Queer Representation in Yuri On Ice

Note: This writer intentionally uses the word queer as an all-inclusive team for the LGBT community, and does not wish to trigger anyone who finds the term offensive.

Nearing the end of my Junior Fall Semester, caught in a wave of internet surfing, I checked out some clips from a series that had been gaining a lot of attention: Yuri On Ice. From the amount of hype about the show, I had expected something interesting. What I did not expect was to be so immediately and thoroughly captivated by the series for its amazing portrayal of diversity.

Yuri On Ice is an anime released in 2016 by Japanese animation studio MAPPA, written by Mitsurō Kubo, and directed by Sayo Yamamoto (who also directed Michiko to Hatchin). The series revolves around the intersecting storylines of two characters: Yuri Katsuki, a talented, yet insecure competitive figure skater, and Victor Nikiforov, a five-time gold-medalist, and Yuri Katsuki's idol, who travels to Japan to personally coach him. Although there many reasons for its success — stunning animation, beautiful musical soundtrack, exciting choreography, racial diversity — I want to focus on the beautiful and blatant queerness of this series.

The queerness in Yuri on Ice is non-negotiable. The queerness of the characters is explicitly seen in moments where Victor is seen to admired by both men and women (when he winks at his audience, both men and women have hearts in their eyes) and other ongoing moments throughout the first episode. Within the first arc of the series, there are obvious hints that an attraction (romantic, and possibly sexual) is developing between the two main characters, with blushing and body language that creates an air of sensuality that is both intoxicating and refreshing. Furthermore, it is strongly implied that Yuri is bisexual: as he had a crush on his former female rink mate, Yuko, and he blushes whenever Victor flirts with him.

Here the average viewer might become wary, either hesitant to label a relationship between two characters of the same sex as romantically or sexually intimate out of fear that it isn't cannon or refusal to acknowledge same-sex couples at all. Some viewers might suspect queer-baiting, an aggravating trope in which a romantic or sexual relationship between two characters of the same sex is implied, but never fulfilled, a tempting promise of LGBT representation that never actually happens (which is what makes this trope is so annoying). Yet the show moves beyond this, becoming increasingly queer with each episode, to the point that a viewer would have to shut their eyes and clap their hands over their ears, yelling "LA LA LA" at the top of their lungs to avoid recognizing the relationship between these two characters.

The amount of attention given to Yuri and Victor's relationship is incredible, as their connection develops naturally over time, built by mutual trust and intimacy. Yuri’s initial reluctance to connect with Victor has nothing to do with Victor's gender, but rather with his own shyness confronting his childhood idol and general insecurities about his skating abilities. Throughout the series, as the two interact with other, both professionally and personally, they (especially Yuri) come to recognize each other as human with flaws and insecurities, yet are ultimately devoted to sharing their accomplishments and making each other happy. The series also portrays an easy physical affection between the two — hugging, casual touching, grooming (which in Japanese culture is a sign of incredible intimacy) — showing touch that is not shown as disgusting or fetishistic. Moreover, varying degrees of sexuality are respected here, as Victor is seen to be openly flirtatious and comfortable with his body, yet makes no aggressive moves that make Yuri uncomfortable, and though Yuri is shy and introverted, through his interactions with Victor, he begins to pursue Victor in a more beguiling manner, exploring his eros to the fullest degree. Furthermore, the open communication between the two is unbelievable to watch. Both of these characters are very human, they both make have moments of misunderstanding and make mistakes, yet instead of resenting or hurting each for those mistakes, Yuri and Victor take time to communicate and listen to what the other person needs, and try to do better — something that every relationship needs, straight or queer.

Yuri on Ice also does an incredible job of portraying mental illness. Although not explicitly stated, Yuri Katsuki shows all the symptoms of some form of anxiety disorder: intrusive thoughts, unhealthy eating habits, and a lack of confidence in his own abilities. Victor not only recognizes this, but helps Yuri when he is feeling anxious by taking the time to ask him what he needs and trying to help him avoid stressful environments that trigger him.

Another form of queerness represented in the series is gender nonconforming presentation. One of the other supporting characters, Yuri Plisetsky, the other "Yuri," from Russia, is an ice skating prodigy, who had already won gold medals in junior champions at the tender age of fifteen and now competes against older, more experienced skaters throughout the series. He is also on of the most androgynous characters, nicknamed the "Fairy of Russia" for his natural grace and feminine appearance. Yet no one ever makes fun of him. In fact, Yuri P. is prized for these qualities, and has other nicknames attributed to him such as the "Russian Punk," "Ice Tiger," and "soldier" for his fierceness in competition and brashness off the ice. In addition to being a famous figure skater, Yuri P. is also allowed to act like a teenager, brash and arrogant, moody and vulnerable, always able to take pride in his skills and appearance without being shamed for it. Other examples of gender nonconforming presentation include Victor's own navigation of androgyny, including competing with long hair, wearing a crown of flowers, and wearing costumes that, in his words "suggested both male and female genders at once." This inspires Yuri Katsuki when he decides that the "masculine" aura didn't quite fit suit him, and pursues a more feminine style in his routines, which ends up undeniably sexy and beautiful. Furthermore, several of the other skaters in the series wear makeup, sequins, and feathers during their routine without ever being shamed for it.

Not only does Yuri on Ice focus on the developing attraction between two men, but also between two men from different backgrounds, as Yuri is native-born Japanese and Victor is native-born Russian. The fact that a relationship develops between these two men, both from countries with anti-LGBT attitudes and policies (Japan does not have an open policy of discussing LGBT issues and few legal protections for LGBT citizens, and Russia…enough said), not to mention the actual political tensions between Japan and Russia, seems to me both rebellious and defiant. Neither man fetishizes or tokenizes the other, as Yuri is not considered weaker or effeminate because he is Japanese nor does Victor ever fall into the trope of "sinful white foreigner" or "white savior." Both men are unique, dynamic characters, who are sometimes silly and serious, sometimes sad and frustrated, and they respect and learn from each other's cultures, without ever acting as stereotypes of their nationality or race.

Yuri on Ice has been criticized the show for its lack of real-life issues like homophobia. Some viewers have labeled the series unrealistic because the main characters never face discrimination or harassment, or experience negative attitudes directed toward queerness. Some viewers have even described the series as an erasure of the very real issues that LGBT people continue to face in the real world, particularly in the world of figure skating, in which gender roles still dominate, and LGBT skaters have been criticized for their gender nonconforming behavior or having same-sex partners, as seen in the case of famous figure-skater Johnny Weir (Weir was a source of inspiration for this series, as seen in characters' costumes that are similar to costumes he has worn, and is himself a fan of the show). And this perspective is totally legitimate. The world has a very real issue of ignoring the problems that plague the LGBT community and those problems need to be addressed in media in order to validate those struggles.

On the other hand, viewers like me have found the lack of homophobia refreshing, a breath of fresh air in the socio-political storm of 2016 (and beyond). For me, Yuri on Ice means so much personally in terms of representation. I identify as a Jewish Russian-Ukrainian-American queer woman. Because I am first generation, have nearly accent-less English (after years of speech therapy, mind you), and am white-passing, I have privileges that others around me don't, and don’t face the same severity of prejudice or discrimination. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean I don’t feel indirectly attacked or scared to be who I am. In Russia, I would have two strikes against me: one because I am Jewish and two because I am queer. The possibility of taking a same-sex or non-binary partner to the country of my parents' birth at this point in my life is impossible, if not terrifying, and because of its history and current bouts of extreme anti-Semitism, it boils my blood to the point that I have little desire to go there anyway. A fact that is sad and infuriating to me at the same time. Furthermore, depictions of Russians in media have never been favorable, often falling into stereotypical villain roles, of spies and criminals and assassins, going all the way back to Cold War propaganda. Russians are often depicted as cruel, apathetic, and homophobic, with terrible fake accents.

For me, seeing Victor, a non-stereotypical Russian man, a person who is his country’s national hero, who is openly in love with his male partner is something I have not seen before. To see any character who is queer and happy and Russian is something I have never seen before, a realization that left me with a feeling of excitement and sadness.

Furthermore, taking homophobia out of fiction has immense power in itself. In her article "Taking the Homophobia out of Fantasy," Malinda Lo remarks on how as a queer Asian American writer, she makes an active choice to portray non-heteronormative relationships in a world where sexual orientation doesn't matter (in the sense that there's no shame associated with it).

Personally, I want desperately to read more books in which homophobia is not an issue, but people still fall in love with others of the same sex. That's the kind of world I want to live in, so I'm not surprised that I write those worlds and want to read about more of them. Being gay, lesbian or bisexual isn't an issue. Homophobia is an issue. While it's a significant problem in the real world, I think that leaving it behind in a fantasy world is a wonderful and empowering way to say that being gay really is OK.

Writer and producer, Jane Espenson once said: "If we can't write diversity into sci-fi, then what's the point? You don't create new worlds to give them all the same limits of the old ones." In regards to the narrative vision of Yuri on Ice, lead writer Mitsurō Kubo tweeted: "No matter what real people think about this anime, within its world no one is ever going to be discriminated against because of what they like. And that is something I will always protect."

To me, Yuri on Ice represents a world that I wish could be my reality, in which queerness can be explored without fear of discrimination, and that is a vision that should be encouraged and protected. This series is important for a number of reasons. It's important because we live in a world that has dating profiles that list no femmes, no Asians, a world that prioritizes masculinity over femininity and genderqueer-ness, a world that prizes Caucasian partners over partners of color, a world that shames and invalidates mental illness, a world that says that queer romance will never be as authentic or as beautiful as heterosexual romance, a world that says queerness in general is wrong, especially in the current political climate, in which the civil rights and safety of the LGBT community are more threatened than ever.

In recent years, the LGBT community has gained more diverse and nuanced portrayals on television and in film, but unfortunately, we are still given the leftovers, often the burnt pieces, with queer characters killed off as plot devices. Rarely do we see representation that shows a same-sex interracial relationship in which neither partner is fetishized or tokenized, in which both characters have struggles and fears beyond their sexuality, in which their mental illnesses are validated, a relationship that develops over time, in which partners give and receive affection and respect, through trust and love.

Yuri On Ice is validation. Diversity is validated, various sexual orientations and gender identities are validated, mental illness is validated, and love literally wins.


Note: In English subtitles, whenever the characters refer to a boyfriend or girlfriend, they often use the Japanese word koibito (こいびと), a gender-neutral romantic term, akin to partner or lover in English.

Watch Yuri on Ice on Funimation now!