LGBT TV – Yuri!!! On Ice

Yuri on Ice 1

As it is LGBT History Month, some of OTB’s writers are looking back at some of our favourite LGBT related TV shows and films. This time, editor Ian Wolf looks at a show from Japan that aired just a few months ago, but has so many people excited that it is, in the world’s of its theme tune, “born to make history”.

In October 2016 a new Japanese animation (anime) was broadcast on TV and streamed internationally called Yuri!!! On Ice (with three exclamation marks). The series covered the sport of figure skating, and the relationship between an anxiety-ridden professional skater who ends up being coached by his Russian idol.

Now, you may think that a show like this, one not shown on British TV and is in a foreign language, is not worth your time. But a few things stand out: first is the fact that next year the Winter Olympics are taking place in South Korea. The series has already picked up fans from the world of professional figure skating, and you can expect to see this effect snowball as we get to 2018. Secondly, the series has become amazingly popular with anime fans, topping Blu-Ray, DVD and digital album charts; popularity polls; and being praised by critics for, among other things, the depiction of a realistic gay relationship between the two main characters.

Yuri!!! On Ice follows 23-year-old professional Japanese skater Yuri Katsuki, who comes last in a major competition and whose problems with anxiety are clearly taking a toll. It is also annoying some other competitors, most notably rising Russian star Yuri “Yurio” Plisetsky, who thinks there is only room for one Yuri in the sport. Yuri K. returns to his hometown, and while there he performs a skating routine that was once performed by his idol, 27-year-old Grand Prix Figure Skating champion Victor Nikiforov. What Yuri K. fails to realise is that his routine has been recorded and posted online, attracting the attention of Victor himself. Victor’s reaction is to go straight to Japan and to make himself Yuri K.’s new coach, which he accepts, and together they attempt to win the next Grand Prix, taking on the best in the world including Yurio.

The bit of interest to this article however starts at the end of the seventh episode of this 12-part series, Yuri K. manages to complete a spectacular routine and Victor runs onto the ice to congratulate him, leaping into his arms. What follows are close-ups of their lips, Victor collapsing into Yuri K., and reaction shots from everyone watching as they see the two of them kissing – or at least it is heavily implied. Annoyingly you never see the kiss, as Victor’s arm blocks the site of the touching lips. Later episodes also see them kissing again, but again it is always implied. You see Victor kissing Yuri K.’s hand for example, but the hand stops you from seeing the lips. Despite all this, most viewers and critics are of the opinion that these kisses do happen and are true signs of love.

It is not just kisses however. In the tenth episode, Yuri K. buys some gold rings as a good luck charm and he and Victor exchange them, leading other characters to imply they are married and Victor to say they are just engaged – which is a big deal when you consider that neither Japan or Russia have gay marriage. Then there is also the emotional side. At the end of the 11th episode, Yuri K. suggests breaking the relationship, and at the start of the 12th we see just how much this idea breaks Victor’s heart.

All this might be of little consequence to most people reading this, but to truly understand the impact, we need to deal with the reactions of two major groups of people: women who are anime fans, and professional figure skaters.

Dealing with women anime fans first, it is important to look at the way sports-themed series have especially dealt with homosexuality and female audiences. For starters, we need to look at something called the “Odagiri effect”. This is a TV phenomenon named after a Japanese TV actor called Joe Odagiri who appeared in a kids TV show in the year 2000, and managed to attract a large number of women viewers because they thought Odagiri was sexy. Thus the Odagiri effect is the phenomenon of something getting lots of women fans because of the attractiveness of the male actors or characters. You can observe this in UK TV – look at Aidan Turner in Poldark or Tom Hiddleston in The Night Manager. Perhaps most telling is Benedict Cumberbatch, who after starring in Sherlock was suddenly boosting the ratings of everything he was in. For example, before Sherlock Cumberbatch was in the Radio 4 sitcom Cabin Pressure, but after doing Sherlock the audience grew massively, and by the end Cabin Pressure became the most popular radio sitcom of modern times, breaking the record for ticket requests to see the show being recorded.

In Japan though, the effect also attracts a particular can of female fan. This is the “fujoshi” or “rotten woman”. These women tend to be fans of the anime genre known as “yaoi”, which is male gay romantic and erotic fiction aimed at and written by women. As a result, the fujoshi start watching these series with sexy guys in, and begin to create their own ideas of the relationship between the characters, creating their own theories and even their own fan fiction. It also has the effect of attracting actual gay viewers because of the association. This is especially common in sports anime, where all the characters are young and athletic. It has now got to the point where anime creators deliberately target such fans, and leave teasing scenes for the viewer that the character might be gay. Yuri!!! On Ice however takes it a stage further, leaving little doubt that the characters are gay. It should be noted that the creators of the show, director Sayo Yamamoto and writer Misturo Kubo, are both women. The series also differs from most sports anime in that while most feature school teams and thus any relationships are morally dubious, Yuri K. and Victor are both in their 20s.

The other big group to look into is the wider world of figure skating itself. Yesterday it was reported in the news that a government report said that sport is not doing enough to tackle homophobia, and figure skating is a pretty homophobic sport. One skater for example, American Johnny Weir, was regularly the victim of homophobic remarks during his career. In Yuri!!! On Ice, the show deliberately references Weir, when a flashback shows Victor wearing an outfit consisting of a crown of roses, similar to one worn by Weir in a competition. Weir has since public expressed his love for the show, as well as many other profession skaters, some of whom even appear in the show. If Yuri!!! On Ice can help tackle homophobia in real life, it has to be good.

If the series has a major problem it is simply this: because it is Japanese, no-one in the UK mainstream media either knows or cares about it. This series has been named “Anime of the Year” in some professional quarters; it has been referenced in South Park; it has dealt with big issues sensitively, but because it comes from so far away, it gets hardly any coverage at all in the British media. If this show was British or American it would be massive. I hope that the series gets a second series in time of the Winter Olympics, because then they might sit up and take notice.

Yuri!!! On Ice is streamed on the websites Crunchyroll (subtitled) and Funimation (dubbed into English). The music to the show, namely the opening theme song “History Maker” by Dean Fujioka, the end theme “You Only Live Once” by Wataru Hatano, and the soundtrack album “Oh SkaTra!!! Yuri!!! On Ice” is available to download via iTunes.