A Queer Yuri!!! on ICE Experience

I have wanted to write this piece for a long, long time. Today I figured that since I’m already doing my 100 Meta Posts, I might as well slot this one in as well. Here’s some Meta of a different kind.

Free! Iwatobi Swim Club aired the summer of 2013, just as I was preparing to fly to Japan for my junior year abroad. I was really into it for the first few months, as were a few of my new friends. And then, seemingly all at once, I just fell out of love with it. The characters felt too empty, too one-dimensional; and the story just never delivered on it’s promise.

I can’t speak for the Japanese audience, but as a Queer Western viewer it was a horrible sinking feeling to realize I had been baited in such blatant way. Since then, the longer the show/franchise has gone one, the more disgusted I feel with it.

And so, a few years later when the Yuri!!! on Ice PV was released, I and many other queer viewers didn’t dare get our hopes up. The overall tone of reception in my circles was ‘cautiously excited’ at best. It looked promising on an artistic level, and it felt relevant on a thematic level with the ice skating world, but few dared to expect much from it on the queer front.

Around that same time I started to see a rise in discussion about queerbaiting in various forms of media — not just anime. More and more people started to see the big picture, conjuring up their own memories of other shows that had presented similar promises but always kept out of reach.

I was on my guard.

The first episode and the introduction of Viktor Nikiforov as a character was ridiculous. Everything from that first episode established Viktor as an over-the-top, flirtatious, whimsical, flamboyantly gay man. It was so over the top it immediately felt like a caricature. As he showed up at Yuuri’s family’s inn, introduced himself completely naked (a common thing for Japanese baths but often not for foreigners), and introduced himself as Yuuri’s new coach, I remember thinking to myself, ‘he can’t be serious?’

It was a shock to the system. I didn’t really know what to think. And then it just…kept going. Viktor continued to seek Yuuri’s attention, kept flirting openly at every turn. It was hard to take him seriously with absolutely no context for his character or his possible motivations. Yuuri himself seems to believe it’s just Viktor’s charming personality. It’s confusing and overwhelming. (It’s fantastic storytelling, but I just couldn’t see it yet.)

It’s not until right before the Hasetsu competition that I start to change my mind, start to have hope. Yuuri chooses a costume out of Viktor’s collection, one he recalls as being particularly ‘androgynous’, a part of Viktor’s exploration of gender in his youth. Suddenly, I’m paying real close attention.

For Yuuri, the Eros program is about the exploration of sexuality. It’s something outside of Yuuri’s comfort-zone, something he’s never had a chance to explore because of his career, because of his anxiety. Viktor pushes Yuuri to explore what desire and sexuality means for him, then present it on the ice.

When the exploration of sexuality in Eros meets the exploration of gender in the choice of costume, we get the incredible scene of Yuuri running to his ballet teacher in order to learn ‘how to move like a woman’. It turns out that the roadblock he had been running into was due to imagining himself in Viktor’s role — the way Viktor had performed the program. Instead, Yuuri finds himself much more comfortable imagining himself in the ‘female’ role of the piece.

It was clearly an exploration of gender and sexuality handled very respectfully within the narrative of the show. Where Viktor’s flirting had been exaggerated and difficult to digest, this complex play of gender was subtle but still clear to see. And it completely changed my expectations.

After that, the push and pull continued. Yuuri and Viktor grew closer, more familiar, more comfortable. The actual plot of the story was engaging, and the character growth was interesting to watch. The tension built as they moved closer to the Grand Prix Final, but also as it became more clear that things weren’t adding up. Yuuri had introduced himself as a “dime-a-dozen skater” but was clearly highly skilled, considered the ace of Japan, and on his way to compete again with the world’s best. All was not what it seemed.

Yuuri is emotional, volatile, anxious. Viktor has no experience as a coach and therefore he struggles to know how to support him. He’s only known Yuuri a few months so it’s no real surprise he messes up so badly. But Yuuri manages to express his upset, his wishes. And Viktor promises to do better.

Used to bottling up his emotions, Yuuri feels oddly freed by his outburst and performs exceptionally well during his free program. And Yuuri in a good mood is gutsy as hell. He decides last minute to switch his last jump to Viktor’s signature quadruple flip and surprises everyone. Viktor who we’ve already established is a bit over-the-top, decides to surprise him back with a kiss at the end of the program, in the middle of the competition, on international television.

I was in shock. Everyone was. It was a like a collective gasp that echoed around the world, in real life and in the show. All of a sudden I realized I was watching a completely different show than I started off watching. Not because it had changed, but because my perspective had shifted so drastically. ‘Oh, so Viktor wasn’t a joke. That changes everything.’

But the team behind Yuri!!! on Ice was far from done blowing our minds. Three episodes later, during the preview for episode 10 we hear Viktor ask, “Yuuri what are you giving me as a present?” and Yuuri reply with, “something round and gold.” Immediately fans responded with ‘I know it’s probably a gold medal, but what if it was a ring?!’

It was a strange place to be in. We had already gotten more than we ever expected, so we began to hope for even more. But conditioned to disappointment, we prepared ourselves for that to be all. People speculated about a ring of some kind, a promise ring, an engagement ring, a wedding ring; but it was a joke.

Until it wasn’t. Until Yuuri dragged Viktor out shopping, stomped his way through the streets of Barcelona and then ran into a jewelry shop to buy a pair of golden rings. Until the two of them stood in front of the Sagrada Familia and traded rings.

By that time I promise you, my jaw was on the floor. But episode 10 still wasn’t over. Episode 10 still hadn’t finished completely blowing our minds and blowing every expectation and understanding of what we were watching to pieces.

Viktor and Yuuri go to dinner with (most of) the other finalists. Phitchit sees the rings and congratulates them loudly on their sudden marriage — to which Viktor replies that they’re only engagement rings.

‘Is that a joke? Is he serious? I can’t tell!’

And then, the most pivotal moment of the entire series/of the entire year/of the history of anime and manga: it’s revealed that at last year’s banquet, held after the end of the Grand Prix, Yuuri a) got super drunk on champagne, b) challenged Yuri Plisetsky and Christophe Giacometti to dance battles, c) clung to Viktor and asked him to come to Japan and be his coach, and d) forgot about all of it.

This reveal flipped the entire story on it’s head! Suddenly Viktor’s attitude at the start seemed perfectly reasonable! He was simply responding to Yuuri’s passionate request. Viktor wasn’t the “playboy” from the Eros performance, Yuuri was!

It was this moment that I sincerely lost my mind. Not only had this show gotten our hopes up and delivered. It had raised the bar episode after episode, far surpassing any expectations we could have possibly put forward. And on top of that, this moment made me realize what an incredible storytelling feat this was. I had already begun to understand Yuuri’s role as an unreliable narrator, but to completely flip the story on it’s head due to something he doesn’t remember happening? ABSOLUTE GENIUS. It was already a narrative masterpiece and there were still two episodes to go.

Yuri!!! on Ice changed the game. Completely.

I admit that Free! cracked open the door by blatantly hinting at queerness within a sports anime. But Yuri!!! on Ice blew the doors to pieces by creating this narrative masterpiece that was unapologetically queer in a mainstream genre.

Unapologetically queer, in a story where anti-queer bigotry just doesn’t exist. I cannot express just how refreshing it is to watch a queer story in which the queerness itself is never the source of angst or suffering. I have had my fill of sad or tragic queer stories. They have their place and they certainly serve many people, but they can’t all be tragic. We deserve our happy endings, in fiction and in real life.

And that’s just it. Sometimes it’s hard to visualize what something looks like in real life without first seeing it in fiction. We need those stories that show us what a world could look like without hate, without bigotry, so that we can work towards it. We need the stories that show us what a world could be without hunger or without inequality, so that we can visualize our goals. And for the people who don’t quite get it yet, those kinds of stories are often the ones that make it “click”.

I remember reading a post once about how someone who had once held bigoted views on homosexuality had completely changed their mind as a result of watching and becoming a fan of Free!. I can only imagine how many more people might have had a similar journey from watching Yuri!!! on Ice.

These stories are important. For me. For us. For everyone.

I can’t wait for this year’s re-watch.

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