Yuri!!! On ICE might’ve been one of the best things about 2016. I know that’s is a low bar, but roll with me. It engaged viewers inside and outside anime fandom alike, it offered one of the most positive portrayals of a queer relationship I’ve ever seen in anime, and – most importantly – it’s offered me a chance to talk about Sayo Yamamoto, a director whose works have until now struggled to gain attention despite their high quality.
While Mitsurou Kubo has gotten a completely earned bevvy of praise for her hard work writing the story for Yuri!!! on ICE (thanks in no small part, I would suspect, to her availability on social media), any familiarity with Yamamoto’s past works makes it clear that this is very much a joint effort. While many anime directors might not have the same recognizable stamp on their work as the western conception of a (usually film, usually auteur) director, there are exceptions. And Yamomoto, now with three full series under her belt, is proving herself to be as easy to spot as Kon, Watanabe, or Ikuhara.
For those unaware, Sayo Yamamoto has been working in anime for almost 20 years now, getting her first job doing storyboards on the anime adaptation of CLAMP’s X (2001). She got her first big creative break working as an episode director on Samurai Champloo (2004), where she flourished under the mentorship of director Shinichiro Watanabe (Cowboy Bebop). The impact of that experience shows in her work.
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Personally speaking, I have an enormous amount of respect for The Woman Called Fujiko Mine yet it isn’t one of my favourite shows. Michiko and Hatchin, on the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed from beginning to end. The fact that Yuri On Ice wasn’t just good but great wasn’t especially surprising to me – though that didn’t make the experience any less fantastic.
I think those two shows are flip sides of a coin — I really liked and respected M&H but I didn’t LOVE it the way I do Fujiko Mine. So there must be some core element that just comes down to preference.
I had a blast watching Yuri on Ice, but I couldn’t help wondering if it isn’t a turn towards a less intellectual approach for Yamamoto. Rather than the next logical step after Michiko & Hatchin and Fujiko Mine, it felt like a smarter spiritual sequel to Free as made by people who know gay men exist in real life. At least so far, I don’t see the same critical analysis of earlier fiction that was such an important part of her other work. In fact, the occasional coyness about what exactly is going on between Viktor and Yuuri makes the show feel at least partially still within a questionable tradition.
Which isn’t to say Yuri on Ice isn’t a fantastic show. I particularly liked how it managed to depict male sensuality and desire with just the right amount of grace, seriousness and humor. While one could probably argue that the show is too rose-tinted, it felt so good to stop paying attention to the world for half an hour a week and appreciate a vision of people from different countries all being basically decent to each other, not to mention an attitude towards homosexuality so blasé that even the Russian media apparently doesn’t ask our heroes a single question about that time they kissed on live television.