Ask yourself: what do you you want to get out of your entertainment? If someone were to ask you to make a detailed outline of everything you want to see in any television show, movie, game, book, album, or other form of media, what would be on your list? Not what type of genres, settings, characters or stories you would prefer, but what themes, qualities and values would you look for? When you go into a movie theater, pick up a book, put a disc into a console or reach for the remote, what is it you hope to come away with?
One thing I’ve noticed from personal experience and from spending time with other fans is that sometimes recognizing everything we want in entertainment is difficult to do. We might prioritize things like good writing, representation, a unique concept or a story that wraps up all it’s threads, but all of those things can be present in a piece of entertainment and still leave us underwhelmed. In cases like this we often discover that we have more expectations for entertainment than we originally thought. While we receive everything we thought we wanted, we walk away disappointed because it wasn’t everything we internally craved.
There are some critics who have large, specific lists of things they look for in media, but generally, that’s not the case for most casual fans of entertainment and storytelling. Our mental list of things we want out of a story is constantly changing as we grow and develop as people and as society changes around us. If we knew what we wanted to see all of the time, we’d never get excited or surprised or disappointed by anything. We’d never have that inexpressible feeling that leaves us with nothing else to say except for, “I don’t know what I just witnessed, but I loved it.” We may not be able to point out everything that needs to be included in a story for us to feel satisfied, but when we receive something that speaks to and connects with us in a surprising and personal way, we realize that it’s exactly what we’ve wanted all along.
It turns out it’s just as difficult for creators to understand what their audience wants to see as it is for fans. While a lot of entertainment is about creating art for the sake of art and telling our stories through media, it’s also an industry in which creators hope to appeal to general audiences to make a profit, which is a lot harder than it might seem. We see tropes and trends in entertainment that people are generally dissatisfied with and bored of, but we don’t see them disappearing. At least not quickly, because its just as difficult for creators to recognize the growing trends and wishes of their audience as it is for the audience to recognize their ever changing expectations.
Hayao Miyazaki, the critically acclaimed anime director and founder of Studio Ghilbi, recently made some bold complaints about Japan’s current anime industry. “Some people spend their lives interested only in themselves. Almost all Japanese animation is produced with hardly any basis taken from observing real people…it’s produced by humans who can’t stand looking at other humans.” (Source) While Miyazaki takes a very cynical approach, I think he may be onto something concerning how many creators, not just in anime, but in all entertainment mediums, don’t seem to know how to connect with their audience.
Delivering To Your Fans:
However, every once in a while, a group of creators come along that seem to grasp the answer to this mystery. Sometimes it’s in the form of paying tribute to fans. When BBC’s Sherlock Season Three began airing, written by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, fans immediately took note of the show’s unique structure. Even now jokes are still made about how it’s essentially “like watching fanfiction”. In a lot of ways, Sherlock Season Three feels like a big thank you fans and a sign that the creative team was keeping an eye on what their fans wanted and appreciated their support.
In Spring 2016, anime studio Trigger, famous for their ridiculous, over the top stories, characters and settings, started airing two new shows. One, called Kiznaiver, was structurally different from anything the studio had ever done before and what fans had come to expect from them. This experimental project received mixed reviews. The other was Space Patrol Luluco, which felt less like an actual story and more of a tribute to their fans. In this show, Trigger returned to the wacky, senseless style of storytelling people loved them for while heavily referencing all of their previous works, making the whole thing feel like a giant thank you to their fans for putting up with their weird experiments and a promise to deliver what they wanted to see in the future. These, of course, are examples of creators who observed their fan base and gave them what they wanted to see. However, there are some pieces of art and entertainment that appeal to the general public on a fundamental level, whether the viewer is a fan of the genre and medium or not.
Delivering to the World:
One such show from the Fall 2016 season surprised everyone with how quickly it took root within the internet fan community, given how little it was hyped up beforehand. Yuri!!! on Ice, an original sports anime, began its run and managed to capture the hearts of anime fans and non-fans alike. This show swept the internet by storm, rapidly gaining popularity with every new episode. Viewers started noticing how the show was constantly one step ahead of what they wanted and expected to see.
What gives Yuri!!! on Ice this power to connect with such a large group of people is the humanity of its characters, both in conception and action. While they all reach for the same goal, to win a gold medal in the world ice skating competition, we’re given in depth looks into their lives and who they are as people. Both Yuri and Viktor are set up to be complex and interesting characters far before the show goes the final step to establish their canonical gay relationship. When that happens, it still doesn’t become the point of the show’s focus, nor is it fetishized or aimed towards the fujioshi community in any way. It’s presented as just one of many parts of their lives as they work together to accomplish their goals. Their love and passion for their dreams and for each other is something that all audiences can easily connect with. What’s really interesting about how this show presents Yuri and Viktor’s relationship is that all the supporting characters accept the fact that they’re in a relationship without question. There aren’t any jokes or gags revolving around their sexuality like we’re used to seeing in most entertainment. The way the show portrays Yuri and Viktor is what many have been wanting to see for a long time: gay characters and relationships that aren’t the butt end of a hetero-normative punch line. This show doesn’t ignore the sexual orientation of its characters, but they never become the primary focus. Rather, it strips the characters of their sexuality and genders until all that’s left is who they really are: people. Real people with dreams, goals and passion.
In addition to having a great cast of lead characters, Yuri!!! on Ice has a diverse and interesting cast of supporting characters as well. Although many of them don’t get as much screen time as one might hope, they all have dreams, lives, relationships and struggles that they have to learn how to deal with. A large selection of nationalities are represented, once again avoiding stereotypes. Each of the skate performances are accompanied by an incredible score that uniquely represent their dreams, identities and personal struggles.
As with any show that explodes in popularity, there are always those who don’t believe it’s worthy of the recognition its received, and in this case it’s not without reason. Yuri!!! on Ice has a handful of flaws. Its supporting characters aren’t developed or explored as much as I would like them to be, the animation, while gorgeous at times, is inconsistent for most of the show’s run, and many of the in between episodes can easily start feeling repetitive and boring. However, the fact that it’s become so popular that it’s starting to be considered mainstream is a sign that it’s making a real impact on people, and that isn’t something that should be ignored, and the amount of work that Mitsurou Kubo and Sayo Yamamoto put into discovering what trends viewers were tired of, what both Japanese and Western audiences wanted to see and the risks they took in creating a show based on the results is something I think should be respected.
Even though part of entertainment and storytelling is telling your own personal story, there’s a lot of power in searching out what your audience wants and delivering it to them. One of the most incredible things about stories is how they connect with people. They connect fans with each other and with the creators. They give us things we can be surprised by and excited about. They create that transcendental feeling of satisfaction that make us feel like we’re not alone and are understood by others. They appeal to our basic human needs of acceptance and validation. They speak to our emotions and brings us to tears. They inspires us to push ourselves to the next level of life, to continue to survive and improve. Stories have the capability of changing us on a fundamental level as we see the world through the eyes of others and discover new things about ourselves. When a show’s creators take the time and effort to make a connection with their consumers, the result is powerful. Like Yuri and Viktor, stories like this are capable of stripping away the differences between people because they don’t speak to our genders, sexuality, races, politics or religions, but to our humanity.
Surprising, the things that people ended up wanting last fall weren’t the things one might expect. They were things like respectful ethnic diversity, realistic LGBT+ representation, characters who acted like real people with real lives, relationships, mental struggles and questions about their identities, a powerful soundtrack that reflected the nationalities of the characters represented, interactions between characters that could go from funny to tear jerking in just minutes without feeling out of place and, ultimately, something we could all connect with. The reason Yuri!!! on Ice is so loved and praised by such a large and diverse audience that under different circumstances would have nothing in common is because it’s everything we wanted and were ready to receive. It appealed to our humanity, our differences, and our most basic emotions. It speaks to that burning desire in our hearts to reach farther than ever before, to dream, to break rules, to be ourselves, no matter what anyone thinks or says. At its core, this show is terrifyingly, beautifully, powerfully human.
Critically, Yuri!!! on Ice is far from being a critical masterpiece, but for many, it was perfect. And I think that’s powerful.