Thursday, December 15, 2016

Yuri on Ice


Much like Welcome to Nightvale, Yuri on Ice is something I first saw talked about on twitter by people (generally women and girls) much younger than I am, and I wasn't sure what it was. When I saw screenshots, I initially thought someone had made a fake Johnny Weir anime. But it was a real anime, and I from what I could gather, young ladies everywhere desperately wanted the male leads to get married, as is true for media with male characters everywhere.

I hadn't watched any anime for a long, long time, but I did grow up in household where figure skating was watched enthusiastically. I remember the Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding craziness, the tears of Oksana Baiul. I can remember where I was (playing in our house's guest room) when I heard of Sergei Grinkov's sudden death. My mom has a picture of my sister and I as kids posing with Brian Boitano (her all-time favorite) at a signing. We were devastated when Michelle Kwan lost Olympic gold to Tara Lipinski. We went to Stars on Ice. I fell in love with Evgeni Plushenko instead of Alexei Yagudin. We reveled in the juiciness of the rivalry between witty, sneering, flamboyant Johnny Weir and Evan Lysacek, a gorgeous youth with the brain of a labrador and the mindset of a workhorse.

I'll always <3 him for getting Frank Carroll Olympic gold

I have to admit I'm not as "up" on what's happening in figure skating currently. I love the Shibutanis and local girl Polina Edmunds, but if you asked me to name a promising young men's skater I'd probably be like, "um..Patrick Chan?" However, I'm pretty sure I'm about to dive full into skating fandom again, because of Yuri on Ice.

I was expecting a silly, frothy yaoi soap when I watched episode one on 12/13 (Shout-out to the girl in Indonesia who responded to my inquiry into the twitter void on how to watch it. It's here). But the show, directed by Sayo Yamamoto, won me over immediately. I was surprised by the depth of the characters and show's dedicated depiction of figure skating. I understood why it had taken over my twitter feed. By midnight on 12/15, I had watched all eleven half-hour episodes currently out (the finale is next Wednesday).

Social media is also important on the show

The show's protagonist is Yuri Katsuki, a skater whose career is in a rut after a disastrous Grand Prix: he has no self-confidence, he's put on weight, and he's approaching "skating-old" at twenty-three. He moves back to his hometown: a small Japanese seaside city reliant on tourism, which is in steady decline. Unexpectedly, a video of him doing a favorite routine of his idol, Russian skating superstar Victor Nikiforov, goes viral. Even more unexpectedly, Victor himself shows up at Yuri's family's inn, announcing that he's retiring from skating to coach him. Soon bratty just-out-of-juniors star Yuri Plisetsky (nicknamed Yurio against his will to avoid confusion), also arrives to demand Victor choreograph him a routine.

Anime has been known to get pretty outlandish with sports, but there are no zany super-powered antics here. Instead, there are discussions of the intricacies of the scoring system, angst over quads, and lots of over-rotations and hands on the ice. No wonder so many actual skaters have embraced it! And as in real life, the sport is a multi-national, all-hands-on-deck production. Of course you have a skater from Thailand training with an Italian coach at a rink in Michigan!

And that skater is selfie champion and hamster daddy Phichit

One of my favorite things about Yuri on Ice is its generous cast of characters, and how it avoids one-dimensional heroes and villains. Yuri is sweet and naturally lovable, but myopic when it comes to how he treats others. Victor has such charm and confidence that it's easy for others and himself to assume he knows what he's doing...even if he doesn't. Yurio is a pretty terrible enfant terrible, but he's also a fifteen-year-old who's suffocating in the wake of fame (Yurio makes me feel bad for hating Tara Lipinski in the 90s. I'm sorry I hated you, Tara!).

A great strength of the show is how it goes into the skaters', coaches', and others' heads during performances, so we see, for example, the anxieties and joys of otherwise hate-able arrogant jerk JJ, the determination of standoffish Otabek, and the sincere passion for art harbored by Yurio's cold and exacting choreographer. That passion is what ultimately unites all the characters, despite their vast differences.

Angry baby kitten Yurio thinks he's a lion

Because despite the drama and fame and flowers and pageantry, that is what figure skating is about: the blending of sport and music and ice into art. Michelle Kwan might have lost two Olympic golds to her own Yurios, but the beauty of her spiral is iconic. I joke about Evan Lysacek*, but the straight line footwork in his Bolero routine is one of my all-time favorite skating sequences.

Yuri on Ice is an ice skating love letter, a portrait of flawed people pursuing their dreams and supporting each other, and a reminder to see the love and beauty around us and keep trying.

Fun fact: when Yuri and Victor wed, Japan and Russia will finally sign
a WWII peace treaty! 

For me the show brings to mind this song sung by Priscilla Lopez in A Chorus Line, where the auditioning actors reflect on the inevitable end of their dancing careers:

*Another favorite Evan moment: So Johnny Weir's most famous costume is his white swan costume from his Swan Lake program (this costume, complete with bird beak glove, was parodied as a peacock in Blades of Glory). Well, a number of years ago I went with my family to Stars on Ice in San Jose when Evan was skating. When he started skating to the Black Swan soundtrack, I was thrilled. Was this white swan versus black swan dichotomy intentional? By ending the routine on the black swan's moment of glory, the fouettes, I'm pretty sure it was. So catty!

It's a look.

All from Yuri on Ice except:
Frank Carroll and Evan Lysacek: Zimbio 
Jon Heder in Blades of Glory

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