Ice Network

'Yuri!!! on Ice' continues to build anime ice storm

Animated series wins loyal legion of figure skating fans around the globe
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Yuri Katsuki (left) and coach Victor Nikiforov take in the sights and sounds of Barcelona prior to the Grand Prix Final. -Funimation

The six men's finalists at the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona take the ice for their short program warmup. Among them is a veteran from Japan, a showy Swiss skater, a cocky young Russian and a stoic skater from Kazakhstan. As familiar as the characters sound, they are totally new to the skating scene.

Yuri Katsuki, Christophe Giacometti, Yuri Plisetsky, Otabek Altin, Phichit Chulanont, Jean-Jacques Leroy and other characters whose skating lives unfold in the Japanese anime series Yuri!!! on Ice are the creations of Mitsurô Kubo. The series, produced by Mappa, premiered in Japanese last October (available with English subtitles) and was soon followed by a dubbed English version distributed by Funimation Entertainment.

As Yuri is totally original content -- not based on a comic book or manga (a special kind of Japanese comic) -- only modest success was predicted. Those expectations were wrong. Yuri has been one of top-rated anime shows over the last few months and a major hit for Funimation.

"It's a great sports story, a great story about all these characters going through the struggle of trying to achieve these dreams and goals," said actor Josh Grelle, who voiced lead protagonist Yuri Katsuki in the English-language version.

While there is certainly a level of anime exaggeration in some scenes, including talkative young triplets named Lutz, Loop and Axel, there is also tremendous realism to the portrayal of the sport. The costumes the skaters wear were designed with meticulous detail, and former ice dancer Kenji Miyamoto -- who has choreographed for Shizuka Arakawa, Daisuke Takahashi and Yuzuru Hanyu -- choreographed the programs. There is also original music throughout.

Sonny Strait directed the actors in the English version. He began the process by watching the episodes in the original Japanese with subtitles. In casting for the English version, he had to decide if characters would speak with accents. When it was decided some would, he chose actors adept at accents that would also have vocal chemistry. Amazingly, each actor recorded his or her dialogue individually. Each episode takes about a week to complete.

As Yuri Katsuki is the central protagonist, Strait cast Grelle because he knew the actor possessed the necessary range.

"I needed someone who could be very earnest and could actually move the audience to tears and, at the same time, crack people up," said Strait, who also voiced the commentator. "He delivered that."

The series begins at the Grand Prix Final, where Katsuki delivers a disastrous performance and finishes last. After temporarily shelving his skating career and finishing college, he returns to his hometown. Soon after, his idol -- five-time world champion Victor Nikiforov -- arrives saying he will be Yuri's new coach. Over the next year, they rebuild Katsuki's skating while also nurturing a romantic attraction.

Each of the skaters and some of the coaches have significant internal dialogues while the skating is taking place. Strait said this is not typical of anime, but the actors were excited to perform these monologues.

"I can't believe my favorite thing to direct is a show about ice skating. I loved it," Strait said. "I thought it was so well written and really stands out. The writers really hit the emotional notes. It makes me appreciate the sport of ice skating."

The first season ends at the next Grand Prix Final, where Katsuki is seeking redemption. Although it has not yet been announced, a second season is expected.

There has been inevitable speculation about who the characters are modeled after. Real-life skaters Nobunari Oda (who did his own voicing for the Japanese version) and Stéphane Lambiel appear in the show, adding an extra touch of realism. Even the skaters' prolific use of social media is a reflection of the sport. In an interesting twist, skaters around the world are re-enacting some of the programs on the ice and posting videos to YouTube.

Grelle admitted that before he worked on Yuri!!! on Ice, he only watched skating in Olympic years. Now, though, he's an unabashed fan of the sport. He's not alone, as many anime fans are seeking more information about skating. Emma Fyffe, host of AfterBuzz TV's review and after show, said fans tweet her asking where they can watch skating.

"This show has such a connection to reality," Fyffe said. "While certainly none of these characters exactly correspond to someone in real life, many of them do draw inspiration from a number of skaters.

"What they do so well is portray all of the individual athletes as people," she added. "It helps add this level of humanity to the characters. … It's amazing how much I care about even one-episode characters.

"It's the show that kind of came out of nowhere and took everyone by storm."