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Yuri on thin ice

Diving into the world of anime queerbaiting.

Art by Sophie Xiao Yue Zhou.

I love anime.

I’ve been watching it for a long time and have hundreds of episodes and shows under my belt. That being said, I’ll say that 2016 was a pretty good year for anime. The Shonen Jump bestseller My Hero Academia started airing, cult-classic Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure was in it’s 4th season, and most importantly to this article: the ice-skating anime Yuri on Ice became an unexpected smash-hit. 

And it doesn’t take a genius to understand why. 

Contrary to popular belief, quite a large number of anime-watchers are women, and so many shows are made with this in mindt. In the early 2010’s, shows like Kuroko no Basuke and Free! became exceedingly popular with young women in both Japan and the West. Both featured casts of pretty-boys and enough sexual tension to make you question if you read the anime description right. More recently, shows like Haikyu!! and Sk8 the Infinity have grown their own sizable fan bases through similar uses of attractive characters and queerbaiting.

Queerbaiting has existed in the industry for a long time and has shown to be a very effective strategy to gain viewers. Shows garner fans and a following by teasing the possibility of a gay relationship but never actually following through.

Admittedly, as the years have gone by, the anime industry has improved in this regard and we have gotten more mainstream shows with canon queer characters – I look to Banana Fish and Given as examples of this – but it’s nowhere near becoming a norm.

Having said this, Yuri on Ice exists in a sort of limbo between these two categories.

It’s no stretch to say that Yuri on Ice’s success was culturally significant. It normalised depictions of male characters and male relationships that weren’t overtly sexual or fetishised. The characters were well-written and the romantic aspects were all very compelling and genuinely touching; but only if you wanted them to be there.

And that is where Yuri on Ice fails in its representation. 

While it is one of the better examples of queerbaiting, it is still queerbaiting. Nothing in the show is established as explicitly canon. Yuri on Ice straddles the line between being just queer enough that viewers who want romance will be satisfied, and being not quite queer enough that viewers who don’t could easily brush it off as platonic. 

For those who have never seen Yuri on Ice before, let me explain to you the basic premise. Our central character is Yuuri Katsuki, a Japanese competitive figure skater who has hit a low-point in his career. After a wild series of events he is offered to be coached by Viktor Nikiforov, a top Russian figure skater and Yuuri’s longtime idol. The show follows both the blossoming relationship between the men and Yuuri’s journey as a skater. 

I previously mentioned the show’s tendency to hint towards a canon queer relationship but never actually go ahead with it. Examples of this include extremely intimate bathhouse scenes, Yuuri performing an ‘Eros’ (a Greek word for passionate or sensual love) themed skate routine for Viktor, and Yuuri and Viktor buying matching ‘promise rings’. All platonically of course. Arguably the most notable moment of queerbaiting in the show and one that had fans raving the most was a ‘kiss’ between Yuuri and Viktor that was somehow drawn in such a way that it could still be considered platonic. 

Now as much as I love the show and despite its attempts to portray a beautiful and genuine relationship between Yuuri and Viktor, its obstinant refusal to present a canonically queer romance dampens any sort of progress the writers and producers may have hoped to make. 

But this was in 2016, right? Surely now producers have realised that their audiences are smart and won’t fall for such tricks anymore. And furthermore, surely audiences have realised that by continuing to consume this content, we are further encouraging companies to keep producing queerbaiting content, right?

Well, flashforward to 2021 and the release of Sk8 the Infinity; a skateboarding anime featuring a cast of lovable pretty-boys and enough sexual tension to make you question if skateboarding is simply a metaphor for a very different physical activity.

I won’t lie, even with the show still currently airing and having only about 10 episodes out, I love it. But as an older viewer now and a queer woman myself, I can see it coming from a mile away.

It’s history repeating itself. 

And that’s what’s really the most frustrating. I love anime, I really do, but part of that love is to address and acknowledge the problems with the industry. No amount of fanservice can wash the bitter taste out of my mouth whenever I fall for the ol’ queer and switch.

Still, forever the optimist, I do have hope. Society is progressing and hopefully, the anime industry will follow. Until then, I guess I’ll continue to take the bait. 

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