Born to Make History, Supplemental: Yuri on Ice—The Gift of the Undefined Romance
Spoilers for Yuri on Ice up in here, folks. You’ve been warned.
This non-recap post is part me escaping pre-Christmas responsibilities (not really feeling it this year, TBH) and part giving into an increasingly burning need to talk through stuff percolating as I think through my recent re-watch of episodes 1-10 after our revelatory credits sequence last Wednesday. I’d been thinking about some of this stuff for some time, but two topics stood out most to me during my review: how beautifully character flaws were made vital to the story, and how perfectly and consistently Kubo left the relationship of the protagonists as undefined as possible, allowing the viewer to define it instead. I’m going to cover the flaws topic in another post sometime. Right now I want to talk about that undefined aspect, because I’ve never seen anything like it before, and I doubt there are many writers talented enough to pull it off on this level.
I certainly know I’d have trouble doing it. Creating that kind of reader space isn’t just tricky, it’s like creating one of those crazy sugar-carved eggs, except you have to do it underwater while the egg is in space and with robot arms that will be disturbed by random earthquake tremors. Conflict and arc in a romance is all about the relationship, about the build, the stakes, the yearning, but that means you have to show the relationship. Which generally means giving away what kind of relationship it is. You have to acknowledge orientation, gender identity, pasts, fears, hopes, for at least one of the characters.
I love how Kubo basically ignored these rules and carried on as if logic and reason didn’t apply, and it works so well, better in fact than if she’d laid it out. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’d love a version where Yuri ID’d himself as gay or bi or demi or even acknowledged he had more sexual feelings (or even simply romantic feelings) for Victor. But that doesn’t fit with his theme, his “this love is more than any one thing” love. Which I assume is Kubo’s theme too, but more on that in a bit.
Kubo gets away with her strategy, I think, because her medium visual, not written. I honestly can’t see how someone could pull off such a non-specific relationship (without deliberately saying it’s non-specific) in written text, though now I kind of want to see someone try. You couldn’t do it with tight point of view, not the way most romances are written. (Though now I want to see that tried as well.) The difference between visual story and written story are those spaces; when you write a scene down, it’s almost impossible not to outright tell what’s going on, but when an anime or a movie or any visual media relays a scene, there’s so much more room for ambiguity. Plus viewers forgive ambiguity easier than readers do. We expect to be made to work to understand things visually more than we do in text. If I write a scene and you can’t situate yourself, you’ll be annoyed, but if a movie pans over a city and shows someone holding a glass looking pensive and that’s it, it feels like mystery not yet solved, not something out of context.
So the medium is already lending itself to Kubo’s setup. Plus, we have the second truth, which is that there aren’t many gay romances littering the ground in anime, so no one is expecting one. She’s creating the road she’s walking on, and so when it’s vague, we aren’t even sure it’s road at all. Is this actually a groundbreaking gay romance? We can’t tell. She didn’t say. It feels like it, but we don’t know.
Honestly, though, I think the real truth is that Kubo is a master artist and chose this path not only because she could but because it was precisely what she wanted to do. I think she wanted that space for her viewers, for her characters, for herself and the vision she saw in this story about life and love. I believe she chose to avoid an openly queer plotline not because she didn’t want it to be queer but because she wanted it to be as queer as people wanted it to be—and also as universal as it possibly could be. She didn’t want it to be defined by anything, boxed into any single space.
Because of that delicate balance, because of that openness and care, because she neither closed or opened any door with any definite determination, below are only a small sampling of the kinds of reads you can make on the relationship between Victor and Yuri, all of them with supporting documentation. Yuri on Ice as a choose-your-own love story.
There’s a legitimate asexual romance lens for YOI as of the airing of episode ten. The strongest argument for an ace romance, in fact, comes from Yuri himself in the most recent episode, in his insisting on defining the engagement as nontraditional and not really an engagement. Of course, the strongest argument against it comes from his hypersexual pole dance in the same installment.
And yet sexy dancing isn’t sex. He didn’t strip to his skivvies and ask Victor to go to bed with him. He got half naked and asked him to be his coach.
Yuri decidedly doesn’t have a sexualized reaction to Victor’s naked or sexualized self at any point and time except for the Eros dance, and even that’s pretty much an acknowledgement that this is sexy. While Yuko passes out from how hot Victor is, Yuri simply thinks, “wow, this is really sexy, it’s enough to make me pregnant.” Which is something, I guess. Even so, there are so many openings for a read of Yuri as an ace, especially in the beginning. Over and over again Victor gives him an opportunity to view him sexually and he refuses to do so.
I wouldn’t read Victor as an ace, at all—which makes his accepting of Yuri and what he needs to be loved that much more thrilling. I mean, what if Yuri is an ace who is open to a non-sexual romance, and Victor the most eligible bachelor in the world decides he needs Yuri more than he needs a sexual relationship. I mean what the fuck about that. What if they’ve been negotiating, offscreen where we don’t get to listen/watch, that touching and cuddling is fine, but they’re not doing sex, and Victor says, no sweat. I love you. Let’s do this. Engagement is on. Gold medal or not, just kidding in the restaurant.
I mean, holy shit. Would that knock your socks off, or would that knock your socks off.
The ace angle is only one way to read their relationship, though. The demisexual argument is more popular, and possibly more likely, but honestly I don’t want to come down on any one side here because I like all of the angles. I will say that if I were to write the novelization of this show (I would love so much to write the novelization of this show) and were given carte blanche, this is the angle I’d choose. Except I’d try really hard to follow Kubo’s example and not explicitly say what was going on with these boys.
I lean on the demi angle a little because of the ambiguity, I guess. Because I think there are a lot more demi people than know what demi is. I don’t quite qualify, but if you allow it to be a spectrum, then yes. I really hate labels for myself because I’ve classically never fit in any box, ever, and all labels do is remind me how much I never belong anywhere. But spectrums? Spectrums are great. Which is why I like “queer” a whole lot because it means I don’t have to try to explain why I like girls a whole lot but am married to a guy. Well, it does. But it makes me feel less odd about it.
Anyway, Yuri for sure fits the demi profile, the way he was disinterested in Victor sexually until they connected emotionally, the way he didn’t have any sweethearts and didn’t seem bothered by it except when other people made him feel ashamed about it. The way he simply couldn’t seem to understand the concept of sexual love until he connected with Victor personally and over an extended period of time, until he really grappled with what Victor meant to him.
Also, there’s the drunken pole dancing. I know I used it above and explained it away, but it’s thin ice. It’s not hard to poke holes in Yuri being fully ace because of the pole dancing, because he was totally grinding on Chris, and Victor. And the thing is, we don’t know what else he said to Victor. It isn’t just what Kubo says, it’s what she doesn’t say.
It’s not the case that Yuri couldn’t be ace or demi and not behave sexually. You can have gray sexuality and still behave in a teasing manner at a party. You can also have sex, because you want to or because you were horny or whatever. From a narrative standpoint, though, the read begins to break a bit, and from a character standpoint, it gets rough, because I can’t see Yuri’s personality holding too much of that up. I think to make Yuri too sexual and have him be ace is a stretch. You have to count the pole dancing, etc, as specifically horniness brought on by alcohol, or wildness brought on by alcohol (and say he was never horny, just wild, and it was never sexual, just naked and raw).
The tie-grab gets fuzzy too, but I think you can push it. Again—there are so many little things that are on the edge, but they’re on the edge, and you can tip them any way you want. I’m literally going to take every single frame and use them for ace the same way I am for D/s. Which, how insane is that. How brilliant, Kubo.
You can also argue, however sexualized Yuri is or not, that he’s bisexual. I’m not comfortable talking about Victor or not—I think it’s been confirmed that though the subs have him talk about his first “girlfriend” the Japanese says a non-gendered “sweetheart,” but even so he could be speaking of a time before he was out. We have so little information on Victor assigning him an orientation feels dangerous. Yuri, though? There’s a little room for picking a side, and it’s entirely due to Yuko.
There’s not much there, and I’m not entirely sure I buy it personally, but neither do I mind people seizing on the cue and claiming Yuri is bisexual, either. In the first episode, Yuri reminisces about how Yuko got him into skating, and he talks about how she’s still cute. He also skates Victor’s routine just for her.
Now, it’s pretty easy to say this is an old crush, a childhood infatuation that was never romantic, and it’s also easy to say he never saw her as anything but a friend. But there’s room for it to be a crush, unrequited love, for his routine to be a goodbye to her. There’s room for so much, in fact. I’ve seen people argue it as such several times. So go for it. You want Yuri to be bi? There’s a path for that.
There’s also a pretty clear read for Yuri to be straight-forwardly gay. As I said, the Yuko attraction can be viewed as something real, but it can be written off as just friends, or a youthful crush before his true orientation was acknowledged.
You’ve even got two paths here for the gay storyline. He could be gay and anxious about it, not dating because he didn’t want to be out to himself and it takes supergay Victor to get him to acknowledge his true orientation. I feel like that one’s a stretch, given the way their same sex relationship is so accepted by everyone, but it’s still possible, if thin. A more solid read is the idea that between his shyness and his focus on skating/school, Yuri wasn’t exactly someone who was going to be dating a lot. So it takes Victor marrying work and love to get him to take the plunge.
For the purposes of this read probably you go with the idea the Victor is gay, which is honestly more likely than him being bi, especially given his costumes seem to be modeled on out skater Johnny Weir’s, but again, outside of those costumes there’s precious little in the story to support any definitive read on him. Which once more I assume is intentional. So do with Victor as you will.
Whatever orientation you assign Yuri, and even Victor, there’s a delightful late bloomer read you can give their romance. Yuri is late to everything with his inexperience, but episode ten has Victor confessing he’s pretty much been working his tail off for twenty years, so if he’s been getting any action, it’s been sex at best and probably some thin relationships. Neither one of them has had a lot of experience with love.
Yuri, though, hasn’t had any experience, except for his pole dancing lessons, apparently. And though there’s a strong ace or demi read for him, it doesn’t necessarily follow that everyone who blooms late sexually has gray sexuality. Some people simply arrive to that part of themselves later, especially if they’re busy working like Yuri is, or are plagued by anxiety as he clearly is. Maybe he can’t let himself relax into sex until Victor puts him at ease. Maybe Victor can’t experience love until Yuri shows him how to slow down.
If you’re a late bloomer, or you simply love that kind of story, you can experience Yuri on Ice through that lens.
Repressed Sexuality/Sexual Awakening
At the same time, while we’ve covered all these sweet, almost sugar-coated bases, there are a few black velvet edged stops to make on our romantic reads as well. Which sounds insane. How can there be a read which allows for a romance with no sex and a romance which opens the door to all kinds of it? Kubo-sensei, that’s how.
Now, there’s a caveat to this read and the next one—big caveat for the next one—in that to make these reads work, you must imagine beyond the text. They only work with hints given and imaginations let loose. But the point is, the reads can be made. This isn’t a horn being grafted onto a goat. This is a glimmer of a shaft glimpsed from a white equine’s forehead. You can get there if you want to believe.
If you want to believe that Yuri is a hot little sexpot who has been dying to get out and simply needed sexy Victor to set him free, you need only start with the credits of episode ten. You imagine that Victor saw him cut loose, be sexual as all hell, then decided to set him free with the Eros program, luring him out with the only breadcrumbs left after getting naked and baring his neck didn’t work. Not to mention flying all the way from Russia and giving up his career.
The Eros program itself, though, and its incredible arc track Yuri’s evolving sexual awakening from “please watch me” to “don’t take your eyes off me,” from seductive smile to the blowing of a kiss to God only knows what we’ll get Wednesday. I mean, maybe a pole dance? On the ice? I put nothing past Kubo at this point.
I have a little harder time with this one, but Kori Michele has made some heavy arguments for a D/s read of YOI in her post-ep 10 viewing recaps, and I can’t fail to include it in this list because of that. And honestly, I would have had to include it anyway, though she gets credit for solidifying it in my mind. There are too many little nods, particularly in episode 8. The tie grab and the skate-kissing being the biggies.
But honestly, the way episode 10 shows Victor so clearly wanting to be led, wanting to follow Yuri, the way in episode 2 he’s playing geisha with that robe and batting his lashes, the way he’s so pleased to be competed over–says at the very least everyone insisting he’s the dedicated top in the relationship needs to rethink their ship. I have a harder time with the D/s angle because I just cannot see it in their personalities, but having said that, the bedroom is a private place and you never know unless you’re in there. So go ahead and imagine what you want. Also, do remember I’m talking D/s, not bondage and the rest of the acronym. I really, really can’t see anything but domination and submission here, not masochism etc.
I will say that regardless of whether or not these two play or not, their personalities are pretty switchy. Nobody’s dedicated anything. Victor wants to boss around and be bossed around all in the same sentence, and ditto Yuri, which is why they’re a perfect fit. Victor is better about knowing how to negotiate who is leading when, but Yuri will get better at it. He’s already getting there. He got a lot of the way there in episode seven.
And speaking of episode seven. There’s a huge read we haven’t talked about yet, and since it’s the one I suspect Kubo most wants us to view, I would like to honor her by addressing it now.
A Love Without a Name
Did you notice how in China Yuri performed Eros perfectly, Victor cheered so hard he about flew out of the stands, nearly made love to him in the kiss & cry…and Yuri seemed almost unmoved?
I haven’t seen anyone talk about that, though admittedly I might have simply not seen it. I didn’t talk about it because when I started doing the recaps that had already passed by and I was catching up on recaps, and that episode got lumped in with five and six. It’s struck me every time I’ve watched that episode, though. Yuri nailed that routine because he wanted to lay claim to Victor, to show everyone the man was his, to show them Victor hadn’t left the sport in vain. And everyone was impressed, especially Victor. Everyone except for Yuri.
What Yuri got from that was an anxiety soup, one neither he nor Victor could quell, not until they blew up in the parking garage. I will forever love that they had that argument down in the bowels of the arena. Here we are in the guts of the event, barfing out our real feelings. Victor showing his inexperienced, unpolished hand. Being rough and wrong and inept. Yuri emoting all over, not being able to stop himself from saying the truth that he fears, no longer letting it rule him. Of not being able to be healed by letting it out, exactly—it wasn’t that sending it out of himself naturally set him free. It was that he set it free and then made himself realize it wasn’t the boogeyman he thought it was.
And that Victor wasn’t the god he’d made him out to be. He was just a man. A man he loved.
That episode and that moment was where Yuri fell in love with him, the real Victor. Flawed, raw, real Victor, not the man he’d hung on his walls. I love that he did all that on the ice, too—he’s fucking skating and falling in love with the right one. Which is why he’s messing up, because he’s there and he’s not. And then he decides the way to celebrate is to give his lover something special. To show him he notices him. To make this skate just for him. Not perfect, not for the audience. This isn’t for anyone but Victor. This isn’t for points or the Grand Prix. He doesn’t think “oh, how many points would I get.” He thinks, “oh, I wonder how Victor would react.”
That’s a gesture of love, and it’s not sexual, but it’s one of the most romantic gestures you will ever see in anime, fiction, or otherwise. YOI is full of those, though, and none of them have a damn thing to do with sex. The running toward each other at the airport past the glass. Yuri insisting Victor go to be with his dog. Victor arranging for his former coach to stand in for him. Victor knowing so many tiny little things about Yuri and them coming back to him while he skates alone. Yuri being so lost without Victor while he skates. The divots in the bed where Victor has clearly been sleeping cuddled beside Yuri. They way Victor is always hugging and touching Yuri. The way they hold hands. They way Yuri proposes. The way Yuri calls the engagement rings good luck charms. I’ve seen the Tumblr posts where this is explained to be more than simply luck, that this is cultural—with or without this context, it keeps the focus in the zone of the nebulous, and that makes it all the more magical.
Yuri says in his speech at the end of episode five that his theme is love and it’s a love without a name. This entire series is about a love without a name. It doesn’t have an orientation, or a heat level, or anything. I will not be surprised if she finds a way to end it with as much flexibility as possible, and I’m not going to be disappointed. I won’t see it as a cop out, because that’s not what it’s going to be. Not with this set up.
A harbor for all the ships
I’ve blogged at length about what this series means to me, but this series means a lot to many people and in different ways. It’s able to do that because it’s not taking any sides. It’s not specifically a queer romance or an anything romance or even, precisely, a romance. It’s a love story. Splitting hairs? Nope. It’s a story about love. How much romance you put in there is up to you. If you want a love story full of sex, you can have it—you’re just going to have to imagine it. Plenty of people have. If you want a love story with no sex? You can have it. Minimal sex? Yep. Are you focused on a specific orientation angle? Go ahead.
What do you want? You can have it. So long as you let the story be, at its core, about love.
Every time I watch even five minutes of Yuri on Ice I learn something new. I find things as a reader and as a writer and simply as a human. I will never get over that in such a nightmare of a year, at the darkest hour, this show has appeared like a sunrise. It doesn’t make the darkness go away, but boy does it help remind me where the light comes in.
Will talk about flaws tomorrow, or Tuesday at the latest.