On narratives of hope, kindness, and happiness: Yuri!!! on Ice (very light spoilers)
Yuri on Ice saved 2016.
Yuri on Ice saved me.
Again and again across the Internet, I’ve seen variations on the phrases above. If you didn’t already know, Yuri on Ice is an anime that exploded into popularity this past fall, attracting a global audience and the attention of many people who don’t usually watch anime. On Twitter, it was the most talked-about fall anime by a huge margin. The airing of the finale apparently crashed the servers of the anime streaming site Crunchyroll. Not since Attack on Titan have I seen a new anime with such cross-over buzz, and the two shows could hardly be more different. Attack on Titan was a grim, gory, almost unrelentingly dark action-thriller about teen soldiers battling man-eating giants. Yuri on Ice is a heartwarming, tender and uplifting sports anime about love and male figure skating.
Yuri on Ice saved 2016
I don’t think anything could have saved 2016, but I am not being hyperbolic when I say that Yuri on Ice helped me get through some rough days. I know that it helped others, too.
There are so many different directions one could take with an analysis of this show. One could speak (and certainly many have) about the central love story, and the importance of this nuanced depiction of a happy, healthy, romantic/sexual relationship between two men. One could speak of the sensitive portrayal of mental health issues--depression,anxiety, distorted self-image--in the show. One could revel in the racial and international diversity of the cast. Much has been made of the realism with which Yuri on Ice depicts the rarified world of figure skating. Professional figure skaters have avidly followed the show. Iconic figure skating legend Johnny Weir himself seems to have fallen in love with Yuri on Ice, tweeting about it and saying in an interview with The Geekiary, “There are so many details that pop up that wouldn’t mean anything to a casual skating fan, but to us as skaters who actually lived it, you can see so much respect for our world and what we do through the animations and story lines.”
There have even been articles analyzing the way characters in the show use social media (they use it a lot, in a way that feels realistic and up-to-date)
But here, I want to talk about this show and happiness. I want to talk about how it has brought happiness to so many viewers in what has been, in so many ways, a dark time. I want to talk about the structure and narrative of this show—how it touches on dark issues but is full of light, how suffused it is with kindness and generosity. This is a story of love and passion and character growth and the ending (spoiler!) is unambiguously happy. I confess that I have not consumed much in the way of such narratives. The stories I read and watch are so often dark, tragic, or at best bittersweet.
Yuri on Ice showed me something new.
Despite the show’s upward trajectory, Yuri on Ice starts off in a scene of despair. Katsuki Yuri is a 23-year old figure skater from Japan, and when we first meet him he’s crying in a bathroom stall. He has just placed last in the international figure skating Grand Prix Final competition. He’s a talented skater, but he has issues with anxiety and self-confidence, and his dog died just before the competition, contributing to his stress. Yuri goes on to bomb the next major competition of the season, and returns home to Japan with his self-esteem in tatters, depressed and ashamed. He’s at loose ends, unsure of himself, and thinks that he may be looking at the end of his competitive skating career.
Into his life walks Viktor Nikiforov, five-time winner of the Grand Prix and Yuri’s long-time idol. While trying to regain his love for skating, Yuri has been privately practicing one of Viktor’s winning programs. A video of Yuri perfectly skating Viktor's free skate program goes viral and catches the attention of Viktor himself, who flies to Japan to be Yuri's coach.
What follows is a love story on more than one level. Yuri and Viktor fall in love, yes (that’s pretty much telegraphed from the beginning), and it’s a beautiful love story, tender and delicately drawn. It goes past the will-they-or-won’t-they flirtation stage to the drama of a real, committed relationship—something I've found rare even in straight anime romances. But entwined with Yuri and Victor’s personal love is their love of skating; they find inspiration for their art/sport in one another. And as the story continues it also expands to the narratives of other skaters: Yuri’s competitors. Everyone has a story; everyone is deeply invested in skating; everyone wants to do and be the best. In addition to a personal love story, Yuri on Ice is a story about the pursuit of excellence. In the end, each skater’s true competitor is himself; each is trying, again and again, to score a new personal best.
In an earlier post I referred to this anime as “gentle.” I was only midway through the series at the time. Soon after writing that post I realized how wrong I was; the tension in the show ratchets up dramatically when Yuri actually enters the Grand Prix for the second time, and the viewer is taken on a roller coaster of emotions. Yuri’s confidence has grown under Viktor’s guidance and love, but his anxiety is not magically cured; his self-doubts and anxiety recur, threatening to undermine all he’s achieved. The emotional stakes rise. There are unexpected obstacles. Yet even as I was on edge with tension, I knew that in the end it would be okay. I trusted the show’s creators. I trusted the feeling of overall hope in their world.
Yuri on Ice doesn’t take place in what is exactly our world. It’s very close to our world, yes, and the characters feel grounded in realism; they’re complex and layered. But the world they move in is a better world than our own. There is no homophobia in the world of Yuri on Ice, no stigma whatsoever to Yuri and Viktor’s love. Queerness appears to be utterly normalized. Everyone in the cast is utterly decent. The show treats every character with compassion and kindness. The skaters compete fiercely against each other, but they also cheer each other on. And by the end, even the few obnoxious characters have been redeemed.
There appears to be no malice in the world of Yuri on Ice. There’s still heartbreak and angst, but there’s no evil.
In late 2016, the real world appeared (and still appears) to be falling apart to so many of us. And to be able to escape it for even a short time to this kinder, brighter, better world?
That was and is priceless.
I’ll repeat what I said in an earlier post: Fiction is needed to depict the world as it is. But I've come to realize that it’s also important for depicting the worlds that we want, the worlds that might be.
During this anime’s run I was squeeing on the Internet with new friends, shamelessly gushing. I saw a community form, and I saw how happy this show made people.
I want to write like this, I messaged a fellow writer. I want to write happy stories of character growth.
Squad goals for you and me, she messaged back.
I don’t know if I can write a story like that (my own written stories tend to fall toward heartbreak). But Yuri on Ice has shown me how important such narratives can be. Positive and affirming doesn’t mean simple. It doesn’t mean a story can’t be damn compelling.
And I learned that joyful, uplifting moments in fiction can wreck and lay waste to my heart as keenly as fictional tragedy and death.
I don’t quite know how Yuri on Ice achieves that, by the way—how it devastates with joy. I’ve spent so much time trying to work it out.