Last year, Yuri!!! On ICE took the anime community by storm. Whether it was from the passionate portrayal of figure skating, the queer romance, or the sincere way it cared for its characters, it resonated with many. I’m no exception.
For a little context: I always felt a lot of interest in the LGBT community, even when I was too young to know it by name or understand its implications. I never got too deep into it, but Xena and Gabrielle’s relationship in Xena: Warrior Princess caught my attention in ways others didn’t when I was a little girl. Years later, I researched the history of homosexuality to defend it on a school panel, where I found, among many other things, tales such as the one about Pan Zhang and Wang Zhongxian.
I always liked history and too often I found myself frustrated by how some things used to be. But when I researched homosexuality, I focused on the task with a passion I didn’t quite understand at the time. Looking back now, I can see how my interest, in certain ways, lacked humanity. Pan Zhang and Wang Zhongxian’s story is fine, but I was still thinking of them as fantastical, larger-than-life figures rather than people.
Growing up in a conservative South American community, the homophobia I witnessed got to me in ways I’m ashamed of. While I believed it was unfair to be discriminated against just for loving who you love, I felt weird, uncomfortable even, when I saw something as simple as two men walking hand-in-hand down the street. It was too alien, and I had been trained to think of them as “gross,” as things totally different from normal people.
It was conflicting and confusing, so I sent those feelings away, where I didn’t have to face them. Unfortunately, I could never ignore the condescending and even violent behavior most people would assume when faced with queer themes in fiction—or worse, with actual queer people. Being someone with a deep aversion to conflict, I went through my teenage years encouraging my crushes on boys while shutting down my feelings for girls, convincing myself they were nothing but admiration.
Yuri!!! On Ice came into my life at just the right time. The show kicks off with protagonist Yuri Katsuki at his lowest. He not only loses the Grand Prix Final, he places last after giving, from his perspective, one of the worst performances of his life. It’s understandable: the death of his dog and the intense pressure from the competition caught him off guard. Still, it’s enough to make him consider abandoning everything he has worked for.
It’s a depressing start, but one that deeply resonated with how I was feeling at the time. In fact, the more the show progressed, the more I realized how much of myself I saw in Yuri. Anxious, prone to negativity, sexually repressed, ambitious but with generally bad social skills—even his perception as a “late bloomer” when he’s not really that old—they all touched home. Our lives are definitely different, but in personality, we’re very similar.
This show marked the first time I put myself in a character’s shoes not only out of sympathy, but because I could see myself so perfectly in him. This connection allowed me to experience the show in a way I never had before: I was not only rooting for Yuri, but I felt his feelings and desires as my own.
Victor caught my attention and swept me off my feet right alongside Yuri. Victor is introduced to us as an impressive but distant figure, an unreachable star with skill and talent above everyone else. Yet the show still finds ways to connect Victor and Yuri before they become coach and student. We see this at the very beginning of the first episode during their brief (and disastrous) meeting, but most notably when both skate to “Stammi Vicino, Non Te Ne Andare” (“Stay Close to Me, Never Leave”).
In the aria, we hear a lonely voice reaching out to someone that can relate to their pain, desiring to connect and hold on to that person. In that moment, both are on different continents, but as they skate to the same song and routine, at the same time, it truly feels like they are reaching out to each other. Their love story has yet to start, but I was already invested in these two men that seemed to move together as one.
And for that, I was ecstatic. While watching them skate, not a second went by where I felt weird or uncomfortable. I was absorbed in Yuri’s mental state, in Victor’s graceful movements, and in the beautiful connection established between them. I felt like I knew them.
Yet that scene’s purpose isn’t only to draw a connection between them. By having Yuri successfully skate to the same difficult program as his idol, even if imperfectly, we get a glimpse of what he can truly do. And that’s one of the things that makes this show so important: while love is a driving force behind the story, Yuri!!! On Ice is first and foremost a sports anime.
We primarily get to see the characters’ goals and ambitions as well as the paths they take to achieve them. Falling in love is just part of the journey. Having a romance between two men as just another part of life, in a show with characters who feel like real people rather than overwrought romance novel characters, helped me see them as normal. Because if there’s something that I had discovered throughout the years, it’s that there’s a big difference between telling yourself something is okay, and actually seeing it portrayed and acknowledged by other people.
With them, I found the humanity that was absent from my research. Being exposed to only caricatures of gay people before, and not knowing any (that I knew of) in my real life, I never really felt the need to search for more of it in my shows. I would go so far as to say that I even avoided it.
While Victor and Yuri have many important scenes together, the moments that contributed to shape how I feel about their relationship were specific. Moments that revealed that when Yuri feels down, Victor is able to listen and provide the emotional support he needs, and is also the first to feel overjoyed when Yuri succeeds. Through Yuri, Victor explores new emotions and gains a sense of belonging; in his own words, “Life and Love.” In exchange, Victor motivates Yuri to open up more, and become bolder with his desires.
In retrospect, Yuri, Victor and their world were—and still are—just what I needed. Their relationship might not adopt any straightforward label, but it doesn’t need to. Everything they say and do, and the way the show frames and tells their story, gives me everything I need to know. The fact that they exist in a world that treats their relationship naturally brings me comfort, and makes me feel hopeful for what life could be.
Yuri!!! On Ice’s portrayal of love gave me the freedom and the strength to face something that deep down, I always knew: I like boys, but I’m attracted to my own gender as well. Seeing such a beautiful relationship between two people of the same gender portrayed in a respectful, non-stereotypical way encouraged me to embrace the possibility that I, too, am capable of loving a woman in that way.
We don’t exist in a vacuum; everything we see, everything we’re told through the media we consume or the people that are close to us, have the potential to influence and shape us. When we are unable to see ourselves represented, it influences how we see ourselves. And living alongside hate and prejudice, not allowed to even consider existing outside expected norms and without even an escape through entertainment, is miserable.
Yuri!!! On Ice gave me someone I could see myself in with Yuri, a safe environment to explore my feelings and, perhaps more importantly, a community. The show’s fandom has attracted a lot of queer people, drawn by the sincerity and realism of the characters. The realization of my identity might not have meant much if it weren’t for them, as they proved to me that regardless of where I am, I’m not alone.
With a movie in the works, Yuri!!! On Ice still has the potential to grow. And regardless of where it goes and how people decide to interpret it, it won’t change what it has given me already. It put a face, even if fictional, on a kind of relationship that deep down brought me discomfort. It forced me to confront and grow out of my harmful feelings in ways that didn’t make me feel exposed: by finding fiction that connected with me, and then having access to the stories others in the community shared through the fandom.
One of the stories that stayed with me is one of a woman that recommended the show to her mother. The queer romance put her off at the beginning, but she wanted to humour her daughter, so she watched it anyway. By the time she reached the scene where Victor and Yuri reunite at the airport and literally run into each other’s arms, she was as excited for them as her daughter. It may sound corny, but it’s a particularly special moment in context, and for some, it’s one of the most memorable scenes in the show.
This is how fiction helps begin to break down prejudices. It helped humanize my community, and it gave me the courage to reach out to it when I was too afraid to do so in my own reality. Sayo Yamamoto, Kubo Mitsuro, Tadashi Hiramatsu, and the rest of the hardworking staff involved in making this show are people I’ve never met, yet their work has touched my life deeply. It has changed me for the better. And for that, I’ll always feel grateful.