I was not sure what to expect when I tuned in to watch the first episode of ice skating anime, Yuri!!! On ICE. Maybe I was thinking it would be similar to a Supokon-style series from the 1960s and 70s–sports stories where the protagonist would usually be someone who overcomes all odds to succeed through determination. The moral of Supokon is that only through discipline does one deserve victory.

From what we can tell so far, Yuri!!! on ICE certainly seems to have those elements in place, but there is something more. The original, classic Supokon manga and anime were products of their time, mostly peaking around the Mexico Olympics of 1968. Likewise, Yuri!!! on ICE comes at a time when Japan is hungry for more figure skating content.

From the outset, the show looks beautiful, the animation is exquisite, from design to execution. Official sports apparel maker Chacott designed the skating costumes. Former ice dancer Kenji Miyamoto handled the choreography for the ice skating scenes. Everything looks real.

Japan’s love affair with figure skating is a phenomenon which has continued for a few years now. Mao Asada and Miki Ando, both from Nagoya, are partly responsible for this, and remain some of Japan’s best-loved athletes. Sendai-born Yuzuru Hanyu shot to popularity recently with some major record-breaking achievements. With such high-profile celebrity status, of course, comes a keen public interest into their private lives, and the amount of hardship that is behind every success.

Yuri!!! on ICE interweaves these two elements of the figure skater throughout the first episode. It does an impressively effective job in character study through exploration of the interpersonal relationships surrounding our protagonist, Yuri Katsuki. Having finished in last place in the Grand Prix finals, Yuri has lost his self-confidence and is too embarrassed to even be seen with his idol, Viktor Nikiforov. So he packs his bags and returns to his hometown in Kyushu Prefecture. With Nagoya being recognized as a strong training ground for skating thanks to Asada and Ando’s successes, Kyushu is just far away enough so that a certain element of isolation from Honshu (and the rest of the world) works to play up the local support. Old ladies and kids greet Yuri at the train station, which is covered in posters of him. Yuri is torn between the love he had for the enjoyment of skating, and the pressure to decide which career path to go down as a fresh college graduate. Here is where we begin to see the real emotions below the superficial elements. Not only does everything look real, it feels real because of Yuri’s inner turmoil.

One look at Yuri’s idol, Russian skater Viktor’s face tells us all we need to know–he has the self-confidence Yuri does not, and is the unreachable goal that continues to taunt him. Add to this the fact that Yuri Plisetsky, another skater on Viktor’s team, is not only in the enviable position of constantly standing alongside Viktor, but also has an almost identical name to Yuri, and you get a real recipe for self-defeat. Plisetsky is everything Katsuki wants to be, minus perhaps the bullish attitude.

And this is where we come to some echoes of sorts of the old supokon formula. Yuri Katsuki is not Viktor. He can never be Viktor. He is not Yuri Plisetsky, though he may be rather envious of his position. So who is he?

A hint is given during the TV broadcast of Viktor’s beautiful performance, during which Minako, Yuri (Katsuki)’s teacher, drunk and rambling, delivers some half-thought-out musings describing perhaps the very essence of the entire anime: “This kind of thing really resonates when it is done by a more na├»ve, young boy… Not a cool, handsome guy like Viktor…”

Yuri may not know it yet, but perhaps he has something that Viktor doesn’t. His very fragility, his sense of self-doubt, his low self-esteem, his… ordinariness. Everything he seems to hold somewhat in disregard–or actively despise–about himself may very well be the key ingredient that turns his performance into an art. Combining Viktor’s techniques with his heart of glass might just win the hearts of the observers around the globe. All that is left is the Supokon hard work and guts.

Yuri!!! on ICE is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.

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