Yuri!!! On ICE sure puts a lot of emphasis on the "yuri" in its title. So much so that a lot of people (this writer included) have mistakenly believed the show is about anime girls in love. In a time where there's plenty of that going around... well, that would have been great. The more gay anime the merrier!
YoI, however, is definitely not an anime about cute girls in love; instead, it's an anime about hot guys in love. It's also technically about professional figure skating, but most people are in it for one of the better, budding romances committed to animation. Which Yuri!!! On ICE brings in spades.
The "Yuri" in question actually refers to the show's protagonist, Yuuri Katsuki (and to a lesser extent his rival, Yuri Plisetsky, a.k.a. "Yurio," a.k.a. "Russian Yuri," a.k.a. that mean baby queer who really just needs a rad, more experienced boyfriend -- preferably one who rides a motorcycle).
The show begins with Katsuki's crushing defeat at a figure skating tournament, and subsequent retreat from the public eye. He returns home to Japan in order to lick his wounds, as well as every katsudon in a 25-mile radius (Yuuri is a stress eater). Before he knows it, though, our hero has put on weight, and is spiraling towards giving up on his dream professional dream entirely.
Just then, Yuuri's shining, naked knight in absolutely no armor whatsoever appears! The beauty in the buff is our hero's longstanding idol -- and long-distance crush -- Victor Nikiforov. Victor is the current, number one pro skater in the world. That is until he gives it up, at least in the short term, to become Yuuri's coach after witnessing one of his would-be pupil's impromptu performances on YouTube.
Hilarity ensues, but not the kind that most anime viewers have come to expect when two men get close on-screen. The show doesn't point and laugh at the pair's growing closeness, but with them as their conflicting personalities clash, and complement each other.
Victor is spontaneous, and tends to say whatever pops into his head. By contrast, Yuuri is somewhat predictably the shy type. If that were all the show had to offer, of course, it wouldn't be so special. What with that being the dynamic of basically every romantic comedy since cavemen started carving images of Katherine Heigl into stone tablets.
It would be so easy for Yuri!!! On ICE to fall into the typical romantic, or anime clichés. And well, it does, but only for the sake of gently subverting them. Promise!
Victor's often airheaded delivery blunts his sincere, but critical honesty. So when he brusquely criticizes Yuuri as being too heavy to compete, the viewer knows it's not meant to hurt the other character. Yet as his coach, Victor isn't going to let him sit idle, either.
Yuuri, meanwhile, is no shrinking violet. Oh, he's shy, sure, but also competitive, driven, and even possessive. He competes for a living, after all. He can have a mean streak, too. Such as when he repeatedly blows off his own fanboy, and fellow pro skater (an obvious allegory for how a younger Yuuri and Victor).
Much of the early part of the series is about Victor tapping into that saucier side of Yuuri. As the wider figure skating world demands Victor come back -- so that he can coach Russian Yuri, so that he can continue skating in his prime, or so that his rivals can at last best him on the ice -- Yuuri channels his jealously into seductive performances meant to entice his coach into staying. Which is exactly what Victor wants. Both as a trainer, and as someone who's attracted to Yuuri's growing confidence. Their playfulness, different methods of seduction, and growing camaraderie with the skating community more-or-less form the backbone of the show.
Yuri!!! On ICE uses fluid, elastic animations. One minute, characters can look as painstakingly sketched as anything out of Studio Ghibli, only to go full Team Rocket when they see Victor start to swing his, uh... skating equipment around.
When characters are competing, however, the lights dim down, and the Serious Music starts playing. Yuri!!! On ICE isn't a sports anime, per se, but it does treat its athleticism with a degree of reverence.
It's well-choreographed, but quickly becomes one of the lesser aspects of the show. More typical, popular sports show like Yowamushi Pedal give borderline pornographic descriptions of correct bicycle posture, and pedaling techniques. Yuri!!!, on the other hand, does use technical terms like "quadruple salchow," but doesn't go into great detail about what that actually means for that small section of the viewing audience that isn't 20-something professional skaters.
So, while the movements look nice, they get to be a little same-y with age. There are only so many times you can watch Yuuri spin in the air before all you care about is whether he sticks the landing or eats the ice.
That's fine, though, because the show is more concerned about what's going on in the characters' heads while they skate. Victor and Yuuri are the stars, of course, but everyone has their own little side stories. Even these B, C, and D plots manage to subvert their own tropes. Like the just-a-little-too-close brother/sister duo, and Russian Yuri's overly aggressive rivalry.
Much of what's going on in these characters' lives gets processed on the ice, and affects their performance accordingly. Some use it to find inner strength, while others become distracted. Then there's the guy who basically just comes all over himself every time he skates. He's good, too.
Yuri!!! On ICE is a show full of very, very good boys. That's obvious as soon as a naked, dripping Victor draws himself out of a hot spring in the very first episode. Yet, while there's no shortage of fan service along those lines as the show progresses, it's smaller moments that really make Yuri!!! work as well as it does.
The show avoids easy, trope-y traps with a grace that's hard to find even in the best anime.
For instance, when a happy, handsy Victor drapes himself over Yuuri, the latter gets adorably flustered -- that's just in his nature. In another show, that would probably lead to a loud "No homo!" outburst. Yet Yuuri is only worried that other people might think he's fooling around before a competition. Other such details can be as subtle as Yuuri flashing a smile from across the ice rink, or as obvious as the way Victor behaves when he's drunk.
At just 12 episodes long, Yuri!!! On ICE doesn't have much time to waste in setting up these lovebirds, while still giving the competition around them, and its psychological effects on Yuuri their dues.
That ends up working in its favor. Working under such restrictions, the show packs in a lot of character definition at a lightning pace, without losing any nuance. At least as far as characterizing all of the hot boys is concerned. And, oh boy, are there are lot of those.