Given – 04 and 05 – Roaring to a Stand Still

In a delicious twist, Sato rejects Uecchi’s offer to join the band. Uecchi is utterly befuddled, agitated, and his google-fueled antics put Harkuki and Kaji in hysterics. Perhaps oblivious to the meltdown he has caused, Sato does exactly what he was asked to do and gets a part time job at the live music venue.

When Uecchi finally goes to confront Sato, old friends interrupt and STRONG IMPLY Sato’s guitar belongs to some one very special and very tragically dead…

Thankfully, Uecchi shakes him out of it and demands to hear Sato sing. The following episode is largely dedicated to Uecchi creating a song for Sato to sing and the lead up to their first public gig.

…Also, the episode reveals revealing that Harkuki loves Kaji, that Kaji has a boy friend no one knows about, that Sato is pretty damn good at basket ball, and Uecchi learning that Sato was dating a boy in middle school but that boy may have suddenly killed himself in an extremely tragic way! Appropriate, this last bit of news comes amidst a deafening roar of white noise punctuated by a hard cut to black.

Given remains beautifully rendered, even when it’s being ‘lazy.’ Seriously! The backgrounds and colors and level of unnecessary detail are insane. Episode 5 did take a noticeable dip, but that is to be expected mid season and it didn’t hurt the narrative’s more introspective focus.

I’m really enjoying the idea that Uecchi is the only semi-straight member of the band, yet imperfect knowledge may prevent each member from realizing that. I’m finding it even more interesting to watch Sato, who seems like he’s characterized as having a spectrum disorder in addition to being gay. It makes for some curious takes on his scenes with Uecchi.

Sato strikes me as a sincere representation of a gay male who’s not romantically into the straight male who is pursuing him. He seems aware of that Ueechi may not realize he is even pursuing him, which seems ironically likely since Uecchi resorted to dating advice to get Sato into the band. Now that the sexuality angle is out in the open, we’ll see if Uecchi reconciles with his own obsessive feelings, or if his obsession is purely based in the art of music the way he previously seemed to think it was.

Given – 03 – Rejection!

In a delicious twist, Sato rejects Uecchi’s offer to join the band. Ue is utterly befuddled, agitated, and turns to google for advice on how to win over someone after they’ve rejected you. This goes about as well as you would expect, and Harkuki and Kaji think it’s hilarious!

Meanwhile, Sato does exactly what he was asked to do and gets himself a part time job working at a music events space. When Uecchi goes to confront him there, everything is interrupted when Sato’s old friends recognize him and STRONG IMPLY the guitar over his shoulder belongs to a dead friend.

Sato is a polite, if not slightly stereotypical take on a person with a spectrum disorder. He can not express himself well and the added trauma of death makes him aware that something is wrong. He doesn’t even realize he is already expressing himself, and that Ue is rocked by that expression down to the core.

Alone on the street, Ue grabs Sato and shouts that he wants to hear him sing. Ue needs to hear him sing and Sato agrees. Unseen, Kaiji has heard their exchange and knows their band is in for something special…

Another episode of Given is another episode possibly a hair short of Masterpiece level work. From framing, to color, to writing and emotional candor, if it connected with you before, it will do it again. Why on earth are you not watching it already?

Given – 02 – Insiders x Outsiders

Uenoyama struggles with the idea of being a good teacher. He’s not even sure what Sato wants out of the guitar. Uenoyama is stuck inside his own head, oblivious in class, and unabsorbent of his classmates’ growing curiosity over the nature of his relationship with Sato, even when they ask him about it directly.

Sato struggles with expressing his interests and objectives. He’s not even sure what he wants out of learning guitar. He’s not even sure he has a favorite song, though a melody keeps playing in his head. Sato is often oblivious to Uenoyama’s instruction and questions, but he absorbs the training quickly. Sato has a very keen ear.

These are the early days of training, where Sato’s newness and mystery is exciting. Pretty Harkuki feels a change towards a better, kinder man in Uenoyama but Tough Kaji insists it was already there. To himself, he wonders if Uenoyama’s kindness is something closer to that of a protector, which has broader implications he does not share.

Sato’s transition from outsider to insider begins with the learning the technicalities of music but effectively completes over dinner, when the band reveals they each have part time jobs. Kaji tends bar, delivers items on his bike, and even works security. Harkuki is a hair model in a video channel, and works with Uenoyama at a convenience store. Each boy’s job descriptions are playful but made with care. No matter what job Sato chooses, and he must choose one to support the band, he should consider one that feeds him during his service.

Given is a master class in framing and composition. Above, the criss-crossing shadow connects Uenoyama’s eyes up to his friends, and the sweep of the drum set sends our eyes around to the door. But the rigid green door, which completely encloses Kaji and Harkuki traps them there, stuck behind the drum set.

This fraction of a scene expresses hesitation. It implies Kaji and Harkuki are waiting for their friend to stand and join them emotionally. That waiting shows us they care, and emphasizes the conversation they share outside about Uenoyama comes from their caring.

And It reads equally well for western left right and eastern right left.

Given is also a master class in color, pattern, and skilled integration of 3D rendered backgrounds with traditional animation. It’s subtle at first, but the range of color (especially as it pertains to the the believability of lighting) and consistency of perspective in this show is fantastic. Yet, unlike the space ship in Astra Lost in Space, these 3D elements do not stick out.

Great care was used to control the pallet and soften edges. The over all effect makes Given believable looking, yet also dream like. A perfect aesthetic choice to match its cast introspective, dreamlike state.

This week ends with Uenoyama pressing Sato for direction. There must be a song he wants to play that Uenoyama can teach him. So Sato sings the music that is inside him. It has no title. It is only brief. It brings Uenoyama to tears.

Even though Uenoyama doesn’t officially ask Sato to join the band until after he hears Sato sink the secret song inside his head, the decision has all but been made official during their dinner. Weird, awkward, mysterious, and with much to learn, Sato is the change agent everyone needed. I can’t wait to see — and heard — where this is headed!

Given – 01 – Boys in the Band

Mafuyu Sato lives his life in a dream state. He wakes each day from the same nightmare, fear gripping Sato’s body only as tightly as his grips the neck of his guitar. The guitar he carries but has no idea how to play. He is a mystery.

Ritsuka Uenoyama lives a life of diminishing purpose. He commands great skill with his guitar, but as he sharpened his art, he dulled his passion. He is tired but awake. He lives with with his art-def sister and his father gave him his first guitar. There is no mystery in his life. Only routine.

Sato and Uenoyama meet by chance at Uenoyama’s favorite nap spot, nestled behind the gym. Then Sato witnesses Uenoyama play, and Uenoyama’s bandmates witness Uenoyama in rare form. Slowly, bonds begin to form…

Given is, by miles, the most interesting anime running this season. Given is very good looking, though this is more due to great use of color, lighting and character design than actual animation. Given is also very good sounding.

However, what makes Given sing and shine is solid crafting of characters and storytelling. The nuance of how Uenoyama and Sato are living opposite parts of life makes it special. The choices of how we see that play out, without dialog or other characters telling makes it masterful.

Given does not have the artcraft value of Yuri on Ice but Given nails the depression and challenge of being an artist, and of an artist feeling love, with an equally flawless sincerity. You owe it to yourself to check it out.

Yuri!!! on Ice – 12 (Fin)

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“If you retire now, I’ll make you regret it for the rest of your life” – Yurio, snatching Gold from Yuri by .12

The Gist: 6 skaters give 6 performances, marked with their own narration of objectives. The many competitors and supporters who we’ve come to know watch along as the scores come in. JJ seals third place by growing stronger emotionally and in performance as he goes, just shutting out the Khazak skater. But the first big upset is Yuri, who blows the crowd — and the judges — completely away with a world record setting performance. Above even Victor’s world best.

But Yurio is having none of it. Frustrated that ‘beating Victor’ is good enough — that just retiring after only one good year — Yurio puts on 3 minutes of beautiful animation plus flashbacks that add to our understanding: that he was in that bathroom all the way at the beginning of the series because he was intrigued by Yuri’s footwork, but disgusted by the emotional damage he saw.

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Yurio wins by .12, entirely due to his advantage going into the second round but the result is the same. Yuri holds a silver at the end and finally comes to realize he never wanted to give up skating. Nor does he have to worry about Victor, who too will rejoin next year’s rotation.

After a lovely duet preluding the next season to come, Yuri find himself training with Victor and Yurio the way they had before, but as truer, closer friends. Their feels out in the open.

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The Verdict: That was a fantastic conclusion for all the obvious reasons. Animation, character, world building, sport, and above all else, enjoyable characters that bounce off of each other. Yurio’s reveal was especially fulfilling, as it gave his tsundere personality the final rounding we needed, following last week’s friendship growth with the Khazak skater.

Another fun trick was undermining Yuri’s first episode narration, in which he says this would be his last year as a skater, to retire on a gold. It totally played with our expectations all the way to the end, but gave him a believable reason to stay.

I can not stress how good this show is and how completely un-boy love too — despite the obvious bro-mancing between Yuri and Victory. There’s no date side episode or quiet ‘they did it’ episode. The sexuality isn’t part of the story at all, even if you can imagine it being part of their lives. If that changes your mind about giving YOI a watch, dive in. You will not be disappointed!

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Yuri!!! on Ice – 11

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The Gist: the final 6 skate off, with Yuri giving the first performance, followed by the skaters from Thailand, Switzerland, Russia, Kazakstan, and Canada. Yuri lands in the middle, having fallen short of his new quad but otherwise performing his tough program well.

The surprise twist comes at the end, with the pressure to perform finally catching up to JJ, who crumbles into last place. Brave face and silly JJ hand signs flown high, he braves his crushingly low score and stands tall before an emotional audience.

The majority of the episode is delivered as a broadcast, with commentators explaining what is going on and skaters sitting in the press booth receiving their scores. These scenes are inter-spliced with interior monologs from the skaters, as well as observations by Yuri, Yurio and Victor, who’s early performances allow them to watch from the audience.

With the scores set, we are ready for the final, final, final show down next week.

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The Verdict: The long build up and tight scripting for each of the cast members is really playing off in the end. There is a strong sense of community, friendship, rivalries and engagement between the skaters and their support people. Yurio’s budding friendship with the Kazak is especially fun, as it pumps them both up in subtle ways, and the results hit JJ’s subconsciousness enough to nerve-him-out of contention.

The result is a believable world with a broad spectrum of likeable people — even when they are jerks — pushing themselves higher. Chris’ performance was especially well animated and, since we haven’t seen the Kazak’s routines at all, his time on the ice was a smart way to keep it fresh. All of the music was wonderful too.

What seals this week’s 10 rating is its master treatment of skirmish before the final battle. I can name few, if any other shows that set the stage for their show down so completely, without being over the top or gimmicy. YOI is matter of fact about it, with real world constraints on the time spent with scores and people. We know those scores, and the emotional placement of each skater. All that’s left is to see who can seal the deal and bring home a gold.

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Yuri!!! on Ice – 10

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The Gist: Victor narrates the pre-grand prix festivities in Barcelonna. We see a few relationships develop or reconcile from his perspective — even some he could not have seen like Yurio and the Kazakstani skater.

We also learn that Yuri got black-out-drunk after losing the previous year and had asked Victor to become his coach, after winning a drunken dance-off with most of the other top skaters. The photo-stream of the event, which we see in full during the credits, it just great and really grounds Victor’s arrival at the hotspring.

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While Victor is the only one to notice, almost every skater at the top has become stronger and happier because of Yuri…

The Verdict: I love the use of cell phones in YOI, and this week’s intermixing of twitter and photo streams with recollections of the past, and reveals were fantastic. I love that the characters see where the other characters are in real time from these feeds, see what’s popular with fans too, and I love that some of the touching scenes aren’t recorded. It’s an interesting note that Yurio doesn’t remember the Kazak skater from training — that they don’t have photos of it or do not check — but share an awkward but interestingly human conversation talking about it.

But the show stealer goes to Yuri giving Victor a ring as a good luck token. All the elements around that, how Victor (and the show itself) toy with the BL expectations, yet keeps it sincere and un-BL enough for the rest of us not into that genre to keep watching.

The only reason I’m not giving it a ten this week is because the chibi/deformed narration and recapping the story so far that took up 5 minutes of the opening was a little clunky. It wasn’t unusual for YOI as a show, but it lacked the passion that followed. Otherwise, still the best show airing this season – go watch it!

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Yuri!!! on Ice – 09

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The Gist: The Czech skater dances to techno with the theme of no longer being human, but he falters towards the end. The Italian skater dances a sad goodbye to his twin sister, also a skater, who wants them to move on with their lives as separate people, and his melancholy brings a masterful performance. The Korean skater falters under the pressure that built during the first section. But those were just the appetizers.

Yurio’s performance is grueling, fluid, and full of internal insight before and on the ice. He pushes 6 of his jumps to the second half of his performance to up the technical difficulty and point potential and he nails it, earning a personal high score and landing in the 2nd place slot of the competition.

Yuri’s performance is not as strong, though it is fluid and respectable, his mind isn’t as clear nor focused on the actual technique as much as the what ifs and long term motivations to keep Victor by his side. In the end, he places 3rd, just enough to qualify for the Grand Prix.

The episode comes to an end, arm in arm with Victor, a safe and healthy Vic-chan by their side, and a promise to win a gold, Yuri’s first gold, next time.

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The Verdict: Calling Yuri on Ice beautiful to watch is repetitive but this week’s 3 major animated performances were just that. But the beauty goes beyond that, and beyond the interior of of character and the depth that even quick check-ins among the many skaters gives us. This is a living community, with family, relationships, aspirations and realities. It’s a rich world and, were this not a middle arc episode, it could have won a 10.

I loved the continued expansion of the Coaches this season, with Yukov giving a little insight into what is going on, and about to go wrong, and what could be better. It grounds the whole spectacle in reality that the animation alone, and my limited familiarity with skating would not capture.

But the true stolen scene was at the end. Victor’s glow that Yuri’s declaration is like a marriage proposal hits the dancing nail of Boy x Boy or not Boy x Boy on the head. Male romance or not, on the surface or deep down, all that matters is the good company and growth as people.

Go on, this remains the season’s top must watch!

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Yuri!!! on Ice – 08

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The Gist: We meet several new skaters in Russia, JJ being the only direct challenger to Yuri (and Yurio), and see some great skating. Yurio has a rough but acceptable start, and his relationship with Yuri and Victor gets a little boost when they cheer him on lovingly.

But on the eve of the final showdown, Victor’s beloved Dog Maccachin is rushed to the vet, having choked on buns left at Yuri’s family shrine. Maccachin may not make it and Yuri begs Victor to rush home just in case. In desperation, Victor asks Yukov to coach Yuri in his absence, which puts Yuri and Yurio on the same team in a way. The stage is set for an epic showdown.

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In YOI’s world, all skaters are crazy… but in a crazy family sort of way that obsesses internally about their relationships and reason for being…

The Verdict: Awarding a Masterpiece grade mid-season is always more challenging than the beginning and the end because a build up, even perfectly executed, is predictable by design. This is why successful shows employ a mid season twist — a sudden death of a loved character or a reveal that a greater enemy was lurking all along — to make the audience reassess their belief in the Hero’s chances of success.

What puts Yuri on Ice above the rest is how it spins this convention on its head — how it fully bends it to the show’s own style and needs. Yes,  Maccachin may die and that means Victor will not be beside Yuri during the second half of the performance, where Yuri is at his most vulnerable. Yes, Maccachin’s injury subtly setup and Yuri’s insistence that Victor go to his pup is emotionally resonant, but the masterwork is in YOI’s lightness.

Victor runs to his former coach, his current antagonist of sorts, and asks that he coach for Yuri on the coming day. This entirely reshapes the relationship between several characters, totally diverts what would be a strong but conventional conflict (Yuri’s coach isn’t there to bolster his nerve) and absolutely locks next week in for an exciting and totally unpredictable showdown.

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Yuri!!! on Ice – 07

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The Gist: Yuri earns a silver… but there’s a silver lining.

After his flawless skating in the first half, Yuri completely freaks out and looks like he’s going to death spiral in the second half. In an attempt to get Yuri back on track, Victor says he will take responsibility if Yuri fails and resign as his coach.

This sends Yuri over the edge, but in an unexpected way: he’s used to living with his mistakes and has been worried that people would tie his failings to Victor. The cry does him good and he has a ver relaxed, thoughtful, and above all else surprising match.

Next up, Russia with love…

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The Verdict: I was critical of last week’s episode for throwing an pile of characters at us, each with their own agenda and relationships. This week, I have to look back on that choice more positively, as all that info has had a chance to sink in and — only from that experience — was it possible to really enjoy all the other skating going on while Yuri and Victor wait.

Yuri’s emotional responses were top notch, with his freak out in the basement and his playful monolog coming so close to earning a 10. However, a few short cuts (reused crowd clapping a few too many times) and the overwhelming ‘mid point’ nature of the episode held it back from a perfect score.

Can’t wait for next week though!

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Yuri!!! on Ice – 06

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The Gist: Yuri dominates the short program section of the China Cup, which sets him up for a rough second half of the event butterflies in the stomach and all.

We meet a torrent of other skaters and coaches and even an ex-girlfriend this week, blitz through all top 6 ranked skaters’ performances, and glimpse a little off the court social life too. It’s a ton of information, it’s a ton of animation, and the speed vs time to show it to us tugged at Yuri!!!’s quality this week. Faces and figures are occasionally drawn weirdly, parts of the crowd are animated at times, in a mechanical way, while others are not. It works, but it’s a step down from the YoI highs.

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The Verdict: While I could argue that the clips-show or trailer vibe of this episode may capture the overwhelming feelings Yuri himself is experiencing, the show doesn’t really play with that. Rather, it feels like a standard ‘competition’ arc, but compressed into a two parter instead of a half season.

On a final note, YoI’s choice to put bizarre fem-eyes on certain characters just doesn’t work — and it works even less when the general animation is stretched for time and budget. The giant eyes with long lashes look totally out of place and don’t capture anything about the characters’ personalities or relationships.

What salvages it all is not only the amount of content rendered here (6 routines, 5 of which are ‘new’ for us) but the emotional growth seen in Yuri. His new spin is to want to be hated by the world as the guy who stole Victor away. That’s the only way he can shake the identify of dancing like Victor, but as a student, as a lesser shadow.

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Yuri!!! on Ice – 05

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The Gist: Yuri competes in a small-fry national match that’s necessary to qualify back into the Grand Prix. His principle rival there is Minami Kenjiro, an annoying little boy with red streaked blonde hair and watery eyes. While Minami is quite young, and not particularly good, Yuri lost to him the previous year during his mental breakdown.

Yuri is cold to Minami at first, and also overly consious of his moves, leading to a luke warm performance. However, Victor’s mix of hugs and scorn drive home the importance of cheering other’s on — motivating them to do more — as a vehicle to motivate yourself.

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Yuri’s second performance is better, leading to the inevitable local victory. (although he falls and smashes his nose at the end)

Capping the episode is Yuri’s interview pre-China Cup, where he talks about his theme, which is Love. Not romantic love, but an abstract sense that love is all around him, from his home, his family, his friends and Victor.

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“That’s a costume from my dark past!” – Yuri

In an interesting move, Yuri’s first dance is almost completely reused from the previous time we’d seen it. This makes sense from a budgetary stand point, and because it is, in fact, the same routine. While that stood out to me, the fact that it was set against a different background and foreground, and that it was very nicely rendered in the first place, there’s nothing to really complain about.

Another interesting decision was to make Yuri the narrator all the way to the second performance, where it flips to Victor. This gives us all of Yuri’s insecurities right up to Victor’s cold reading of the situation, where we are suddenly in the unknown. It plays with the tension but it also plays into Yuri’s later note that he was enjoying himself so much, he wasn’t really thinking at all. He doesn’t really remember the performance.

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The Verdict: Yuri on Ice has the remarkable ability to initially make me think it’s lost its way, only to sell me on its decisions by the end of any given episode. This week, I found Minami really annoying at first, only to appreciate that his character served as a lens for Yuri to see himself ‘a few years back.’ It didn’t hurt that nearly half of Minami’s screen time was dedicated to a spunky dance and cheering for his friends.

Ultimately, Yuri’s interview was the crown jewel of the episode. It really captured the line this show is walking with overt boy-love themes, but with a heterosexual male who’s awakening to greater nuisance in life. Yuri doesn’t know what to call it, but Victor’s arrival and all of the confusion it brought, made him aware of the love his family and town and friends all shared with him and he can’t be thankful enough for that.

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Yuri!!! on Ice – 04

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The Gist: Yuri and Yurio train train train, each homing in on different strengths and motivations. Yuri’s first hurdle is choosing music for his next event, which leads him through a few of his professional contacts and more exploration into why he’s so bashful.

Meanwhile, Yurio joins a former ballerina for serious training, which he plans to capitalize on with his adolescent build. The training is harsh, but it pays off quickly and, in the eyes of his fellow skaters and coach, the fact that he is so dedicated to his craft, is a great sign of his emotional maturation.

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Victor and Yuri continue to bond, which harmonically allows Yuri to contact the woman who he once asked to compose his music (but didn’t ever use), which finally anchors how he will approach the season.

And the Season is already set — he will compete in a National meet first, followed by China and Russia. Should he survive as a top score in all of these, he will finally be able to compete in the Grand Prix.

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I love the choice to make Victor use Engrish instead of Rusianese. It really fits his personality quite well, somehow feels believable, and the voice actor generally gets the pronunciation close to correct to boot.

I also love the cell phones in this universe. Specifically, that they function just like our phones, with characters staying in contact by voice, tweets, photo shares, chat and email, seamlessly across multiple platforms and significant distances. It really works in this show because it is not used as a ‘cell phone scene,’ but rather something that happens naturally during any particular scene.

I also love that Yuko has a lovely understated crush on Yurio, and who’s texting is the vehicle through which Yuri and Yurio remain aware of each other. This works much more naturally than having to force the boys into news programs or to talk directly, which wouldn’t fit their characters.

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even the characters of this world aren’t sure where the line is between sexuality and the physicality of this sexualized male sport…

The Verdict: This was a top shelf build up episode, only falling short of a 10 because it had to explain several aspects of skating to the viewer and ratchet up the cast size to make the world feel more populated. If not for these structural pieces, Yuri’s relationship growth with Victor and coming to terms with his past errors through the growth of that relationship, was masterful.

Special note is definitely warranted by Yuri’s musicless practice: watching Yuri move without sweeping camera work and melody is hard to watch. That chases away the fantasy aspects of montaged training and really grounds the viewer in the hard-as-hell world of elite sports.

Finally, the parallel routines of Yuri and Yurio that cap the episode are wonderful. Not only does it include the music that pulls us back into the fantasy, but the boys have dramatically different body types, which make their movements different. Roll in all the growth they’ve had in a single episode, and we get a pre-pay off to their eventual showdown.

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