When animation fails to sell the sport (Yuri!!! on Ice)

Wait! Don’t take out the pitchforks yet!

I realize I’m walking on thin ice (sorry) with this one so let me break that ice (sorry) by saying I really enjoyed Yuri on Ice on the whole. Its cast is vibrant and its depiction of a same-sex relationship continues to be a hot topic in the anime community for good reason. These are the elements that kept me watching. But unfortunately I can’t say the same for its figure skating.

Look, I’m not a sports person. I tend to stay clear of sports anime. When I do poke my head into the genre it needs to sell me on its weapon of choice, usually by making me care about characters who in turn care about the sport.

But figure skating requires a more deft hand. It’s almost better classified as a physical art rather than a sport. Skaters are really actors, performing a story or emotional nuance through their motions. It just so happens to require physical exertion beyond typical acting. Because of this, depicting figure skating has a hefty animation burden, one that may be out of the reach of a TV anime to pull off properly.

That’s the crux of my issue with Yuri on Ice: to my untrained eye it all looks the same. The series tries to convey what makes each routine unique but the animation fails to convey any sense of said uniqueness, let alone the grand stories spoken of in narration. To someone like me the sport comes across as little more than a set of spins and sways set to music; I have no way to measure how one performance stacks up to another.

If the skating happened in focused bursts this would be less of a problem but the characters never stop skating. After the first few episodes you end up in a string of competitions that span the entire series consisting of one skating sequence after another. Judges give out scores that seem somewhat arbitrary unless you understand the sport and it stops being engaging quickly. It’s the equivalent of being the only person at the bar who doesn’t jump out of their seat when a team makes a winning play.

This is also the feeling I got when characters had big emotional responses to what was happening on the ice. It’s the type of dissonance that would have turned me off of the show entirely if I hadn’t bought into its cast already. Sure, the narration does its best to keep you in the loop but having something explained to you has far less impact that a guttural reaction in the moment, thus it’s never fun to be the odd one out at the bar.

Yet perhaps my critique is less that the figure skating all looked the same or that I was unable to fully grasp it– teaching people the entire nuance of the sport is out of the series’ scope, after all– but that so much screen time was given to it. Did we really need to see the routine of every person in every competition? The performances of the side characters could have been looped into a montage so we could focus on the core cast. There are spans in the middle of the series where they are barely developed because other competitors with little relevance to anything are hogging the spotlight. It’d be a win-win: give us more of the characters we love while cutting down on repetition.

I still enjoyed Yuri on Ice quite a bit and respect what it stands for. The heavy focus on a sport it struggled to articulate left me unfulfilled, though. When the series gets an inevitable second season I hope they opt to focus more on character moments and find new ways to express the “on ice” portions. If this happens I’ll be happy to give it the gold medal.

24 thoughts on “When animation fails to sell the sport (Yuri!!! on Ice)

  1. Oh, c’mon. This post is harmless. I don’t think anyone’s going to flip shit for you criticizing the show for not being very faithful to the art of ice skating. Most of the fanfare is for the design and the characters and their interactions.

    Take it from me, who penned that Yurri and Victor didn’t feel like a genuine romantic couple.

    “It’s the type of dissonance that would have turned me off of the show entirely if I hadn’t bought into its cast already. . .”

    This is a very smart remark. Because it applies directly to why I didn’t much care for the show. If the characters don’t work for ya, the show basically fails, as that’s what it most focuses on.

    However, I will disagree to an extent on your point. I don’t think all of the performances blended in with one another, though I’m sure some were more similar to others. I remember specifically being impressed with Yuri’s (Russian) performance near the end, as it had a sense of grace and finesse to it that most of the other skaters lacked, somewhat similar to Victor before him. And Yurri’s skating was more mechanical, more based upon the efficiency of the skating and technique, though he tries with all his might to make it emotional. I think these two alone made the skating performances better, though I agree that the skating by others one after another got really old really fast.

    Great post.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. To be fair, I think the “objective qualifications” are fairly simple to pick up. Have the movements convey a theme (such as that one dude’s sexiness thing), and don’t fuck up spins and axels.

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      2. I understand those are what they are but I don’t understand the full extent of the scoring system, especially when (spoilers, I guess) the top two competitors in the Grand Prix are 1/10th of a percentage away from one another.

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      3. I always assumed it was something like a score of 0 to 100 to a single decimal like 99.9 decided by three judges who combined their scores. Not certain on that, but that’s what it looked to me. I think it was all just subjective gobbledygook.

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      4. First off, it goes over 100. But by watching the animated performances could you *really* figure out even a ballpark of where the score would land? Some of those routines were nearly identical (to me, at least) but came up with wildly different results.

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      5. Yeah, there were times when I felt like “Eh, that was okay, I guess,” only to have the judges give it, like, perfect scores. And vice-versa. But for the most part I was able to tell based on the situation and the way the anime builds up the character before their performance, so I think it’s easy to distinguish what performances were good and what were “AMAZING.” Like JJ’s first performance. That one dude who randomly becomes friends with Yuri’s first performance. And Yuri and Yurri’s last performances.

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  2. I think the key point I agree with is that the skating routines didn’t feel particularly individualized which not only meant that they could grow tiresome at times but that they were poor at exhibiting the growth and change we were seeing outside of the rink. The show isn’t nearly incompetent in this regard and as Kopo says, there are a few routines like Yurio’s final performance which do speak to the character’s development but look at how different that one was. It had additional animation cuts, a far more intense internal dialogue than usual, and from what I remember – far more spirited spectator shots than you typically see during the routines.

    Most of the performances just kind of recycled the same sequences with varying voice-over dialogue and didn’t bring the same kind of attention to growth to the table. When you see their routines start up for the 4th or 5th time, not only is hard to distinguish between them but its hard to tell how the performance has changed for the performer. The score often changes but it’s a non-visual indicator. Now, as you point out, sandwich it all between a endless stream of less important skating routines and that leaves little time to add additional details or even linger on the performance afterwards in some cases which further dulls the show’s ability to address its character development on the ice.

    I think the show was interested in doing other stuff and wanted to put the bulk of its time towards providing a seemingly authentic competition between a lot of different skaters. So with the exception of a few of the initial and ending performances, I agree with your stance.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I’m not sure why I cut out the bit from an earlier draft of this where I said the opening and ending performances were all fantastic. Regardless, I absolutely agree with that sentiment.

      Also, in the thread with Kapodaco I mentioned that what I really wanted was to be able to distinguish a truly good performance outside of orchestral music, dramatic voiceovers and more focused direction. Sure, it distinguishes that it’s the *big performance* but it means a lot less when it’s so blatantly obvious. At least to me.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Agreed. I think a handful of subtle yet meaningful differences added to many of the middsection performances would have helped them standout and accentuate the character’s development without being so obvious. Something like Rakugo Shinjuu”s performances *cough cough*.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. This was a fantastic post which I would agree with for the most part. The expressiveness of some of the body movement was better than most. (i.e. Viktor’s first skating scene in episode 1) but sometimes they fell short. I had to do research myself and figure out what the heck was different between a flip, toe loop and an axel. It boiled down to which foot and which direction (front ways or skating backward) you were taking off from. Great post, I don’t think anyone should give you crap for this!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I had a similar, yet lesser issue with Your lie in April, it was less because the focus was on the music, which is less burden on the animation, but the competitions blended together more and more, the different musics helped, but not enough in my case.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I guess I don’t need to write a post about this now.

    You hit on most of the points – the only other one I can think of in terms of “failing to sell the story” is the expository scenes with a tell not show approach, and a small Yuri explaining things to the audience that gets in the way of immersion.

    Nice post.
    ~ Ace

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t have a problem with the chibi Yuri cut-ins personally. The show needed to get that information out somehow and by stylizing it (and making it quick) it alleviated the sense of being force-fed information. And I think most of all they just set the tone for the show.

      Liked by 1 person

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  7. I liked the skating and did feel the differences between the routines though I’ll admit that probably had more to do with music and narration than animation. I’m not that discerning when it comes to animation unless it is particularly hideous. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Yuri On Ice

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Personally, I don’t have a complaint with how they showcased every talent but as for your point, if Season does come, maybe they would be able to do a better job on that front. According to what I know, Yuuri On ice!! was originally a low budget project for what it tried to achieve, so maybe now that they have better ground, they can improve on the animation too.

    Liked by 1 person

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  10. Kat

    I loved all of the skating!! But I grew up always watching it. I was obsessed with Michelle Kwan as a kid. That being said I understand what you’re saying. Even when we watch legitimate skating competitions together my husband is totally lost. I’ll be freaking out like, “Oh no that was so bad!” And he’s just like, “But they landed.” Haha and I’m trying to explain how it wasn’t a full rotation or they’re foot stepped out. So for me bc I love watching skating I loved all of the routines and thought they were all unique to the characters but I can understand how if you were unfamiliar with the sport it wouldn’t be as entertaining. Nice post! It was cool to read another perspective:)

    Liked by 2 people

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