Late 2016 saw the release of Yuri On Ice, an animated series about an almost over-the-hill 23 year old Japanese figure skater, Yuri. On the verge of retiring after a disappointing season, Yuri’s idol, and many time world champion, Victor, decides to visit Japan and become Yuri’s coach. Victor’s young teammate, also called Yuri but nicknamed Yurio, follows and competition, intrigue, triples, quads, glutes, and lots of sexual tension follow. The show has blown up among American anime fans, mostly because it’s a compelling story (read: it’s awesome). It also manages to make queer sexuality and male homosociality stand bravely together with a complex and multi-faceted definition of love.
Contemporary male-male friendships are constructed, especially in bro culture, as antithetical to sexual touch and interaction. Terms like ‘bromance’ serve to enforce this boundary by explicitly labeling homosocial activity that might seem romantic as not. The term ‘no-homo,’ when it’s not overtly homophobic, performs similar repair work by literally setting the record straight about actions that could be considered sexual. On the opposite end of the spectrum, stereotypes about bi and gay men cast them as overly sexualized, unfaithful, and always just out to get laid. Yuri On Ice resists these trends by depicting male connections which are deliciously ambiguous (well, most of the time), and focused on love.
Love, indeed, is the main theme of the show. Well, ice skating gets all the screen time, but as each skater performs, we gain access to their interiority. With few deviations, routines in Yuri On Ice show skaters attempting to portray, display, or transmit their idea of love through their performance. Sometimes this is named explicitly, as in the ‘Eros’ and ‘Agape’ routines that the two Yuris compete with. Yurio thinks of his devoted grandfather and uses that image to motivate his interpretation of the selfless love ‘Agape.’ Yuri, on the other hand, cannot seem to find ‘Eros’ in his life: the choreography he’s working with is based on the idea of a rakish besuited man seducing a town full of women. By adopting femininity and imagining himself instead as a seductress, however, Yuri finds his own meaning of Eros.
This appropriation of femininity is homoerotic (though I don’t want to spoil exactly how), but it’s not, I’d argue, over-sexualized. Yuri’s performance is romantic and alluring, but because of its juxtaposition with other skaters, finds space between the platonic and the purely erotic. Obvious sexualization is mostly left for Chris, whose routines include grabbing his own ass with both hands and who seems to finish more than just his choreography when he’s done skating. It’s hot and it’s humorous, and Chris doesn’t end up as a just a stereotype, he’s also friends with the main characters, and the only time they share a bed they’re only horsing around. Chris, then, shows that male sexuality can comfortably coexist with physically intimate (though not sexual) friendship.
But I’m making the show sound didactic. It’s not! Instead, you get caught up in men’s figure skating, learning the difference between salchows and toe-loops, short programs and free skates, difficulty and performance scores. Yuri On Ice is so fun to watch that its anti-homophobic work just washes over you. It’s only 12 episodes, each 20 minutes long, so you could watch the whole thing in one day. Don’t though, this boy-boy love is so sweet that you’ll want to make it last.