Yuri!!! On Ice

Yuri on Ice!!! features one of the most tender male-male relationships ever seen in anime. And fans are going nuts over it.

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Yes, it’s the first male ice skating sports anime. Characters’ animated movements are sharp and its skating choreography has been praised by real skaters. But if you ask fans why they’re so enamored of Yuri!!! On Ice, its sports element might not be its strongest pull.

Yuri on Ice!!! follows Yuri Katsuki, a 23-year-old disgraced Japanese figure skater after an embarrassing defeat at a Grand Prix event. Katsuki is depressed, overweight and on a skating hiatus when a video of him mimicking legendary Russian skater Victor Nikiforov’s routine falls into Nikiforov’s hands. Ineffably, the legend decides to drop everything and train Katsuki in Japan. Nikiforov’s charisma is a buffer for Katsuki’s awkwardness and truly unrestrained love of pork cutlet (which, at one point, inspires a skating routine):

Yuri!!! On Ice

Katsuki and Nikiforov’s relationship is delicate and mysterious. Nikiforov’s mission is to draw out the normally understated Katsuki’s passionate nature, both in and out of the rink. It works. Katsuki is all red-faced blushes and teary-eyed admiration when he’s with his idol. Nikiforov, on the other hand, is bold with his sexuality in a way that perplexes and excites Katsuki. Most fans read it as a bit more charged than a simple mentorship.

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Yuri!!! On Ice is tender at points. Other times, it’s raunchy. The impression of candidness is what’s attracting such a huge and dedicated fandom.

The show is resonating with anime fans who have been starved of emotional, slow-moving male-male relationships. Cara, 33, says that the naturalness with which their relationship develops touched her. It’s “being written so gracefully and accepted so well in what is unquestionably a mainstream series is a big deal to me,” she told me. “It often seems like a lot of mainstream series that allow any affection between men quickly follows that up with a frantic ‘no homo, tho!’”

Yuri!!! On Ice

Yuri on Ice!!! also doesn’t back down from exploring different forms of masculinity and queerness—whether or not that was intended by Studio Mappa. In the show’s third episode, for example, Nikiforov asks Katsuki to awaken his sexuality for a particular skating routine he choreographs. The routine embodies Nikiforov’s playboy nature, which Katsuki doesn’t identify with. Instead, Katsuki wanders over to the local ballet studio to awaken a different model for sexuality—a more feminine one—that animates the routine with a special gracefulness. At the end of the episode, Nikiforov is beside himself with admiration.

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Moments like that are more representative of how Yuri!!! On Ice handles queer sexuality. In fact, a sexual love between Katsuki and Nikiforov has not yet been made explicit. Many fans are waiting for a kiss as a way of cementing the show’s queer underpinnings. Others are fine with the relationship’s advancement through slight touches or semi-nude locker room scenes, arguing that these borderline moments are a perfectly legitimate way to express love.

Todd Harper, 37, says he’s “interested in any anime that looks like it might have a good emotional relationship between two dude characters.” Figure skating, he added, is an unorthodox frame for a sports anime, which initially caught his interest. But as a queer man, he says the show is bringing a lot of depth to the trope of male flirting in sports anime, which can often feel a little insipid or shallow (other gay-reading sports anime Free! Iwatoi Swim Club and Eternal Summer, some say, are a bit less overt than Yuri!!! On Ice, he told me).

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Refreshingly, the capacity for queerness doesn’t wholly define Katsuki or Nikiforov. Yuri!!! On Ice fan Michael Gattozzi, 23, says that the show’s best feature is its “willingness to actually tell a story where the main character is most likely gay. But rather than making it the sole focus of the show, [they] just treat it like, ‘Yes, this is a thing and is normal.’”

Yuri!!! On Ice is only on its fifth episode, so it’s yet to be seen whether the anime is simply teasing a gay relationship or will actually bring the undertones out into the open. Its director, Sayo Yamamoto, is known for breaking the mold (she directed Brazil-based anime Michiko to Hatchin). Regardless, fans are delighted to see a wider range of emotional experiences reflected in the anime they watch—and that model appears to be working in anime studios’ favor.

[Correction—7:45 PM]: A previous version of this article stated that Yuri!!! On Ice is the first ice skating sports anime. A Kotaku reader pointed out that Ginban Kaleidoscope was the first ice skating sports anime. The article is corrected to reflect that Yuri!!! is the first “male” ice skating sports anime. We regret the error.