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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Video Killed The Yurio Star: Why Is Yuri On Ice's Soundtrack So Weak?

The homoerotic skating anime Yuri On Ice places great importance on the choice of music for performance. But can its soundtrack live up to its own implicit standards? And what does that say about the rest of the show's creative direction?








Yuri on Ice landed this fall with more the subtlety of a cannonball than a delicate ice skater, a fandom immediately exploding into being for its savvy blending of cute boys, the intricacies of figure skating, lushly animated cute boy butts, and the intricacies of ~love~. This latter thing of course propelled the show to great acclaim on Tumblr for its absolutely 100% undeniably canon gay narrative, but there's a lot to love in the narrative in general, from the use of a sports anime frame to analyze an aesthetic art (or maybe the reverse), to the development of a wider cast of characters with their own motivations for competing and sympathetic backstories, to the soundtrack which is...

The soundtrack is...

Ok look the soundtrack is not what I'd call a draw in this film. In fact, Yuri On Ice's score is... not great. And it's not great in a pretty fascinating way. 

What tipped me off to this subject was the theme of rival skater Yurio, the Russian Yuri. Yes, there's two dudes called Yuri in this show, designated helpfully Yuri and Yurio to signify... probably some pun that makes sense in Japanese, whatever. The point is, Yuri is Japanese and a waif, and Yurio is Russian and a punk, as expressed by his theme. If you can call it a theme. It's not so much a theme as like a burst of guitar squall, some dissonant feedback noise. This is fascinating to me because it is such an obvious and easy choice for him. Yurio is the Bad Boy of the series. That's sort of his whole character archetype. And this is the most generic conceivable soundtrack choice for the Bad Boy, this just overt signal of "look how rebellious this kid is."

It's a little strange since I'm not sure rock and roll is really that rebellious anymore--it's a pretty ubiquitous musical style--and since I listen to like avant garde metal but the stereotype of the greaser carries down through the ages I suppose in media by people who listen to like Dad Pop or whatever.

More importantly, though, I think it does a disservice to his character. Now, I see what the soundtrack is doing: the logic of this choice is that it establishes him as the rival and antagonist to an extent. But this has a tendency I think to flatten his character range. He's associated, ostensibly, with intense sexuality, but that dissonance doesn't particularly convey that dynamic. It therefore becomes difficult to square this with the contrast set up early in the show between his nature and his performance.

This is the problem with the narrative as a whole I think. Rather than using the soundtrack to uncover elements of the narrative to make it more interesting, it has instead a kind of flattening effect that simply reinforces the surface level emotions of the show. Yurio's theme does stick out like a sore thumb in the sense that it is radically different from the rest of the soundtrack, but beyond that it doesn't break out of the bounds of what is expected of the narrative.

Now, this is something that only really occurred to me because of a video essay on the Marvel movies and their soundtracks. This video, from Tony Zhou's "Every Frame a Painting" series, describes the common practice of using temp tracks to establish what the soundtrack should sound like, with the result that everything sounds kind of the same, and also sounds like... basically what you'd expect it to sound like. And while Dan Golding has critiqued the weight placed on temp tracks as the source of the sameyness, the basic QUALITY of a lack of inventiveness in the soundtrack doesn't seem to be under dispute.

The example that really stuck with me from this analysis was a scene from the first Thor movie. In this scene, Thor's companions arrive on earth, joining him in exile, and the backdrop for that scene is this sort of generic comedic music. Zhou suggests that an interesting alternative might have been to put a more emotional soundtrack behind this scene. After all, this is a scene in which funny stuff is happening, sure, but what's fundamentally driving the scene is the bond between these characters leading them to join their friend on an alien world! So why not take the unexpected path and explore THAT emotion instead?

If you're going to insist on a soundtrack for Yurio that is rock-influenced, why not use something that sounds, say, Hendrix or Princelike? Emphasize his sexuality! If this is such an important part of his character, but rebellion also needs to be expressed, well... we have music for that. We have a long HISTORY of music for that.

Or hell if you want to really do something radically different, just use some Russian metal or punk! Really ratchet up the rebellious thing!

Or fucking, Vitas, who cares? Make the chorus here play every time Yurio shows up. Imagine it! Do something, anything that has the potential to result in interesting new meaning emerging.

What I think is remarkable is that the soundtrack takes so few risks despite the fact that it's in the context of a show that's... all about taking risks by flipping the obvious musical choices on their heads.

The narrative kicks off when ice skating grand champion, and eventual love interest, Vincent shows up in Japan at Yuri's family's hot spring (really) to declare (while naked) (really) that he wants to be recent-catastrophic-failure Yuri's coach. Shortly thereafter an outraged Yurio shows up demanding to be Vincent's student, since they're both Russian and something something national pride whatever.

Anyway, the important thing for the sake of this argument is that Vincent gives Yuri and Yurio a challenge at the beginning of his training with them, one that will determine which boy will be his student. He has them, famously, perform to twin pieces, Eros and Agape. There's some expectation at this point that Yuri, innocent waif that he is, will be skating to Agape--selfless love--and Yurio will be dancing to the spicy hot Eros. Instead, Vincent does the opposite, giving Yurio "Agape" and having Yuri perform to Lady Gaga's "Sexxx Dreams." Naked. Just kidding, Yuri has to skate to Eros. But boy wouldn't THAT have been interesting to see?

Anyway the entire thing is predicated on a flip: can these two people learn to emote and present an experience that seems to be far outside their personal experiences and comfort zones?

Now, there's something to be said for the way the soundtrack presents a baseline for that reversal to play off of. I can see the logic of that. By doing the expected and fading into the background, perhaps, it allows these two pieces to shine all the brighter.

But DOES the soundtrack in fact achieve that end? Remember, I'm skeptical of the idea that Yurio's theme conveys sexual energy. It might convey a Hard Rock Rebel (like, to someone in their 60s I guess it sounds pretty rebellious to have electric guitar feedback) but it doesn't scream "when I think about you I touch myself" though a screamed version of that song would be something to hear for sure. Get on that, Meshuggah. I also don't know that there's anything in Yuri's backing music that suggests "agape" as a theme (though this may be intentional: part of his development seems to be that he doesn't appreciate the bonds in his life).

If the idea is to establish a baseline in a subtle way, it's hard to say that it's achieving what it's setting out to do. At the very least there's some inconsistency to how this is handled. Perhaps the aim there is to highlight the performance pieces by having the rest of the soundtrack understated... but if so why have a theme clearly intended for Yurio's character that draws attention to itself with a loud guitar caterwauling? I can't exactly hum it but it certainly doesn't fade into the background. 

It's hard for me to judge all this, of course, because I can't exactly recall much of anything from the soundtrack. Well, except for things like the use of a weirdly choral, "epic" rendition of the second movement of Beethoven's 9th--and really, what the fuck did they think they were doing here? Who greenlit this abomination?--but that at least this time when the Beethoven started playing the white haired love interest didn't die during a giant robot fight with his depressed boyfriend! 

Though boy wouldn't THAT have been an interesting turn of events for this show? 

I'd actually level some of this same criticism at Eva early on, while we're shoehorning Evangelion jokes into the proceedings. For all that I love the show and for all that many of the tracks are iconic, there's a lot of stuff that doesn't really stand out as particularly inventive in the soundtrack (as opposed to the wider sound design). It's notable that the musical moments that tend to stand out to people come in the latter portion of the series, when things have gone well and truly off the fucking rails narratively. And, of course, there's the sheer audacity of the soft pop-rock ballad about suicide playing over scenes of the entire world ending. That's great stuff, in part because it's just so shockingly weird and unexpected and yet somehow utterly perfect, dragging the narrative back constantly to the fact that the world is ending because one teenager can't deal with his fucked up life and no one gave him a therapist.

It's not dissimilar, in fact, to the 2001 version of Metropolis (the anime of the Osamu Tezuka manga of the Fritz Lang movie) which uses a bunch of jazz in a movie about robots, culminating in another apocalypse, this time to the tune of Ray Charles's "I Cant' Stop Loving You." Thankfully two movies does not a cliche make but it's interesting I think that there's multiple anime films which have really made an impression on me by similarly making these sort of outrageous, audacious soundtrack choices for particular effect--specifically, the effect of linking the personal strongly with seismic change within a civilization.

Such techniques are not uncommon in a lot of anime classics. Cowboy Bebop, for example, is set in the future but constantly references westerns, and the soundtrack is all Yoko Kanno and the Seatbelts doing blues and jazz. Samurai Champloo is set in the Edo period but the soundtrack is all hip hop. These shows are fundamentally about the parallels between time periods and the music is used to accentuate these parallels.

Not that everything has to be super metatextual and complex. The soundtrack to FLCL for example, from existing songs by The Pillows, doesn't have quite the same commentary as Cowboy Beebop or Samurai Champloo, but their songs have to be reworked to fit the show with sometimes intriguing results that I don't think they'd have gotten otherwise. Big O, meanwhile, is a great study in just using really solid recurring themes for particular characters and situations that are certainly tropey but are so totally committed to their tropes (in the context of a narrative that may or may not be an externally imposed performance playing out again and again on an infinite stage!) that it really, really works (even if sometimes it works because it's directly ripping off Queen).

At their best, these soundtrack choices can create transcendentally strange and new experiences. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, for example, is a cyberpunk series scored by a jazz composer (Yoko Kanno again) who's doing a bunch of soft, sensual electronica! So instead of badass action scene music for action scenes they'll sometimes have this ambient, haunting backing and it creates a sense of distance from a kind of combat that is outside the realm of the human, a transhuman violence. I don't expect the Hollywood whitewashed remake of the film to achieve this same experience. 

Oh, and of course there's Susumu Hirasawa whose scores for things like Paprika and Paranoia Agent are just so aggressively strange that they highlight the brilliant surrealism of Satoshi Kon's work--inventive, strange soundtracks for inventive, strange narratives. The opening of Paranoia Agent, featuring an aggressively, absurdly upbeat song paired with images of the show's cast laughing hysterically amidst scenes of total devastation, burned into my brain as a teenager and is still etched vividly there. Core to this experience is the soundtrack.

There's probably something a little ridiculous about applying Deleuze and Guattari's ideas about art to a sports anime about cute boys but I do think it's worth noting the way all these other shows in one way or another offer, in my estimation, "rents into chaos," experiences that are affectively arresting and astounding and unassessable because they break with our expectations about the world and about art, experiences that offer new impressions that happen precognitively, before our brains can even figure out what the heck we're experiencing. Moreover, these shows then pair that with semiotic depth as well: the soundtracks are part of the field of symbols that make up these texts, and their collision creates new narratives and meanings and connections.

And that's ultimately the point! This aspect of performance is crucial to the narrative within the show, absolutely critical to the ground on which these pretty boys compete! Everything is tied to music, and the complexity of what that music says both in the gut and in the brain. And yet, there's not a lot of thought seemingly put into the soundtrack itself and how that soundtrack can go beyond the conventional.

This is basically my problem with the show as a whole.

Now, just to make it clear I don't object to the use of tropes within the storytelling of this show. I think there's a lot to be done with the fact that these two Yuris are different archetypes of uh... well, love interests basically. The innocent waif with his repressed feelings and the bad boy with his rudeness and sexual energy? Oh my yes. I'm on board for that. I don't take issue with this at all or the overall arc of the show and its sports anime plotting!

It does bug me, though, that the fandom seems to have decided that this is omg Totally Canon Gay (TM), though, because I don't think the show is anywhere near as daring as it's been made out to be, and this narrative choice shows a lack of interest in pushing the envelope in a way I think is at least analogous to what's happening (or not happening) with the soundtrack.

I mean look. It's not that I don't see it you know? I get it. I totally get how aggressively gay a lot of it is. But I also think that if you look at the text, purely the text, not the fandom around it, you can make a compelling argument that everything in there is just in there for the sake of metaphor, homoeroticism that has no actual bearing in reality, appealing to a particular fanbase, &c. I think that it would be just as easy to make those arguments as it is to argue that they're a canon couple! I watched the last episode not long before doing the recording for this article and despite the fact that everyone freaked out about how totally canon everything was, the show itself framed everything entirely in terms of competition and skating. Shinji fucking Ikari is more direct and overt about being really for real in love with Kaworu than anyone in this show is!

What I dispute is not the possibility of the queer reading but the unassailability of that queer reading, and then the bestowing of credit for that reading upon the show's creators. Like. We've done this song and dance before. We've seen this with Sherlock, we've seen it with Supernatural, we've seen it with the Marvel Movies... hell I wrote two essays about those movies! I do find it a little exasperating honestly because it depends on this bizarre process where people decide that their reading of a thing is THE reading of a thing and therefore the creators are inherently responsible for that reading. This projection of subjectivity back into objectivity and intentionality is bad for loads of reasons but here it serves to silence more critical readings of the show. Moreover, the fact that a bunch of people seem to have from the beginning decided that the show WOULD be queer suggests that there's an element of confirmation bias here that, again, isn't wrong outright but obscures the limitations of the text.

I think that it's important to recognize how much this show pussyfoots around this issue, keeping everything within the realm of plausible deniability. This is a very safe narrative. And it's a narrative that, correct me if I'm wrong, still exists within the context of a homophobic culture--both Japan's and from the standpoint of the audience that's going to be reading this article the Anglosphere's. Like I don't think we all just woke up one day and homophobia was done. Ignoring that context is a problem in the same way that ignoring this context for Sherlock or Supernatural or the MCU is a problem. These mass market products, appealing to as wide an audience as possible, can garner an advantage from teasing an is-it-isn't-it dynamic. I find it personally frustrating to constantly get teased instead of, you know, seeing narratives that actually involve exploring relationships and their ins and outs, which this show only does if you presume from the start that the winks and nudges are being done in good faith.

But beyond all this I think it's not particularly good writing in the same way I think the soundtrack isn't particularly good. While this has been built up as groundbreaking, the actual show itself cleaves very close to the tried and true, the safe and familiar. This isn't to say that it's bad! It's a fun show that I enjoyed watching and I'll be tuning in whenever the next season comes out. But, I have reservations and those reservations are really about the seeming unwillingness of the show to reach for something more innovative and daring.

I want the show to do what Victor does to Yuri and Yurio! I want it to apply TO ITSELF the kind of challenge to go beyond the comfort zone that stuff like Free! or as the cool kids know it "Swimming Anime" have already established. Yuri and Yurio are a delight to watch because they keep finding new ways and reasons to push beyond their limitations. The show itself can aspire to similar brilliance, if pushed hard enough.


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4 comments:

  1. The thing is I actually don't think sexual energy is supposed to be a huge part of Yurio's character. Note that he's 15. You seem to be mostly extrapolating that from the "Eros/Agape" double reversal. But the reversal there is that he thinks he's suited to skate "Eros" because, well, he thinks he's more mature than he is and that's pretty consistent in his characterization throughout the series.

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    1. Man I did NOT remember he's supposed to be that young :I Anime.

      To some extent I think I'm also extrapolating from the tropes on display here and the constant positioning of Yuri as the Innocent One. I feel like to an extent Yurio gets naturally pushed into a more experienced role? But like that could actually be ME cleaving too closely to tradition! Whoops.

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