yuri on ice

Third Thursday Throwback – ‘Yuri On Ice’ Is the Figure Skating Story We Need Right Now

On the heels of a tumultuous figure skating event at the 2022 Olympics, there is no better time to watch Yuri on Ice.

The timing of Subjectify Media’s Third Thursday Throwbacks arrives at a poignant moment in figure skating. The idea for this month’s column was born during the US Figure Skating National Championships in late December when the Olympics were on the horizon of the new year. An apt time as ever to revisit a sport that gains attention every four years with Yuri on Ice. A lot has changed for the sport and this piece in the past few weeks, but the concept of the article stays true to theme. With the third Thursday of the month upon us, here is a review of what makes this particular property worth talking about today!

The Japanese sports anime debuted in 2016 created and written by Mitsurou Kubo and Sayo Yamamoto and aired for a total of 13 episodes. The series centers on the skating career of Yuuri Katsuki, a Japanese figure skater facing the start of another competitive season on the heels of a poor performance on the world stage. Weighed down by the enormous burden of his lack of faith in himself, his idol and competitor Victor Nikiforov, turns up at his family home to shake up his career. The journey to return to the Grand Prix Final sets Yuuri, Victor, and his biggest rival, Yuri Plisetsky, on a journey of self discovery that breaks down barriers to achieve their greatest potential. Yuri on Ice is available to stream dubbed on Funimation and with subtitles on Crunchyroll.

Yuri on Ice may be the one piece of media that has pushed me to do something so wildly out of my comfort zone that every week when I feel what should be a familiar prickling chill sink into my bones as I step into the ice rink, I still question whether or not I’m having an out of body experience. What could have possibly affected me so deeply that well out of my “try new things” stage of life, I decided that taking up figure skating was not only a good idea, but something I would be doing for more than a year?

It all began in December 2020, I took my friends up on a suggestion tossed around in a group chat–you should really watch Yuri on Ice. It does not take much to get me to do something if the magic of the universe works in my favor (aka, I have a bit of a break from my day job, I have access to the media in question, and I like the premise). Two out of three for this suggestion was enough to get me to hit play on Yuri on Ice. But three episodes in, I felt it just was not for me.

The characters were enjoyable enough and although I was not finding myself head over heels for skating, I powered through to episode 4 and the first time stakes were introduced with the first 1-on-1 competition at Ice Castle. It showcased exactly what the stakes were and presented enough intrigue to keep me invested in what each of the three leading men would need to overcome by season’s end. (It also helped that I was watching with subtitles which did their job to keep me glued to the screen.)

So it went, with that Yuri on Ice had just enough to motivate me to finish the series before I went back to preparing for the end of the year at work. Reader, I was wrong. Very, very wrong. It became a story that lingered. It pulled me back to watch a scene here, another scene there. Maybe just watch those catchy opening credits on YouTube one more time. Within one month, I not only watched the series a few times, but I was finding myself drawn deeper into the world of figure skating as a whole.

Despite growing when ice skating mania was capturing the hearts of America, nothing about the sport ever stuck with me. I knew the name Tara Lipinski, and I think there was a battle among my fourth grade class for who got her for a biography project following her 1998 Olympic Games. Going back as recent as two years ago, I don’t think I could name skaters beyond Lipinski, Johnny Weir, Adam Rippon, or Nancy Kerrigan. What I did know about ice skating was limited to bad rental skates at public rinks for childhood friend’s birthday parties and the two or three times I braved the Bryant Park public rink during the holidays in New York City never straying too far from the wall.

Anyone who knows me will tell you it takes very little for me to spiral out of control into borderline obsessive interest if something compelling catches my attention. Sports and television shows are my tried and true loves and should naturally go hand in hand, but the combination of the two never catch my interest unless it is a docuseries.

I’ll watch any sporting event: the Olympic games, World Cups, annual golf tournaments, playoffs, you name it, I’m there. To me, these series of competitions are similar getting that long awaited Netflix season you’ve been waiting for in that you can’t quite remember what happened last season, but you sure as hell are ready to put everything you have within you to rally the team or player of your choosing. I’d argue that more often than not a sports narrative set up ahead of a live event will see me reduced to tears more easily than if a beloved character dies.

As I began episode 10 on my first viewing of Yuri on Ice, the narrative was giving all signs that we were about to reach the apex of the sports drama. I was invested enough in the sport, the skaters, and the outcomes to be pulled along for the ride. But then the series pulled the rug out from under me. It became the character narrative I did not know I needed to see, wrapped up in the guise of a show about a sport. Forget what happened in the Grand Prix finale, what was now set before me were the motivations of these characters finally coming to light for me at the same time it was happening for them. And it changed the entire story.

Me, finding something new in my 100th viewing of Yuri on Ice

Something about Yuri on Ice took a part of me and refused to let go after that. I couldn’t get it out of my head. The register of Victor’s voice when he calls Yuuri makes me feel warm inside. And the rise and fall of Yuuri’s free skate music tells a better story than 90% of the television I have watched in the past two years. Let’s catch up to the present. Where are we now? It’s February 17, the second week of the 2022 Olympic Games. I’ve seen Yuri on Ice too many times to count. Pork (well, tofu) cutlet bowls are a staple in my recipe book. My Spotify top 5 songs of 2021 included 3 from the show—History Maker in addition to Yuuri’s short program and free skate. Mini Victor is looking at me typing this article from his perch as a sticker on the lower right of my laptop.

But the biggest change is that I have been skating four to six hours every week after impulsively signing up for adult figure skating classes in January 2021. I plan to take my first skating test in June 2022. And I’ve watched a lot of figure skating. Unfortunately the past week has been marked with scandal and heart hurting disappointment, but it hasn’t diminished my newfound love of the sport. If anything it makes me want to celebrate it more.

When I first started this piece, Nathan Chen just skated the performance of his life and secured the gold medal for the United States at the 2022 Olympic Games. I spent a chilly Saturday morning lightheartedly doing my best Jason Brown impression–and failing without the grace of his long limbs and perfect extension–on the ice at my local rink. Controversy surrounding the women’s free skate was nonexistent. But it was about to become relentless as a member of the Russian Olympic Committee team, the favorite for the gold medal and all around absolutely incredible talent, Kamila Valieva, tested positive for a banned substance in December.

A large portion of this article has not changed. It was intended to celebrate the portrayal of mental health in sport on a world stage, but the piece took on a very different meaning as Valieva broke under the weight of what had to be the hardest 10 days of her skating career. At only 15, Valieva’s performance in the short program and free skate in the team event, were nothing short of spectacular. Those same events just a week later featured an unsettled Valieva about to perform the same two programs in the individual event. Regardless of the outcome of her performance, which was a not shocking first place for the short, the entire event was already tainted.

If she held onto the top spot in the free skate, there would be no medal ceremony and she would forever have an asterisk next to her name. This morning, up with sun to watch the conclusion of the women’s individual event, Valieva had some tough competition and seemed as rattled as she has looked all week in practice and ahead of her first event. But that was nothing like the sinking feeling of watching her crumble on the ice. Falling more than once, missing steps, and ultimately breaking down once she reached the kiss and cry, Valieva was not only off the podium, but off the tongues of even the commentators.

Silence was what we were met with as viewers at home. Commentators Johnny Weir, Tara Lipinski, and Terry Gannon kept the notes to a minimum, but the sentiment was clear over the past few days of interviews and event coverage–she should not have skated, the adults around her need to be held responsible, and it has cast a shadow on the entire women’s event. And at the end of the competition she was not only crushed, but her teammates, the silver and gold medalists of the event, were left upset and alone losing any chance at celebrating their achievements.

If you have been watching the Olympics and are looking for more figure skating that tackles the mentality of the sport from a place of love and compassion, check out Yuri on Ice. And then talk to me about it immediately.

At the heart of Yuri on Ice is Yuuri Katsuki, one of the dime a dozen figure skaters on the international circuit. We are passengers alongside Yuuri as he tells us the story from his perspective. When he says that he is one of the “dime a dozen skaters” he is casting himself in a place where anyone can compete at the level he is competing at. For the first three viewings of the show I knew how down on himself Yuuri was, but even I had no idea what level he was competing at. It’s high. Very high.

This post does a great job placing it in perspective, but watching Nathan Chen perform quad after quad in his programs during the US Nationals and the Olympic Games, I finally, finally get it. Not to mention that when we see Yuuri at the opening, he has just competed on the same ice as his idol, who just happens to be the best skater in the world, Russia’s boy with the golden skates, Victor Nikiforov.

What Yuuri cannot see in himself others see in him in spades. We quickly meet the Russian punk Yuri Plisetsky, who is about to make his senior debut after training under Victor’s shadow his entire life thus far. Though he is abrasive and aggravated with Yuuri who completely lost it on the ice, his anger is coming from seeing the toughest competition losing it on the largest stage and getting in his head that it could be any of the competition he needs to prove himself against. He doesn’t want to compete against the Yuuri who fell apart under the pressure, he wants to beat the Yuuris and Victors at their best.

Then there is Victor, my all time favorite disaster character if I’ve ever met one on screen. There is so much we do not know about Victor Nikiforov—and won’t until the fabled Ice Adolescence makes its way out of MAPPA studios—and perhaps that is why I feel so drawn to him. For the first 9 episodes of the series we see a competitor who is seemingly just bored at the top of his career taking a year off to coach a skater who came in last place to his first at the Grand Prix final. Nothing about it makes sense to anyone. Until we hear Victor’s side of the story for one episode and one episode only.

The most important thing to know about Yuuri is that he loves skating. He has a passion that keeps him tied to the rink, the posters on his wall, the commitment to training in the United States away from his home country Japan, and the need to always meet the standard set by those before him. What we don’t see in Yuuri is the motivation to be better, to push his body to achieve more. Imitation is all he feels compelled to do because it keeps him out of his head and keeps the eyes on what he could never be.

But the problem with Yuuri’s thought process is that he is already meeting and surpassing that expectation. In a moment just for him and his childhood friend alone on his home rink an out of shape Yuuri performs a perfect replica of Victor’s world record breaking free skate. Unbeknownst to him, the performance was recorded and posted on the internet where it caught the eye and attention of Victor. Over the course of getting to know Yuuri, Victor tries to cast aside Yuuri’s downtrodden, defeatist attitude as something to ignore, surely no one who is as talented a skater as him would ever really think that he is anything less than extraordinary.

When the tides do not change, Victor finally gives in and takes Yuuri away from the ice for a moment of reflection. What does Yuuri want from Victor, from skating? Yuuri is afraid of being seen as weak in the eyes of anyone, most of all Victor. Yuuri does not want to change Victor, he wants to change himself to be the person Victor deserves. With this admission the ball is in Yuuri’s court for the rest of the series to grow into the skater he thinks Victor wants him to be, when really Victor wants Yuuri to be the skater that he knows he already is.

As the series works its way through the competition circuit to the Grand Prix finale, Yuuri is matched up against skaters who are lesser and equal in skill to him, but who have confidence in spades. The competitors, including Yuri Plisetsky, tested different elements of his progress from keeping his attitude in check. He finds new ways to suppress his nervous energy, and ways to celebrate and express his connection with Victor.

I cannot explain how watching the transformation of Yuuri changes every single time I watch the series. Each time I relate to a different element he is battling. Am I good enough to be doing what people tell me I am good at? Can I trust myself enough to keep pushing forward? What if food is also my great motivator? Is that embarrassing?

From the start of his training with Victor where he first went head to head with Yuri Plisetsky on his home ice, one thing was always going to set Yuuri apart from any other skater–you cannot take your eyes off of him. More than one commentator in the series says this about Yuuri’s skating and while Yuuri focuses on the technical elements of his program more than what he is natural at, Victor tries to draw that passion out of him on the ice. He highlights his strengths in the program, noting his endurance and execution of the step sequences—something Yuuri brushes off as he responds, “at least I have that going for me.”

It was not until watching these Olympics that I got the difference between having a program that is technically challenging and one that is emotionally captivating. Jason Brown, my new obsession in the figure skating world, did something underheard of. He placed sixth in the short program without a single quad. He is one of the few skaters without the element that has become standard for a shot at the podium. But when Jason Brown’s skates hit the ice, there is no place else your eyes want to be than on the long lines he creates with his body, the way his edges seem to kiss the surface of the ice, and the way he embodies the music.

That is exactly what Yuuri does for his audiences, even if it might not be apparent to us watching this cute little animated fly across our laptop screens. That inherent beauty and love is something that cannot be taught, only unleashed. And once Yuuri unleashes even a little bit of it, there is no stopping him.

As the series creeps toward the final skate the series pivots to focus on the entire landscape of the competition. What is going on for every skater on the ice? Are they dealing with the crippling weight of expectation and covering it up with overt confidence [Alexa, play Theme of King J. J.]? Are they stoically quiet taking stolen moments with the competition because they are aching for some companionship but don’t know how to access it? Or are they just a kid making their senior debut, desperate to feel seen as a skater in their own right?

As the series reaches the aforementioned episode 10, where Victor takes a stab at narrating his point of view on a rare day off, the series tilts on its head to reveal that it was not the video that set Victor on his path to Yuuri, but it was the catalyst to make him take the first step toward him.

Related: Third Thursday Throwback: SuperBob is the romance the superhero genre deserves

The reveal is best left to a live viewing, but it needs to be said that Victor’s growth in the show, though buried in Yuuri’s story, is extraordinary. The Russian icon has set a bar that nameless faces keep expecting him to surpass. We are not sure where he draws inspiration from in his earlier years, but we get to watch him become inspired over the course of the series and adds another layer to the sport story. Being so ingrained in the drive to constantly surprise the world, when Victor steps back to see his sport from a new perspective, seeing the other competitors outside of the lights and expected performative aspects of competition reminds him of what he loves.

The series is a masterful arrangement of music, jokes, and beautiful heartwarming moments that will melt even the coldest hearts. If you need inspiration after the 2022 women’s figure skating events, I cannot recommend watching Yuri on Ice enough.