It's kind of hard to believe, but Yuri!!! on Ice, an anime about a professional figure skater, is easily one of the best series to debut in 2016. While most sports anime tend to rely on jam-packed sports action with fan service sprinkled here and there, one of the best things about Yuri!!! on Ice is that while it maintains its action, it creates new possibilities for anime sports universes.
Yuri!!! on Ice portrays just how diverse people in a sports setting actually are with fully realized characters, competitive skaters from all nationalities and ethnicities, and a romance between two of the characters. It creates a genuine understanding of what the world of competitive figure skating is like and allows the viewers to not only root for the skaters from the stands, but to intimately partake in their lives. It's a character-driven series masquerading as a sports anime and it'll hook you from the very first episode.
While a lot of anime tend to deal with teenagers in a high school setting, series like Tokyo Ghoul have finally started focusing on older characters. Yuri!!! on Ice follows suit with its 23-year-old protagonist, Yuri Katsuki. For adults, Yuri is familiar: someone who is struggling to make a name for themselves, tripping along the way, yet making progress little by little. His resilience is an inspiring story for viewers of any age, but those in their early 20s can definitely relate to his story.
In anime, it’s uncommon for the majority of the characters to be anything but Japanese. Even less common is the inclusion and normalization of non-heterosexual relationships. But what Yuri!!! On Ice does is truly revolutionary in an anime setting.
Due to the show focusing on a worldwide sport, there are characters from Thailand, Russia, Japan, Canada, the United States, China, and Kazakhstan, to name just a few countries. Leaning towards inclusivity rather than adding a "token" character of color or relying on stereotypes, YOI treats each character as an individual. For example, the Canadian character is an overly confident, arrogant competitor, undercutting the stereotype that Canadians are always friendly. Within all of the ethnicities and nationalities, there are also skaters of all ages, ranging from sixteen to twenty-five, and skaters of different sexual orientations, each one represented in a manner that demonstrates their capabilities, regardless of who they are or where they are from.
In pretty much all sports anime - think Haikyuu!!, Free!, or Kuroko no Basuke - there always seems to be some underlying homoerotic tension that leads to either subtle or overt fan service. But the characters involved are always straight. The relationships that are hinted at are never realized, merely fetishized, and this theme is seen over and over again.
Yuri!!! On Ice completely subverts that typical sports anime narrative, and instead of presenting the viewer with mere fan service between Victor and Yuri (okay, maybe a smidge of fan service), their relationship becomes a normalized, developing romance. It is made explicitly clear that these two have feelings for each other, with Yuri making his skating theme “Love” and essentially confessing his feelings on live television. The other skaters are either supportive of or indifferent to their blooming romance, viewing their relationship as normally as they would a heterosexual one. Even through the romantic themes, skating remains the central focus, which further normalizes the idea that a gay relationship is no different than any other one.
In the first episode of Yuri!!! on Ice, Yuri loses a major skating competition, goes into a bathroom stall, and cries over his frustration at losing to Yuri Plistetsky, a skater eight years his junior. Yuri is a sensitive character full of self-doubt, anxiety, and barely any self-worth. As the story goes on and the famous Russian skater Victor Nikiforov travels all the way from Russia in order to become his coach, Yuri doesn’t change overnight. Throughout it all, even as he progresses in his skating, Yuri continues to hang on to his anxieties, slowly working to overcome them with Victor at his side.