Sayo Yamamoto is one of the most stylish and sensual directors currently working in the anime industry. Despite a modest portfolio, Yamamoto’s artistic flair and progressive ideologies shape an important niche in an industry overrun by fantasy and escapist stories. Between highlighting sexually-empowered women and referencing foreign art styles, Yamamoto is a director who isn’t afraid to deviate from conventional anime narratives. Her unrelenting ambition is one of her greatest strengths but also a weakness, as shown by her latest venture, Yuri!!! On ICE.
For those familiar with Yamamoto’s previous anime, Michiko & Hatchin and The Woman Called Fujiko Mine, Yuri!!! On ICE appears to be a narrative departure at first glance. Operating within the confines of the sports genre and featuring a predominantly male cast, one might assume that Yamamoto is working outside of her element. However, Yuri!!! On ICE’s cast, messages, and artistic allusions all vehemently embody Yamamoto’s core ideologies.
Inside the mind of Sayo Yamamoto
One of the defining aspects of Yamamoto’s Yuri!!! On ICE is its transnational cast of figure skaters. Featuring characters from Japan, Russia, China, Thailand, and many other countries, Yamamoto is subtly crafting a work that embraces diversity and cultural acceptance. Yamamoto does not characterize the foreign skaters as ethnic stereotypes, but rather allows them to act and behave as their own people. Whether they’re energetic, hammy, or flamboyant on the rink, no judgement is ever cast. In Yuri!!! On ICE, individuality transcends cultural barriers.
Although Yamamoto’s desire to highlight the individuality of each skater is done with the best of intentions, it is occasionally to the detriment of Yuri!!! On ICE’s narrative and production. In this case, Yamamoto’s ambitions were unfortunately unable to keep up with MAPPA’s production schedule. Episode 6 of Yuri!!! On ICE is perhaps the worst victim of her tall directive. Featuring a total of five full-length short program routines, Yamamoto pushes the TV anime format past its limits to showcase each skater’s personality and passion. As a result, the episode was highly condensed with little breathing room, while the skating choreography suffered due to the unfinished key animation.
In spite of that all, it’s hard to fault Yamamoto for doing what she does best: artistically subverting traditional pop-culture representations of gender, sexuality, and nationality. Episode 6 of Yuri!!! On ICE may have been structurally chaotic, but few anime directors would have taken the time like Yamamoto did to voice a non-Japanese side character’s political statement. During this episode, Phichit – a skater from Thailand and a close friend of Yuri Katsuki – performs a short program routine to a piece clearly referencing the 1956 musical film, The King and I. As the film and its 1999 remake are currently banned in Thailand, Phichit’s desire to “write a new chapter for skating in Southeast Asia” during his performance carries significance for himself and his country. Had Yamamoto chosen to condense or omit Phichit’s performance for the sake of time or a less taxing production, her message of transnational inclusiveness would have been lost.
In a similar vein, Yamamoto is very upfront about paying homage to iconic pieces of German and Russian animation throughout Yuri!!! On ICE. In episode 3, Yamamoto explicitly references the silhouetted, paper cutout animation used by German animator Lotte Reiniger in her 1926 film The Adventures of Prince Achmed. Later in the episode, Yamamoto characterizes a flashback of Yuri Plisetsky remembering his father in the style of famous Russian and Soviet animator, Yuriy Norshteyn. Yamamoto alludes to Norshteyn’s incomplete production, The Overcoat, in this sequence depicting a lonely Russian snowfall.
Yuri on Ice (Sayo Yamamoto, 2016)/The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Lotte Reiniger, 1926) pic.twitter.com/pSAB54EXJn— Joey on Ice (@GanymedeElegy) October 19, 2016
Yuri on Ice (Sayo Yamamoto, 2016)/The Overcoat (Yuriy Norshteyn, lol never) pic.twitter.com/JZhJFy7OdQ— Joey on Ice (@GanymedeElegy) October 19, 2016
While Yamamoto’s artistic fixations define the expressionistic interludes of Yuri!!! On ICE, much of the anime’s narrative is driven by the dynamic between Yuri Katsuki and his coach Victor Nikiforov. Both men share an intimate relationship built upon respect, empathy, and a playful yet erotic see-sawing for dominance. However flirtatious Victor’s advances on Yuri may be, Yamamoto portrays their love in a non-voyeuristic manner, emphasizing their sensual pleasure; romance that is neither gratuitous nor fetishized. Yuri and Victor’s kiss at the end of episode 7 is a wonderful celebration of the pair’s combined achievements and mutual feelings. The unconditional love that Yamamoto grants Yuri and Victor is simply put: beautiful.
Through no fault of her own, Yamamoto’s ideas don’t always comply with production logistics. However, when she’s put this much of herself into a work like Yuri!!! On ICE, the end result is still worthwhile. As she continues to build a career challenging the conventions of commercial anime, Sayo Yamamoto is one name that anime enthusiasts should always look out for in the future.
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