Malleable Designs in Yuri!!! on Ice
Yuri!!! On Ice utilizes malleable character designs to communicate varying character identities, relationships, and motivations. This malleability can be seen as early as Episode 1, but Episode 5 provides the best and most interesting example so far. Yuri’s face modelling and costume both change between his performances to reflect significant changes within and around his character.
Yuri’s first performance is clearly motivated by a desire to execute what he has practiced and impress Victor. Or, rather, to “seduce” Victor. We’ve already seen the androgynous, half-skirted costume in earlier episodes, and it has come to represent both Yuri’s idolization of Victor and his efforts to become a “pork cutlet bowl fatale that enthralls men.” These are two important aspects of Yuri’s identity. In his relationship with Victor, he has (at least up until this point) been submissive. He looks up to Victor, he is Victor’s student, and he performs for Victor’s attention. He manifests this in his efforts to become something beautiful and seductive, something he transforms into on the ice. He spends early episodes learning what his “eros” is, and thus what this identity is. As he explains at the end of Episode 5, he was unfamiliar with love and had to discover it under Victor’s tutelage.
The costume obviously blends this identity with its androgynous design and the fact that it used to be Victor’s. In a way, Yuri’s first performance is one of him attempting to be more like Victor, or perhaps more like what Victor represents to him and taught him. This is not an identity Yuri constructed himself. Victor played a major role in the discovery of this identity, and the seductive Yuri is very much tied to Yuri’s relationship with Victor. This identity is a side of Yuri that comes out for—I would argue also because of—Victor. At the end of his first performance, we see a close-up of Yuri’s feminized face. His more masculine features have melted away; his face is now smooth and blushing. In a way, this is evidence of Yuri’s transforming identity—he has brought out the seductive Yuri for this performance.
This gets much more interesting with the arrival of Minami, who idolizes Yuri much in the same way Yuri idolizes Victor. Minami’s first performance costume is semi-skirted as well, and his face always appears youthful and a bit androgynous. He even has a fanged tooth often reserved for the little sister character. His dainty posture and movement would also traditionally be considered feminine (Yuri’s follows this trend around Victor quite often, as well). As the episode displays through a small conflict between Minami and Yuri, Yuri’s off ice personality is not suited for being someone’s idol, and his submissive/seductive on ice personality certainly isn’t either. Victor notices this incompatibility and gets angry with Yuri for not growing as a person and becoming someone other skaters can look up to.
Yuri soon realizes that need to evolve as a person, and we immediately see a change in the way he’s drawn and animated. His posture stiffens out, his shoulders broaden, and his face sharpens. Before his performance, he cheers on Minami and watches him for a bit, reflecting that he “can’t take [his] eyes off” Minami. There is a role reversal where now Minami is, in a sense, seducing Yuri. This shift is evidence of Yuri accepting a new role, and a prelude to the formation of a new identity not bound to his relationship with Victor.
His new costume also matches this trend towards a more masculine and assertive identity. The design is modeled off of a suit and vest combo and the only allusion to anything traditionally feminine is the sparkles on his chest and back. Yuri’s pre-performance routine differs drastically from his first one, as well. He gives Minami a coach-like slap on the back, and hugs Victor facing forward as his equal with his own arms in the mix now. He walks with a determined gait and his hands in fists. This is all evoking images of traditionally masculine competition—if you’ve ever seen Kuroko no Basuke or Haikyuu!! (or most any sports anime), this portrayal of Yuri should seem very familiar. Point being: every visual cue on the screen points towards the emergence of a new Yuri we have never witnessed before.
Yuri fully adopts this new identity in the opening jump of his routine. He strays from Victor’s guidance by going for a double jump combination rather than a triple. This is not a Yuri who is insecure or who wants to follow another skater’s lead. This is a Yuri who wants to win and have fun on the ice. He is being his own skater in this free-skate performance. As the performance (and show) title suggest, this is “Yuri On Ice”—the identity most true to who Yuri is as a skater. Of course a professional would love competition and his sport, and of course a skater with seniority wouldn’t want to lose to his juniors.
At first, Victor takes a bit of issue with this. His student is ignoring his choreography, after all. However, he quickly begins to believe in Yuri and realize that his student is actually following him more than ever. In Victor’s own words, Yuri is “taking after” Victor by being so rebellious. This affirms the role reversal mentioned earlier and exemplifies Yuri’s latest identity and growth. In earlier episodes, Yuri rushes to his ballet instructor in order to become more feminine. At that point, the only way he can seduce anyone is to become that beautiful pork cutlet bowl—something to be devoured, though my language may be a bit extreme. Episode 5 shows Yuri seducing the audience via his energy and masculine spirit. Think of how Minami idolizes Yuri—not as an object of craving, but as a leader and a role model, someone to strive to replicate rather than indulge in.
I do believe it’s much too early to make any arguments about what Yuri!!! On Ice is suggesting with these varying identities and portrayals of Yuri. The details and relationships I have pointed out here are very likely to change as the show progresses, but I believe this is something interesting to keep in mind as we continue watching. There are the beginnings of an argument that the show is suggesting that one’s personality and identity are not fully beholden to one gender, but (even from the first five episodes) it’s clear the case is not so simple for Yuri or any of the other characters. Most obviously, Yuri’s embodiment of two genders on the ice seems to raise some concerns for Victor as a coach and friend/what remains to be told. Yuri’s development as a skater, and thus a person, is far from over, so I think these details are something to keep an eye on, not to make judgments on just yet.
What Yuri!!! On Ice does (in a thematic sense) with this design choice remains to be completely seen. I may revisit the show after it has finished airing to discuss the story as a whole, although I’m sure I won’t be the only one. For now, what we can say for sure is that Yuri is discovering himself, and we’re along for the ride.