First airing back during the Autumn season of 2016, Yuri!!! on ice became a cultural phenomenon with splitting the anime watching community into two vocal camps: those who loved the show and loved to rave about it, and those who hated the show and held the fandom in contempt for expressing such high praise for the show. I must admit at the time this was happening I didn't watch Yuri!!! on ice, choosing to remain on the sidelines, just watching the spectacle of this drama unfold. Now that things have settled down, and being given the opportunity to watch this show; I approached this show with an open mind. When I first mentioned I'd be watching it for review I had the show described to me by several people as a “Marmite anime,” a statement that derives from Marmite's advertising strategy, playing on the idea that people either love or hate their product. This was also my understanding given the amount of discourse around the show at it's time of airing giving weight to each side of the argument. From this I realised I had to get this idea out of my head. I wanted to go in fresh. Not wanting to have a pre-conceived notion of “I'm going to hate this thing aren't I?” or “it's popular so it must be good,” I left these at the door and went in willing to give Yuri!!! on ice a fair chance to show me what it has to offer.
First of all let's discuss the plot of Yuri!!! on ice. The show is the story of Yuri Katsuki, a professional male figure skater who has found himself in a slump after a very poor performance during the most recent competitive season. Wanting to recharge and figure out what he wants to do moving forward, he goes home. While in an effort to seek motivation and clear his head, he visits the local ice-skating rink run by his childhood friend Yuko. During his time there he shows her a routine he's been practising that emulates a routine of the world's top skater – Victor Nikiforov. Unbeknownst to Yuri, Yuko's daughters were secretly recording his routine and uploaded it to youtube. The video goes viral and gets the attention of Victor himself. After seeing this, Victor comes to Japan and announces that he'll be Yuri's skating coach for the foreseeable future. Thus begins Yuri's growth as a skater and also the start of the growth of the relationship between Yuri and Victor.
The show itself is a 12 episode sports show revolving around figure skating. The approach Yuri!!! on ice takes with this genre is having the lead character already be a professional in the sport but who has fallen on hard times. This is done by Yuri and Victor working to overcome Yuri's shortcomings and develop Yuri into a better skater. At first we see Victor's attempts to do this by getting to know Yuri better, done in direct and indirect methods such as asking him outright about what his interests are, asking his family and friends about him and observing his behaviours. This in turn leads Victor to know more about Yuri and tailor his approach to him in order to give him some more confidence in his abilities in a skater and choreograph a skating routine just for him. At the same time as this Yuri also gains a direct rival for Victor's attention: a skater from Russia also named Yuri. To avoid confusion he is given the nickname Yurio. For the first three episodes the rivalry between the two Yuris takes centre stage which culminates in a competition between the two to see who can encapsulate the theme of a routine that has been coordinated by Victor the best through their skating.
After this the show opens up and takes place over the best part of a year showing Yuri skating at several events around the world, all with Victor by his side to support him in his endeavours. From this Yuri!!! on ice introduces the audience to several characters from different nations. Funnily enough not having to rely on pre-conceived stereotypes to explain their characters, each have their own personality and add fun things into the mix. The best example is that one character who skates to his own theme song that is about how awesome he is, making great use of the music, skating aspect and audience participation to make his scenes fun. Tied into this is also the great use of music in the show. Using classical pieces, original compositions that are composed just for the skater and pieces unique for the show that are homages to real songs.
With regards to figure skating itself there are times when the animation looks really good, with very fluid motions and great timing to the music. There are times when things go slightly off model especially with the faces and proportions of the characters during their skating routines. However it gives the routines charm. With regards to the routines Yuri and the rest of the characters only skate two routines which are repeated throughout the show meaning that one character you'll see skate the same routine around six times throughout the show (The Endless skate? - Ed). At first this can be portrayed as lazy or repetitive but on further reflection I realised that this choice would make complete sense in the context of the show: Yuri is skating routines he hasn't truly mastered yet in the show. So it would make sense to see him keep skating them instead of moving on to something new. Each time he skates his routines he makes small variations depending on his mood, mistakes he makes during the performance and what score he may need at the time. I found this a clever way to show how Yuri was progressing as a skater, constantly evolving the same routine till he gets it perfectly right.
From this emphasis on routines you'd expect the show to do what mostly all other sports anime do and explain the rules of figure skating so the viewer can fully appreciate what's going on. This isn't the case here: instead we get a few moments where the show briefly explains how scoring works for figure skating, done mainly as a quick aside to let you know that the absolute basics of a routine and how it is scored. The most we get about how the scoring system works is during one routine where a skater does mental arithmetic to calculate what their score will be when they finish, giving some insight into process but nothing more. From this it is evident that the sport in the show is all about the spectacle rather than a full explanation and analysis of it.
While skating is the main aspect of the show the other aspect that ties directly into this and runs parallel is the blossoming romance between Yuri and Victor. I'm going to be completely honest here. When watching the show this aspect did nothing for me. I wasn't getting the same responses as I did when watching other romance shows or seeing other relationships develop. At the same time though nothing I saw ever put me off. Upon reflecting back on the relationship aspect as a whole I made the realisation why this was different in this show compared to others and understood what was great about it. The show handles the growth and change in relationships very subtly. This is done by all of Yuri and Victor's main interactions be about figure skating and them being together as part of a coach and student relationship. At times it looks like things are progressing but this is done in a natural fashion and is not outright stated. There are a few overt moments with how close the characters faces get to each other, exchanging rings in one episode as a sign of a promise and one characters reaction to the idea of them ending their current arrangement. While at the time I was so invested in Yuri's career as a figure skater and Victor helping him I saw these moments to be in service of this and didn't fully comprehend the significance of them. Looking back of the interactions as a whole I realise why some fans really do pick up on these interactions and fully appreciated them.
With regards to other things the show does. It has this odd self aware comedic edge where it has one episode show TED from the Seth MacFarlane film in the audience, one character look like Eric Cartman from South Park in a flashback as well as other visual gags and jokes. Along with this the Funimation dub is really on point with some fun dialogue, great jokes and some very charming fake accents. Where the show falls short though is that there doesn't seem to be enough sense of drama at least compared to other sports shows. Each competitor just gets on with their own routine and does their own thing. There doesn't seem to be that high stakes if Yuri loses, apart from his own sense of failure and in terms of understanding figure skating I don't fully understand how it works only knowing that certain jumps are worth more and done in certain times during the routine affects the score.
The last two episodes feel like it's rushing towards its conclusion. While it is nice it ties up the completion before it finishes it feels like it may have needed more episodes to give more characters focus and raise the stakes a bit.
So to sum up this review: I went into Yuri!!! on ice with a clear and open mind. In the end I was surprised I got a rather good show about figure skating with a relationship dynamic that was subtly changing over time throughout the show's run. While I can see why this show can be a Marmite series, there is a lot I do like about it though and can now completely understand why this show has gathered the fan base it has. Overall I had fun watching this show. I enjoyed my time with it.