Hello, guys, gals, and nonbinary pals! I hope you're enjoying your weekly dose of Fan Service. The past few weeks of prep, talking, and screaming about anime with Kerry, Miles, Gray, Cole, Austin, and everyone who's stopped by has been a huge blast. I'd hate for you guys to miss out on any episodes, so please consider being a FIRST member! It's pretty darn good price per month, and the best part is you get the first 30-days free as a trial. When I was just a fan, before I worked at Rooster Teeth, I kept my ~*premium status*~ because I thought the content Rooster Teeth had was pretty much worth it.
In lieu of our choices for Anime Club, there was a common thread of thought in our conversations about Yuri!!! On Ice:
How did Yuri!!! On Ice come to be? How did the landscape of anime trends all lead up to an ice skating anime featuring a prominent male cast? I've written down my questions, done some research, and decided I wanted to share with you guys my findings and my thoughts. I'll even cite my sources! It's like a real college essay!!!!!! Wait. Where are you going. Come back.
To accurately figure out how Yuri!!! On Ice (which I'll abbreviate to YOI) was conceived, we have to look at the big picture. There's been significant rise of sports anime and manga in the past decade, so let's delve into an exact history of how sports anime made its way into mainstream.
The first recorded sports manga was Captain Tsubasa by Yoichi Takahashi in 1981 in the Weekly Shounen Jump magazine. The soccer manga (football to non-Americans) about a Japanese youth soccer team and its captain, Tsubasa Oozora, rose to popularity to get its own anime in 1983. It gained worldwide momentum as European, Southeast Asian, and South American countries dubbed and aired it, in turn inspiring a generation to start playing soccer.
Since then, a lot of different sports anime and manga have come and gone with varying degrees of success. Its wide range of material meant you could have sports manga about basketball (Slam Dunk), boxing (Hajime no Ippo), and even strategy board games like Go (Hikaru no Go). The genre became a solid staple of the anime industry--although it didn’t attract as much attention in the western world as a Uniquely Anime Thing in comparison to Mecha or Action. How, then, did it suddenly boom in the last decade?
User GuardianEnzo on myanimelist.org cites two series.
One is Prince of Tennis by Takeshi Konomi, a tennis sports manga published in Weekly Shounen Jump in 1999 with an anime airing in 2001. The story follows a middle school tennis prodigy, Ryoma Echizen, who joins the Seishun Academy's tennis team and his journey to be the best tennis player in all of Japan, all while making new friends and mastering new techniques. Its popularity is still present by the number of spin-offs and movies it’s produced since its inception, and has even tried to make its way overseas by being the first sports anime to air on the Toonami block in 2006.
The second series is The Big Windup! by Asa Higuchi. The baseball manga was published in seinen magazine “Afternoon”, with an anime that aired in 2007. In 2006, it won the New Hope Award in the Tezuka Cultural Award for "showing new possibilities of expression in baseball manga" and subsequently won the Kodansha Manga Award for General Manga in 2007. It became the first sports anime to be a 5-digit best seller of disc media, and sports series after its successful reception can trace its thematic roots back to it.
But then what do all of the following "mainstream" titles--Prince of Tennis, Kuroko no Basuke, Haikyuu!!, Yowamushi Pedal, The Big Windup!--all have in common?
A: They're all directed towards a male demographic.
B: A large part of their audience is made up of women.
C: You probably know about them because of the internet.
We can potentially derail by talking about how women and the internet intersect and end up informing trends, or we can take another route and talk about how doujinshi, or fan-comics, made by women also tie to the success of an existing series, BUT LET'S STAY ON TRACK HERE.
I personally believe that the popularity of the previous titles have to deal with the quality of its content. While focusing on the aspect of technique and terminology in the specific sport they're about, these popular titles also hone in on the Team aspect of each sport. Each character generates camaraderie and significant interpersonal relationships that enable them to grow as individuals and with each other while following the passion of their youth. Yes, characters follow tropes. But each series takes the time to explore the characters' mindsets of why they are the way they are, and how they are in relation to others. These sports series transcend its central sport focus. It becomes a series about a team, a group of people who come together through thick and thin.
Of course, every fan is different. But generally speaking, the interpersonal relationships gives an avenue for an audience who likes shipping, or taking characters and pairing them romantically, a solid foundation.
So, let's park it for a bit. Anime and manga don't just have series designations for boys (shounen) and for men (seinen), but they have categories for girls (shoujo) and for women (josei). And there are definitely sports series that exist for the female demographic. For example, Princess Nine was a 1998 anime about a female high school baseball team. Crimson Hero is a shoujo volleyball manga published in 2003 and was part of Viz Media's monthly "Shojo Beat". Why don't women latch on to these titles and ship these characters, instead of superimposing romance between male teammates? There's a whole genre for homosexual love--Boy Love, or BL--that is also FOR women. There's even discourse about why homosexual characters are geared toward women!! What gives?!
The prevailing thought is that media aimed for women is still considered "niche." It's not that these series or genre don't have an audience; it's that shoujo and josei titles never cross over into mainstream consciousness.
Take, as a more well-known example, romance movies or romantic comedies. A common story is that a man won't see a rom-com unless a woman takes him. Same thing works for shoujo/josei. Unless you're knee deep into anime and want to try something different, a casual viewer might not be inclined to pick up something with a central focus on romance and drama.
Also, frankly, a lot of shoujo/josei/BL titles aren't always treated with the same care as other general titles are. Story tropes and character stereotypes are genre conceits, with romance being a driving force of most plots. Most plots become a “will they or won’t they” scenario. Additionally, when these series are translated into animation, the quality isn't always top-notch. They end up being primary examples of economic and awkward animation in an industry that has to churn out an episode each week. It's natural that more people will gravitate towards series that are labeled for a general (male-coded) audience and have more production value. When you have a pool of choices to watch, why go for a “7 out of 10” when you can go for a “9 out of 10”?
There are exceptions. A shoujo title I'd argue that did the big leap into mainstream is Ouran High School Host Club by Bisco Hatori. Primarily a story about a scholarship female student who must crossdress and be part of the all-male host club in her prestigious high school, the series was a genuine delight for using genre mainstays of shoujo while simultaneously poking fun at them. Each character had a reason for being, relied on each other for support, and Studio Bones did a great job spinning the original art style into something fun, bright, and funny. More often than not, I came across fans of the show that didn't care about its perceived demographic.
The kicker is that everyone, no matter what they identify as, wants something good. They like a good story, they like good characters, and they like to be visually entertained. If you're not following up on either, then you're gonna have an audience shortage.
But HoOw does this relate to sports anime?! Where is the lead up to YOI??
Take all of these previous points, build them up over years of trends and a growing international anime audience, and you get--
Free! Iwatobi Swim Club.
Free! was the perfect birth child of the internet, where in 2012 Animation Do released a splash image and commercial for a project in March 2013. It garnered attention for its shirtless male characters looking at the camera while they have fun times by the swimming pool, fun bright visual style, and for its animation quality. The commercial went viral, especially on Tumblr, and they dubbed the unnamed project the "swimming anime." This all came to a peak when Kyoto Animation & Animation Do released the official anime in 2013, and it became an international and marketing hit, spawning two seasons and a movie.
Free! gained attention primarily because Kyoto Animation was a well-established studio with a reputation for high quality animation sequences. More often than not, their shows skewed towards a male demographic. Interesting, cute female characters, like Haruhi Suzumiya and the entire cast ofK-On, were often the focal point, while male characters could best be described as "beige paint chips". Free! was the first time they ventured into appealing to a different audience with a centered male cast. While the reception of the swimming show was met with backlash from a male community (spawning blogs such as mantearsflowingfree.tumblr.com, an archive dedicated to showcasing instances of men complaining about Free!), its monetary value has never been overlooked and remains one of the more known sports anime.
The success of Free! has, in turn, informed the industry of an audience that demands for quality and care. While not the first swimming anime series in history (Kenkou Zenrakei Suieibu Umishou takes the trophy for first), it is the most visually arresting and consequently issued a challenge to the rest of sports anime. How do you put a refreshing twist to an existing genre? What can you do to push the animation medium to something beautiful and appealing? (How much gay subtext could you possibly put in a show?)
And so we come to Yuri!!! On Ice. While also not the first figure skating anime, Studio MAPPA has taken great care in trying to animate the beauty of figure skating by consulting award-winning figure skater Kenji Miyamoto and using a mix of rotoscoping, 3D, and 2D animation to blend it all together. Its visual style and beauty advertised in initial promotional videos were enough to garner attention from those affected by the Free! wave, and it should be noted that its primary writers and directors are both women who've been in the field for years--Mitsurou Kubo, writer and artist of 3.3.7 Byooshi and Moteki, and Sayo Yamamoto, director of critically acclaimed Michiko & Hatchin and Lupin III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine. Kubo’s biggest series feature men with a passion in ouendan, the Japanese equivalent to cheerleading. Yamamoto’s strengths as a director lies in her experiments with color, pop art, and using different visual effects to enhance the feeling of the animation. With her characters, she takes the opportunity to tell stories through different lenses, such as making Fujiko Mine the main character for Lupin III: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, and setting Michiko & Hatchin in Brazil with a predominantly non-Japanese/non-white cast of characters. She claims comedy and erotica come easy to her, which is something we should expect from YOI.
Yuri!!! on Ice's conception is, ultimately, a grand journey of women in the industry; how women influence the industry trends, and how women creators are rising to prominence.
Often labeled without a precise demographic like other published series, YOI is a show that's already challenging that perception. You can oftentimes tell what an anime's perceived demographic is by visuals alone. Is it for women? Or do the adult-looking not-as-big-eyed designs of YOI mean its for a more mature, general audience? Should the series be labeled as Boy Love, when that wasn’t a label tacked on to it in the first place? As the season goes on, we'll be able to pick up on tells, hints, and themes about who YOI is really for--and maybe why it doesn't even matter.