Beyond Yuri!!! On ICE: The themes and motifs of Yamamoto Sayo

By: Vrai Kaiser January 25, 201712 Comments

Yuri!!! On ICE might’ve been one of the best things about 2016. I know that’s is a low bar, but roll with me. It engaged viewers inside and outside anime fandom alike, it offered one of the most positive portrayals of a queer relationship I’ve ever seen in anime, and—most importantly—it’s offered me a chance to talk about Yamamoto Sayo, a director whose works have until now struggled to gain attention despite their high quality.

While Mitsurou Kubo has gotten a completely earned bevvy of praise for her hard work writing the story for Yuri!!! on ICE (thanks in no small part, I would suspect, to her availability on social media), any familiarity with Yamamoto’s past works makes it clear that this is very much a joint effort. While many anime directors might not have the same recognizable stamp on their work as the western conception of a (usually film, usually auteur) director, there are exceptions. And Yamomoto, now with three full series under her belt, is proving herself to be as easy to spot as Kon, Watanabe, or Ikuhara.

Fujiko as a young girl with long black hair, sitting on a swing with bright flowers behind her. "Subtitle: Because this is my tale. The Woman Called Fujiko Mine"
The Woman Called Fujiko Mine

For those unaware, Yamamoto has been working in anime for almost 20 years now, getting her first job doing storyboards on the anime adaptation of CLAMP’s X (2001). She got her first big creative break working as an episode director on Samurai Champloo (2004), where she flourished under the mentorship of director Shinichiro Watanabe (Cowboy Bebop). The impact of that experience shows in her work.

While she worked for several years as an episode director and storyboard artist on other series (including Eureka Seven, Death Note, and as recently as Space Dandy), when she was given the chance to direct her first series in 2008, Michiko & Hatchin, it decidedly bore the fingerprints of Samurai Champloo: a cross-country episodic road trip with an impulsive, aggressive, but deep-down good con and a sheltered but clever girl as they chase after a man who might not even be alive anymore.

The show was a financial flop, not even making the sales charts, but well-received enough that in 2012 Yamamoto was given the chance to direct the special series in commemoration of legacy franchise Lupin III’s 40th anniversary: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine. It fared a little better, gaining cult success, but didn’t manage to explode into popularity the way her third series would. Most impressive of all? With both these series, Yamamoto was allowed full creative control.

That gives us three works in total, four years apart and each meticulously crafted (though Yuri!!! on ICE has been even longer in the waiting, supposedly something Kubo and Yamamoto have wanted to do together for years). Here’s hoping that second season of Yuri!!! on ICE breaks the pattern, not just with its rampant popularity but by making it to our screens sooner than 2020. (Of course, it has to actually be confirmed beyond the implications of the ending card first.)

In the meantime, let’s look at some of those recurring themes—and hopefully I can convince you to try out Yamamoto’s older shows while you’re waiting.

Shadow images of a featureless man and woman in 18th century clothes, the man walking away from the woman as she reaches out to him, the story behind the "On Love: Eros" fairytale from Yuri!!! On Ice. Subtitle: "Then he casts her aside, as though he's tired of her,"
Yuri!!! on ICE

Fairy Tale Motifs

It’s not a Yamamoto story without some visual element of the strange or the surreal. While there are traces of this in Michiko & Hatchin, most overtly in “Purgatory: 108C Telepathy,” by The Woman Called Fujiko Mine this had evolved into a full-blown love of using symbolic imagery (stories about stories, usually a la fairytales) to comment on the events of the plot.

Yuri!!! on ICE viewers will no doubt remember the stylistic breaks utilized during the short programs which helped dramatize the story of each skater’s music and choreography. One of the earliest and most striking is perhaps Yuri’s “Eros,” which tells the story of a playboy who fell in love by way of shadow puppetry.

This technique also appeared in The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, wherein the jealous Lieutenant Oscar’s fantasies were played out in the exact same visual style. And both, in turn, seem to be calling back to the seminal Revolutionary Girl Utena—a show that was all about roles, stories, and breaking down restrictive roles as represented by that fairytale imagery.

Utena references are all over the place in Yamomoto’s work, hand in hand with this idea of broken fairytales. There are of course the shadow lessons, inserted to make thematic commentary on the events of the show proper; The Woman Called Fujiko Mine features an episode set in a girl’s school with roses everywhere and a near-replica of Anthy’s greenhouse; and Yuri!!! on ICE has a pair of artistic siblings with an unhealthily close relationship, one of whom is nicknamed “Mickey.”

Fujiko stands behind Isolde in The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, leaning into her neck as if to kiss it. Subtitle: Women never show themselves in their natural form.
The Woman Called Fujiko Mine

Slices of Lives

One of the things that’s helped Yamamoto’s work garner such a unique feel is their international element. All three shows have elements of travelogue to them, imbuing a sense not so much of the western but the worldly. As mentioned, Michiko & Hatchin is a road trip across a fictionalized South American country in the vein of Samurai Champloo, The Woman Called Fujiko Mine is as globe-trotting as the best of the Lupin III canon has always been, and Yuri!!! on ICE offers snippets of lives from around the world congregating on the stage of the ice rink.

Special care is taken in trying to offer a sense of one-off characters living full lives beyond when they cross paths with the protagonists—a trait that might actually be Yuri!!! on ICE’s biggest weakness, since it was bursting with personalities but didn’t focus as clearly on Yuri’s arc as a central unifying element as The Woman Called Fujiko Mine did with Fujiko. Still, there is a sense of “paths crossing.”

The protagonist is almost never central to the character of the week solving their problems, sometimes serving only as bystanders or even catalysts for worse endings (perhaps most tragically in Michiko & Hatchin’s “Stray Cat Milky Way”). It’s a writing sleight of hand that helps the world seem more sketched out and lived-in.

This attempt at complexity is also mirrored by the physical aesthetic of the characters. The shows aren’t necessarily tied to realism in bodily proportions, etc.—one could never call Takeshi Koike’s The Woman Called Fujiko Mine designs realistic—but rather create a sense of weight and impact to the characters’ actions. Take Yuri’s efforts to lose weight early on in Yuri!!! on ICE: the episode takes pains to point out the intense, repetitive effort of that action. 

In The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, scenes of sensuality focus on small elements of body language rather than relying on the notable curves in Fujiko’s design. And all three shows utilize differing clothing designs and even hairstyles for main characters to an almost unheard of degree, when consistent outfit designs are one of the easiest ways to ease budgetary concerns. Little efforts like this help the worlds feel real, in spite of any fantastical elements.

Photograph of Michiko Malandro and her boyfriend, Hiroshi from Michiko & Hatchin
Michiko & Hatchin

The Big Twist

This is bound to be the shortest section, because I’m loathe to talk about it and ruin the potential joy for a first time viewer.

Every series Yamamoto’s directed has featured a twist late in the series that changes how the story up to that point is meant to be read, usually as a means of forcing the audience to reexamine their assumptions in regards to familiar tropes and archetypes—whether it’s Michiko & Hatchin discussing a woman’s story revolving around chasing the absent, nebulous concept of a boyfriend or The Woman Called Fujiko Mine’s contemplation of how women’s stories are told, policed, and stolen.

Yuri lies on the ground in the ice rink as Victor leans over him, both smiling affectionately at each other in Yuri!!! On Ice
Yuri!!! on ICE


Saving the point I find most noteworthy for last, Yamamoto’s work has always gone out of its way to be different. Her work has always looked different from the vast majority of the anime market, and a great deal of that comes down to who she chooses to tell stories about. While there’s always room to debate how effectively these attempts at diversity were executed, it’s heartening to see each of Yamamoto’s successive series work again and again to include these elements.

Michiko & Hatchin’s cast is almost entirely composed of people of color. Yuri!!! on ICE spotlights a broad international cast while working like hell to avoid falling back on cheap, easy stereotypes, whether with people (as with Jean-Jacques Leroy, the brassy, cocksure Canadian) or locations, taking care to treat the visits to each international competition as more than a visit to EPCOT.

Both Michiko & Hatchin and The Woman Called Fujiko Mine contain major characters who are queer (Atsuko Jackson and Lieutenant Oscar, respectively), and the latter’s subplot is very much tied to the damaging aspects of many queer narratives in mainstream media; as well as minor one-off characters. And of course, everyone and their fluffy poodle knows at this point that Yuri!!! on ICE features a groundbreaking depiction of a healthy queer relationship without the fetishization that often comes with the BL label.

And more broadly…Yamamoto writes stories about adults, and adult women at that. Even Yuri!!! on ICE, a show that by its premise focuses on men, took pains to include vibrant female characters at every possible point along the periphery. She goes out of her way to craft stories about women who have goals distinct from their love interests. Even Michiko & Hatchin, a story whose premise is ostensibly about a woman going through hell to get her boyfriend back, winds up concerning itself almost entirely with relationships between women.

When the shows do have child characters, and explore the relationships between children and adults, they’re always cognizant of the maturity gap in a way that other anime too often aren’t. Characters like Yuri Plisetsky and Hana Morenos have different tenors of interaction between their own peer group and with the adults in their lives; characters like Oscar suffer when adults try to take advantage of their youth or fail to acknowledge that there is a difference between an adult and a young person still in need of guidance and support.

Sexy adult women Michiko and Pepệ, talk to young Hana at a bar in Michiko & Hatchin
Michiko & Hatchin

Yamamoto Sayo is a downright gift to the world of anime, a great director who keeps a visible watermark on her work while adapting to the needs of her collaborators and, at times, pushing them to greater heights (if you still can’t believe Okada Mari was the story director on The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, raise your hand).

Yuri on Ice‘s explosive success will hopefully mean great things for the world of anime. I’m hopeful that chief among them will be a newfound willingness to throw funding at one of the industry’s best creative minds.

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