I was not sure whether I should give Yuri!!! on ICE a try. But because of its praise I thought I had to watch it to convince myself of whether or not this anime truly merits its high ratings. And it totally does!
We get to know 23 y/o Yuri Katsuki, a highly skilled figure skater who has just suffered a terrible blow to his career as he lands the last place in the Grand Prix Final competition and travels home to his hometown Hasetsu to see his family for the first time in a long time. Because of this crushing defeat he is unsure whether he should continue figure skating or leave it for good. He is a shy but kind person and highly insecure about his skills, especially after the incident at the Grand Prix Final.
His greatest idol since early childhood, 27 y/o Victor Nikiforov, scored once again the first place and is internationally highly acclaimed. It seems that he is the complete opposite of Yuri K. with his cool attitude, his easy charms and exceptional talent and flair when dancing on the ice. However, he seems to lack the understanding of personal space and his bluntness sometimes borders rudeness.
Meanwhile in Hasetsu, Yuri tries to rekindle his love for figure skating by flawlessly copying one of Nikiforov's choreographies, unaware that his childhood friend has been filming his performance and uploaded it to the net. Since it was tagged with Nikiforov's name and because Yuri himself is quite well known among figure skaters, the video goes viral and eventually reaches Victor Nikiforov himself, whose interest is peaked. Because he has reached the very top of his career and it gets harder and harder to surprise the public with a new and exciting choreography, he decides to leave Russia and travel all the way to Hasetsu (Japan) to train Yuri. While this decision is of course not at all what Victor's trainer had in mind, it is absolutely something that Victor would do, because he seems to be this impulsive, careless type for whom everything somehow just works out.
And so Yuri is surprised at his home by Victor, barging in and declaring he'll train him IF he manages to get back in shape. Yuri feels very uncomfortable at first, because it's not everyday that your idol shows up at your doorstep wanting to train you while exclaiming that you have gotten fat (yes, Victor is very direct). When Yuri Nr. 2 (henceforth Yuri P.) shows up in Yuri K.'s hometown, because Victor promised him (and obviously forgot) to develop a choreography for his figure skating debut in the older age class, Yuri K. and Yuri P. become rivals. Although Yuri K. would prefer to be friends, the always angry and immature 15 y/o Yuri P. makes this impossible. Victor, realizing that he messed up, decides to host a mini competition between Yuri K. and Yuri P. and the winner would then be trained by Victor for the upcoming Grand Prix competition. He assigns each of them a choreography he developed, intentionally choosing the theme that seems less suiting for the individual to provide them with a challenge and to broaden their skillset.
While both Yuris perform wonderfully, Yuri K. makes the cut, as he convinces with his passion more than Yuri P. who is undeniably superior when it comes to technical skill. And so Victor trains Yuri for the new season.
While one might assume that the story focuses on the implied romance between Yuri and Victor, this is not at all the case! Instead, it focuses on the plot, which is quite believable, while still exploring the individual characters (various figure skaters, their backgrounds, troubles and joys). It showcases a variety of choreographies with original music tracks and the hard trainings of the participants, the suspense at the competitions and the mixed feelings when cheering for a friends all the while hoping that it will be you who's moving up. As a former dancer having experienced the pressure of competitions and hard trainings taking up all of your free time, leaving you with blisters and bruises, I felt very nostalgic, remembering those hardships and the immense happiness.
Of course, aside from the main plot and the competitions, we get to see the difficulties in the relationship between an inexperienced coach and an insecure figure skater but also follow their journey of mutual personal growth. It is easy to like the characters, because most of time, the anime feels like a slice of life, despite it clearly being a sports anime. There is resolve for every character, with Yuri P. finding his strength in family and getting more mature, Yuri K. finally learning what it means to be supported and pushed by someone you love and discovering his confidence, and Victor finding out that people require patience and care and that it takes more than sheer skill to be a good coach.
There is humor, sadness, happiness, anger and pain. But none of it is over the top or over exploited.
This is clearly a feel-good anime and the visuals are gorgeous, and I mean gorgeous!! The animation of the choreographies is meticulous and fluid. I enjoyed every second of it. The only negative aspect that one could point out is the focus on too many minor characters and sometimes over-indulging in choreographies of people we are not that interested in.
Despite some moments of second-hand embarrassment (the early Yuri K. is sometimes so clumsy that we want to avert our gaze in shame), the anime is touching and believable, making it one of my favorites so far. I therefore give Yuri!!! on ICE 9/10.
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