Born to Make History: Heidi dishes the hell out of Yuri!!! On Ice (Overview and Eps 1 & 2)
All right. I’ve been wanting to do a comprehensive Yuri!!! On Ice post for a week now, and naturally I’ve decided the time to do it is right as I’m in the deep throes of Thanksgiving preparation and nursing a minor head injury. It really is a minor head injury, but my body is a special snowflake, and anything sets it off, so basically, the bottom line is this is a dumb time to decide to write a big opus about an anime, complete with liner notes, links, and footnotes.
So let’s dive right in, shall we?
No spoilers yet: I’ll warn you when we get into recap and analysis, and as we progress through episodes I’ll warn you of each one unless I’m doing a general overview. We’re only going to get a few episodes into them on this first post, because I got way long, but we’re going to get started at least. But one hundred percent, I’ll give you full warning before I start spoiling. Okay? Okay.
I found out about this post from one of my readers on Facebook. They posted a random set of screenshots, and I said, “Hey, what’s that?” and they said, Yuri!!! On Ice and I thought, what’s with all the exclamation points but looked it up anyway and saw, okay, they like exclamation points. My youngest daughter is into anime, and she watched a dub with me on Funimation, and we were pretty much toast from there. Now we’re subscribed to Crunchyroll and watch the livestream.
My daughter is into YOI, and has hooked her friend, but it’s safe to say I’m obsessed. She laughs at me, somewhat politely, but in my defense this is close to home, as I’m an author of gay romance. This isn’t exactly gay romance, and I would (I will, in fact,) question it as yaoi, but we’re in the ballpark enough that my professional interest is piqued. The thing is, YOI is something different than anything I’ve seen, and it’s totally turning my crank on every level. It’s firing my creative juices, making me think, making me happy, and frankly saving my sanity. Mostly though I’m focused on it for the first part, the different aspect. Because it’s not a romance, exactly. It’s not yaoi, not in the formulaic sense. There are elements here and there, but the few echoes it has, it’s already turning them firmly on their head.
You can’t look away from Yuri!!! On Ice. And that’s what makes it so great.
Character (Extraordinarily mild spoilers)
Okay we’re going to start with the main guy himself, Yuri Katsuki (though I feel like I should write it Katsuki Yuri after watching the sub version for so long). Let’s start simply with his name. In the first ten mintues of the first episode we find out there are two Yuris, a Russian Yuri and our Yuri, a Japanese Yuri. Yuri in Russian is basically “George.” Nothing earth-shattering.
Yuri in Japanese, however, is going to tell you a whole lot right off the bat.
It is, traditionally, a girl’s name. It means “lily.” It also, depending on how many characters used to spell the name, could mean “abundant ideals.” I don’t know how that translates to the characters for our Yuri, but I have my suspicions. Yuri Katsuki has many qualities which could be considered traditionally feminine. ETA: On Twitter (sorry, I never know how to embed tweets) user @ points out “Just a small nitpick, but his name isn’t Yuri (lily) it’s Yuuri (勇利, courage + benefit). Name meaning is derived from kanji… I know it’s romanized officially as Yuri, but the long vowel makes it recognized as a completely different name in Japanese.” So that’s more like the second meaning I was finding, the “added character,” which sounds like it’s more complicated if you know what you’re talking about.
In any event, it’s not hard to imprint “feminine qualities” on Yuri if you want to stereotype. He cries easily. He’s very sensitive. He eventually confesses he identifies more with female movements than male movements when skating. He opens the first beat of the first moment of the show by confessing his attraction to Victor, and the entire first two episodes are focused around his life-long obsession with his idol, another male skater, and it’s clear that while there is professional admiration going on, there’s almost unquestionably more than simply professional admiration as well.
And yet don’t even go thinking Yuri is a stand-in for a woman or an empty vessel, someone for the viewer to put themselves into. Yuri is a complex, rounded character with depth and room for growth, and he absolutely does grow through the series. He is insecure and lacks confidence, but he’s also quietly determined, stubborn, and has an incredible personal drive to succeed, especially when properly motivated. He’s loyal and honorable to his family and friends, never wanting to let them down (and sometimes this becomes a flaw). He has pride, but it’s understated and quietly expressed, and he’s good at hiding his cards and letting people underestimate him to his own advantage. He loves deeply, freely, openly. His heart is beautiful—it’s hard to hate Yuri, and when someone dislikes him, as a viewer you take it very personally.
I haven’t even told you the premise of the show yet, I know, or even anything about the other main character—if you’re already a YOI fan, that’s fine, but if you’re simply reading along because you’ve been wondering what Heidi’s carrying on about on Twitter and Facebook about, stick with me. I’m starting with the title character because even more than the premise, Yuri Katsuki is what this show is about. In this sense I would call YOI a romance because we’re watching Yuri grow, and we’re watching Victor grow too, but not through his lens as often. This is pretty much a new adult romance sports anime. A gay one. With figure skating. With a complex, feminine male lead who is not a stand-in for a woman.
Wanna hear what it’s about?
Premise (Slightly more spoilers, but still pretty safe)
The premise of the show is that Yuri has admired Victor Nikiforov his whole life, as a fellow figure skater and as a hero in general. Victor is four years older than Yuri but has skated much longer and has been a champion in the sport essentially since he emerged. He is in every way the ideal: he’s handsome, he’s charming, he’s the top performer in his sport, a legend in his own time. Everything about him is perfect. Except it’s clear Yuri is responding to more than simply the ideal in Victor. We see in an early flashback young Yuri gasping in admiration as he watches a younger, long-haired Victor skating in one of his first competitions, and you see so much recognition there. If you’re queer, you see that moment, the one where you know, the one where you either embrace it and go with it or you bury it deep and try to never think of it again. Yuri seems to do something in the middle, funneling his attraction to Victor into his admiration of him as an athlete and keeping it fixed firmly there. If there’s more, we don’t hear it in the narrative.
This is the first brilliance of YOI, the deft queer touch you didn’t know you needed. Because there’s room here for a viewer to disagree with me, to say no, Yuri knows exactly what he’s doing, that he’s attracted and simply keeping quiet. You can read Yuri however you want to, however you need to. You can also read Yuri (so far) as asexual, uninterested in dating at all. In fact, you could make a pretty strong argument for that, though since we still have plenty of season left and given some of what they’ve made, it remains to be seen if that reading can hold. The point remains, however, that while Yuri isn’t an open slate, he is open for us to read him however we need to read him to a large degree. We can easily see ourselves in Yuri.
Yuri doesn’t simply admire Victor. He dreams of one day meeting him on the ice, of skating beside him, of possibly even surpassing him. Of showing him he’s as good as him or better. Of mirroring back to him all that he saw in that moment when he was younger and all that has built up between that moment and now that he’s grown older. Alas, though Yuri eventually comes close to his goal, skating in the same tournament as Victor, his nerves get the better of him, and this combined with a tragedy at home lead him into a spiral and he finishes last. Victor doesn’t even notice him at all—when they meet at the airport, Victor thinks he’s a fan who wants a commemorative photo.
Dejected, ashamed, and a bit lost, Yuri returns home to Japan—and there’s more to unpack there when we formally examine episode one, but for the setup, what you need to know is that Yuri decides the way he will process the loss of his dream is to go back to the beginning. He memorizes Victor’s routine, and at the same time as Victor is winning gold a championship event, Yuri performs the same routine in private for his friend who got him into skating and introduced him to Victor’s career in the first place, because this is what they used to do together, copy his routines. It’s a lovely private moment between the two of them, but the next morning they discover her daughters secretly videorecorded it and uploaded it to the internet, where it went viral—and Victor saw it. Within a day, Victor is in Japan, having abandoned his own skating career, declaring he will be Yuri’s coach and that he will win the Grand Prix Final, the event Victor just won.
In short, the premise of Yuri!!! On Ice is, what happens when the hero you’ve worshipped (and possibly loved) from afar shows up on your doorstep and promises to help you achieve all your dreams?
If you’re intrigued and want to go dive in, this is a good place to stop if you don’t want any spoilers at all. If you want a little preview, I’d say read through the first episode recap and then go watch, and if you don’t care about spoilers carry on as long as you’d like. But let it be known that from this point on, once you see the episode heading, you’re going to get serious spoilers, and this is your final warning.
If you want to watch Yuri!!! On Ice, in the United States you need to watch on Crunchyroll for subtitled episodes (which stream I think at the same time as the Japanese airings) and Funimation for dubbed episodes (which are several weeks behind the sub episodes). For other countries, I have no idea, but this is a pretty popular show, so I bet there’s a way.
All right. On to the recaps.
Episode One: Easy as Pirozhki!! The Grand Prix Final of Tears
Okay, so let’s get one thing clear right off the bat: the show—not just the episode, the show, opens with soft piano notes—of a theme we’ll get to know well later, but for now, it’s just piano—and this is Victor skating, Yuri watching. Look at Victor’s face, the way he looks at him, the way Yuri looks at him? I would swear they’re lovers, the way they regard each other here. It’s a flashback, in part, because we see Victor with long hair and Yuri younger, then we see Yuri age, and Victor age. And this is all we get before we get into the story. I have some theories you can peek at if you want to hit the footnote, which you might want to skip if you haven’t done a ton of viewing already or if you aren’t into someone guessing at what’s coming next. Whatever this is, the writers and the director chose to open with this scene. This is how they set up the anime. These are the words Yuri says:
He never fails to surprise me. Ever since I first saw his skating, it’s been an unending chain of surprises.
Now we get into the meat of the thing. It’s the Sochi Grand Prix Final, where Victor is enjoying his fifth consecutive victory and Yuri is bombing out in disgrace. It was his first time at the Grand Prix Final, but he’s in last place. He got nervous, he ate because he was nervous (and gained weight because he ate too much), and then he found out his family dog died while he was gone, which threw him off his game as well. Yuri is also acutely aware he’s letting not only himself but so many other people down, and everything snowballs. He hides in a toilet stall to call home, and after he hangs up, he sobs out his feelings, which at this point are overwhelming.
He’s interrupted by the other Yuri, Yuri Plisetsky. This Yuri is Russian, 15 to Yuri Katsuki’s 23 (Victor is 27), but Russian Yuri’s age doesn’t make him any less of a threat. In fact he introduces himself to our Yuri by kicking in his toilet stall door before glaring at him and informing him that since he’ll be in the senior division too next year, Yuri Katsuki should quit because the sport doesn’t need two Yuris. The implication is Russian Yuri is superior. He is the junior gold medalist, after all. And he’s not weeping in a toilet stall, either.
In the airport a Japanese sportscaster stops Yuri and implores him not to retire, insisting it’s too early for him to do that. Yuri calmly tells him he hasn’t made any decisions about that and to please not make any assumptions. Here’s your first hint that Yuri’s breakdown in the bathroom, while part of his makeup, isn’t all of who he is. Yes, he has moments of weakness, but this steel is another element of his character too, this pride. The sportscaster keeps pushing, but Yuri holds his ground, refusing to engage because he’s not ready to think or feel at the moment.
The only thing that pulls him from his resolve is Victor’s voice calling his name—but it’s not him Victor is calling, it’s the other Yuri. Victor is chiding him for aspects of his performance, and the only attention he gives Yuri Katsuki is to mistake him for a fan when he stares too long. The sportscaster and his coach want him to take the photo, but Yuri walks off, humiliated, because he doesn’t simply want a photo. He wants to meet Victor on the same playing field. Okay at this point let’s just establish footnotes are for people who have watched all the way through and want to go deep predictive geek. Ready? Go. Or skip. Your call.
Cut to a year later, and Yuri is going home. It’s been five years since he’s gone home, apparently, between his going to college and training and competing, and he’s not prepared for the welcome he receives. He expects to come home quietly, and what he discovers are posters of himself skating plastered all over the airport, people recognizing him everywhere, wanting to shake his hand. His friend and ballet trainer, Minako, is there to meet him, and she’s not giving him any slack, not letting him hide, not letting him slink off, insisting he go meet everyone because they’ve been waiting to see him.
I know it’s not uncommon in Asia for people to wear face masks in public areas to control germs, but I notice Yuri is the only person wearing a germ mask, like he wants the barrier from the world more than he wants to keep from getting a cold. It fits his personality, yes, but it also serves as a strong metaphor for his character, especially in this moment.
As Minako leads Yuri (forcibly) through the streets of Hasetsu, she lets him know that things have not been going well for the town, that people haven’t been skating or taking ballet lessons from her, and that she’s hoping his return will change that. We learn that many people have high hopes for Yuri in a number of ways—he learns this, that his family and his friends have all been rooting for him, but they’re also happy to see him and are eager to support him in whatever he choses to do with himself now. They’re a little surprised to see how much weight he’s gained, but they love him at whatever size he is. His family runs a hot spring resort, the last in Hasestu, and his friend who introduced him to ice skating runs Ice Castle Hasetsu, the place where he learned to skate, and she lets him skate whenever he wants.
It’s in this beautiful—and it truly is beautiful, all the animation is gorgeous—cocoon Yuri stays while Victor rises to the World Figure Skating Championships in Tokyo. And while Victor skates for his gold medal win, Yuri skates for his friend Yuko. He’s copied Victor’s routine exactly. This is what he and Yuko did as kids, copied Victor—it’s how he got started, and it seemed like a thing to do as he was at loose ends, to come back to basics as it were. Yuko is impressed, and they have a lovely moment between the two of them.
The animation is stunning in the skating sequences, and this first one sets the bar for all to follow. You see everything you need to know in the two lead men: Victor’s cavalier confidence, Yuri’s quiet innocence, his steadfastness. Minako, watching at the bar, observes Victor’s performance is good but it would be more compelling from someone who wasn’t so free with his charms. She doesn’t say it, but since we’re cutting constantly to Yuri, we think it: someone like Yuri.
But as I said above, Yuko’s daughters, who are Yuri’s groupies, secretly record his routine and upload it. Yuri is horrified, because he can’t imagine what other people must be thinking of him, copying Victor—except no one in the world predicted Victor’s reaction, which was to toss his own career out the window and go to Japan, announcing he’s going to be Yuri’s new coach.
That’s the end of episode one. And we’re going to open episode two by talking about Victor.
Episode Two: Two Yuris?! Drama at Yu-topia
What kind of guy aborts his own career to go champion some guy he doesn’t know except that he watched a video of him dancing his routine on the Internet?
Victor isn’t a bad guy, but while he looks great on the outside, he is absolutely flaky on the inside. He’s vain, not really self-absorbed but unthinking, something of a magpie. He’s definitely an artist, but he doesn’t see other people very well, decidedly not like Yuri does. He succeeds in his art because he sees it and what it can do for him and little else, and his failure to understand other people is at times insulting. If he weren’t so pretty, it would come off as downright offensive.
Let’s think about what he’s done here. He’s intruded on this stranger’s life and announced he’s moving in to be his coach. Kinda ballsy! He’s making a whole lot of assumptions, that Yuri would jump at the chance to have Victor tell him how to skate. Never mind that Victor has never coached before—something that all the other coaches make a point to tell him at every opportunity, and most of the other skaters too. Victor simply has a whim, follows it, and assumes that since he’s Victor Nikiforov, the world will realign around him.
The world does. Yuri is flabbergasted but thrilled, not even offended when Victor smilingly calls him a little piggy and refuses to let him on the ice until he loses weight. When Victor asks where he’ll be staying, Yuri and his family hastily invent a room for him, even though they don’t actually have a spare room for him to inhabit, or spare furniture for him to possess.
Where Yuri does draw a line, however, is Victor’s invasiveness. Victor from word go touches Yuri constantly. There isn’t an episode where Victor doesn’t touch, fondle, wink at, lean into, caress, and in general make love to Yuri. He asks to sleep in the same room as him, to take baths (in the hot springs) with him. Yuri rejects these offers as much as he can, runs from the touches. Some of these rejections are practical, such as when Victor wants to come into Yuri’s room where Yuri’s walls are plastered with posters of Victor. But most of them are simply Victor being free and easy with his charms and Yuri having none of it.
Yuri has Victor on such an insane pedestal when he first meets him, and even Yuri knows this is problem, but it takes him some effort to pull him down. Part of his trouble is he still doesn’t understand why Victor has come to coach him. Can he possibly be serious about helping him win? What in the world could he have seen in a video to bring him to Japan? Yuri is star-struck, but he’s not stupid. This doesn’t add up, and that makes him uneasy.
He’s not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, though, so he trains, losing the weight so he can get his lessons. He dodges Victor’s questions about past girlfriends (and declines to listen to Victor’s tales about his girlfriends) and the press he inadvertently drags into town when he posts selfies at the local castle. But just as he gets down to weight, Russian Yuri shows up in Hasetsu too—he is here to take Victor back to Russia, because apparently Victor promised him years ago to help him choreograph a program if he won the junior world championship, which he did. Victor has no memory of this, and brushes it off, because apparently he does stuff like this all the time, promises things and then forgets.
Victor decides to make programs for the both of them, and the winner gets to decide where he stays. So just to recap, he hasn’t worked one day with our Yuri yet, the guy he quit the sport for and left the country for, and now he’s willing to toss it all off for a promise he blithely made years ago. Settled by a wager, a contest. And he’s really excited for the contest, it sounds fun. Never mind that for both Yuris, it’s literally their whole careers at stake.
Victor’s pretty, but he’s flighty and vapid, especially as the show starts. Hero he is not.
Russian Yuri moves into the hot springs resort too, and he gets renamed Yurio to avoid confusion, a name which will stick with him by everyone at Hasetsu (and Victor) but not always Japanese Yuri. Yurio does not like being called Yurio, but he goes with it because he doesn’t have much of a choice.
Yuri is worried, very worried about the contest. He doesn’t have the skill or potential Yurio does, and since he’s nervous he goes to the rink to practice, as is his habit. Victor follows him there and gets some dirt on him from Yuko and her husband, who reveal he’s never had a girlfriend or any real friends, that he’s always practiced instead of socialized. Which is why when he assigns songs the next morning, he gives outgoing Yurio the version of On Love: Agape and Yuri On Love: Eros, because it’s the opposite of what people expect.
Then he calls them both mediocre and not really worthy of his help or coaching, not yet.
Yurio demands that if he wins the contest, Victor comes back to Russia with him. Victor asks what Yuri wants, and he says he wants to keep eating pork cutlet bowls (his family’s signature dish, his personal favorite, now Victor’s too) with him, to keep on winning. It’s such a Yuri thing to say, not a demand but a simple plea, like Beauty in Beauty and the Beast asking her father for a rose. All I want from you is you, and your time, and your skill.
And here the episode ends.
So also for now do these recaps and my analysis, but man, I have so much more to say. I’m basically only going to quit because I have to get up and put a turkey in the oven in the morning, but if I’m up in the middle of the night with weird head pain (likely) or waiting for things to bake, I’ll add more episodes to the fire.
Here’s the thing: this show is the shit, and I love it. I’m skimming through the episodes to recap them, and the recaps are going so long because I keep finding little gems I want to include. I swear I could rewatch this show a million times.
Between this and Lucifer (a show I also recap), it’s shows keeping me sane lately in this what the fuck is the world doing post-election insanity. I’m writing, because that’s another way I keep my head on straight, as well as pay the bills, but there is something so welcoming about watching Victor and Yuri skate after seeing yet another day’s worth of headlines which should only be seen on the pages of The Onion. There are only so many Senators and petitions I can do things with, so much money I have to donate, so much brain I can give before I am nothing but a husk. I need somewhere to refuel my joy.
Today I drove around town, going to the chiropractor to have them make my head stop pounding, to pick up meds for my cat, to get last minute Thanksgiving things, and the entire time as I drove I had “History Maker” playing on repeat in the car. I sang along, belting at the top of my lungs. I don’t know the last time I felt so happy. I kept thinking about how in a few hours my kid would be home from school and we would watch the live stream and see what happened in episode eight. Even though they left me with a hell of a cliffhanger, I’m still happy. This show makes me happy.
Happy’s good. Get your happy wherever you can right now and hold on tight. If Yuri!!! On Ice is yours, meet me back here. I’ll blather about it some more the next time I have a moment. Until then, my little pork cutlet bowls, may the eros be with you.
 It looks like Ice Castle Hasetsu, doesn’t it? And this is Victor’s routine that Yuri copied, with the reaching. Makes me think this is the end of the whole season and we’re seeing a forward flash.
 So I think this is going to be key in upcoming episodes, this same playing field stuff. Because we haven’t had that yet. I think this dog gag is going to end up forcing them to compete against each other. Or with each other. Somehow they have to get to the point where Yuri gets what he wanted all along, to show Victor he could best him, legitimately. Which is really what Victor wants too. And with love in the middle of it. That’s the surprise Victor wants. Someone who can end-run him. In every way.