it was before their spat.
This plays out over the course of another excellent skating sequence. This is the third time we've been shown the “Yuuri on Ice” program in its entirety, and it's not only still enthralling, it also manages to mean something new every time. This time, via his interior monologue, Yuuri channels his frustrations with Victor into his performance. He's done this before – in the Japanese regional championship, for example – in much the same way. Victor does something insensitive, Yuuri gets mad, and then he conveys that anger through a rebellious, cathartic ice skating sequence that both conveys those feelings and makes Victor want him more. In other words, Yuuri has realized that Victor is imperfect, acknowledged it, and now finds the strength to work through it, alongside an entreaty to continue on their journey together. Those same emotions are just being heightened over time, as Yuuri becomes more honest with himself about his desires. We're far past the Yuuri of episode four, who responded with a flustered “no!” when Victor proposed dating. Now he's openly mulling over his possessiveness and even pettiness when it comes to Victor's attention. (“Victor's expression when I started to cry was priceless.” You're a bit of a sadist, aren't you Yuuri?) He doesn't skip a beat when Victor proposes kissing this time, and then actually kisses him on live television. This is all true to the process of romantic and sexual maturation, as well as the complex dynamics of actual relationships, which function as a pas de deux between the thoughts and emotions of two people who must risk vulnerability and pain to try and be with one another through all circumstances. So far, Yuuri is keeping his end of the bargain. The question going forward is what demons Victor could harbor as a friendly, world-renowned hunk who's still single at this point in his life.
I'm sure that some people will still quibble about The Kiss. Sure, they didn't show the Actual Lips Touching, and sure, when the two of them landed their heads were squarely in Hug position, but there are still more than enough contextual clues to indicate that an Undeniable Public Expression of Gay is absolutely what you were supposed to get out of that shot. The cinematography highlighted their lips. They came together facing each other at eye level. The audience's reaction was excessive for just a hug. It was a kiss. It may still be difficult to show a sincere and loving same-sex kiss on Japanese television. Open queer desire being depicted outside of the BL and yaoi ghetto (which are aimed primarily at female readers/viewers, often embraced or dismissed as fringe fantasy, and only rarely represent the experiences of actual gay men) is still so rare in anime that this is being celebrated with good reason. Queer media has historically had to operate beneath a veil of plausible deniability, a sort of “Schrodinger's gay,” in order to be allowed expression at all. Besides that, Victor casually asked Yuuri if he wanted a kiss at an earlier point in the episode. I can think of no heterosexual justifications for this. The two of them smacked their front teeth together in midair. It probably hurt, but they're still gay.
Anyway, some other things also happened in this episode. Throughout all this, the show still managed to include the rest of the skaters' performances. Interspersed with the Yuuri and Victor scenes, they serve as a sort of Greek chorus to the main couple's emotional evolution while also progressing the skaters' individual stories. The first one, Guang-Hong, is easily the weakest element of the China arc. He's a shy young skater who places last but resolves to keep working. While he's a pleasant enough character, I feel like he was mostly included to fill up the roster and include a Chinese skater in the competition. I feel similarly regarding Leo de la Iglesia, but at least his performance last episode served a clearer thematic purpose. I did like the film noir aesthetic that they used to illustrate Guang-Hong's interior monologue. These sequences are a great idea, and I hope that they come back to lighten the task of animating so much skating.
Of course, these were used best for Georgi, who continues to steal the show every time he's on screen. His seasonal theme is all about how this girl dumped him. His short program put him in the position of a vengeful witch cursing her with a death-like sleep. Now, for his long program, he's taken it upon himself to “forgive” her, taking her back in order to “save her” from her new fiancé. Naturally, this represents a massive sense of dude-entitlement and disrespect for this woman's (understandable) choice to reject him. It also doesn't work on her for a second. She tells him off with a gesture from the audience, and he flubs his routine. Boo hoo. Georgi is a hilarious and ridiculous scrub, cathartic viewing for anyone who has experience with his type yet still charming because he's entirely unthreatening. Even in a show whose cast is 90% men, Sayo Yamamoto – one of the few people working in anime whose work I'd call deliberately feminist – still has to cram some feminist real talk in there. I love her. This heartbreak sequence also accompanies Victor and Yuuri's lowest point, serving as a counterpoint and building up tension for Yuuri's climactic performance.
Those are the three skaters who don't win medals, thus being eliminated from participating in the Grand Prix. The ones who do pass are Phichit and Chris, meaning that their stories will continue at a later date. After an alright showing at the short program, Phichit nails the long program to earn the gold. Phichit's advantage over Yuuri is his natural showmanship. Yuuri's strength is his earnest expression of difficult emotions, and that almost destroys him in performance half of the time. Phichit provides a counterpoint to Yuuri at his most anxious. He lacks self-confidence, so effortlessly charismatic people drive his insecurities up the wall like nothing else. I look forward to seeing how Yuuri and Phichit's rivalry develops alongside their friendship and what role Celestino might play in all this.
Chris's story, meanwhile, reveals that Yuuri isn't the only skater who's had a crush on Victor since childhood. Chris skates in order to compete with – and thus be close to – Victor. His ultimate goal is to triumph over Victor. Considering that Chris treats the “skating as sex” metaphor so literally that he climaxes at the end of his performances, I'd say that he considers skating against Victor a sort of simulated coitus. Chris is a couched version of the “jealous ex” character that tends to appear in these types of stories – he wants to prove himself superior to Victor's new beau in order to get his ice boyfriend back. This week, Chris recovers from a weak short program to win the bronze, remaining eligible for the Grand Prix. I expect to see both him and Phichit again. Between them, Yuuri lands the silver, meaning that he's both achieved something and has room for growth.
As of this seventh episode, Yuuri on Ice has reached a point of no return. Now that it's undeniably about the romantic relationship between Victor and Yuuri, we can see their journey as a metaphor for how falling in love can force you to grow as a person. I'm still not sure where the show is ultimately heading. I could see it going either way in terms of Yuuri and Victor's long-term viability – while the two clearly have strong feelings for one another, I don't think they've reached the point of an eternal commitment. Victor's entire personality also screams "unresolved intimacy issues." Either way, I don't think that turning this relationship transient would mar the beauty of their time together or tarnish its value as gay representation. Next week, we'll head over to Russia for the second qualifiers and Yuuri's rematch with a suitably miserable looking Yurio. Dasvidaniya, and remember – it can only get gayer from here.
Gabriella Ekens studies film and literature at a US university. Follow her on twitter.
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