Rant and Rave: Yuzuru Hanyu embraces vulnerability in historic ice show ‘GIFT’

With a capacity of 55,000 seats, Tokyo Dome has hosted many of the world’s biggest talents, including BTS, Beyoncé, and the Rolling Stones. Ascending its stage is considered the pinnacle of success for an artist—a feat only top-drawer acts have achieved. Last February 26, it became the venue of the most anticipated ice show in history: GIFT, a one-day solo ice show produced by figure skating legend Yuzuru Hanyu himself. 

The two-time Olympic champion is the first skater to perform at the Dome. Teaming up with choreographer Mikiko Mizuno, musician Satoshi Takebe, dance troupe Elevenplay, and the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, Hanyu performed 12 programs, each befitting with their own costumes. Every performance was broken up by a personal pre-recorded video and narration that was shown on a large screen. But beyond wanting to entertain his audience, Hanyu shared in an interview that he hoped that GIFT would “provide a special place for one to return to when they are lonely.” 

Sun and moon

GIFT began with a voiceover of Hanyu expressing his desire to “become the things [he] loved.” As he spoke, the screen displayed a blazing fire that painted the stadium in streaks of red and gold. Hanyu then emerged to perform The Firebird, one of his novice programs. After the opening number, a video of the sun and moon played on the screen, with the celestial bodies becoming a principal motif of the show. 

Hanyu shared through a narration that he initially wanted to be the sun that always brought warmth to people. He thought that the moon was full of flaws—its surface was not smooth nor did it produce its own light. But he soon found strength in its imperfections. As he pursued his dreams, he gradually associated the moon with perseverance and clarity, especially in the face of failure. 

With this epiphany, it was fitting for him to perform Hope and Legacy, the program that allowed him to achieve his second world championship title in 2017. Hanyu did the impossible then by jumping from fifth place to the top of the podium with a new world record. His next two moving performances, One Summer’s Day and Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, only reinforced the themes of tenacity and perseverance. 

‘It’s time to heal’

To close the first half of the show, Hanyu surprised his audience by recreating his experience of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. The date “2022.02.10” flashed on the screen—the day of the men’s free skate—before he went through his 6-minute warm-up. An audio clip of his accomplishments was also played, mirroring the way many announcers introduced him in competitions. For the first time since the show started, there were no stylized backdrops or special effects that accompanied his skating, which contributed to the tense and anticipating atmosphere.

He then performed his short program Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso. At the Olympics, he popped one of the jumps in this program—the quadruple salchow—due to a hole in the ice rink, a mistake that cost him a spot on the podium. In one of the pre-recorded videos, he explained how confronting these experiences was painful, but it also brought him closure. “I’ve become strong thanks to you. It’s time to heal,” he said. 

For some people, all this effort to redeem one program might seem overblown. However, it was not just the jump that made the event difficult to revisit; it was also painful to reexamine the circumstances surrounding it. The Japanese figure skater at the time was preparing to defend his Olympic title while simultaneously nursing an ankle injury. By redoing this program, he managed to imbue it with a sense of courage and hope that he wished would inspire others. “I wanted to convey the message that you can make your dreams come true, even if not always in the way you originally imagined,” he explained.

Behind the persona

Unlike the start of GIFT, which was largely tinged with melancholy, the second half of the show featured more upbeat performances. The segment was kickstarted by Prince’s Let’s Go Crazy, played by a live band. Riding the momentum, Hanyu skated to Let Me Entertain You, his short program for the 2020-2021 season, and his self-choreographed Ashura-chan.

In contrast to the lively music, Hanyu asked the audience despondently, “When was it when I stopped liking and enjoying what I do?” As he spoke, a silhouette of a man caged by television screens was projected onto the stage. He then shared the frustration he felt in pursuit of his ideal self. “Does anybody understand who I am? Nobody will ever know,” Hanyu lamented. 

The stark disparity between these voiceovers and his energetic programs was jarring, but perhaps that was the point. Whereas the first half of the show tackled ideas that were related to dreams, the second half was focused on the facades people uphold. Vulnerability, in particular, is not something the audience usually thinks of in relation to performers. They think of the showmanship of their public persona. They see soloists as cultural gods, basking in a golden spotlight, forgetting that they are made out of flesh and blood—just like us regular humans. 

The most literal presentation of this theme was his performance of Phantom of the Opera, which featured a masked character. Skating to Music of the Night, Hanyu took on the role of the Phantom as he invited the audience into his world. A falling chandelier was also shown on the screen, alluding to one of the key events in the musical.

Finding catharsis

When the show reached its final act, Hanyu finally allowed himself to feel the full breadth of his emotions—from the wistful notes of A Fleeting Dream, to the uplifting renditions of Notte Stellata and Haru Yo Koi, and finally to the iconic choreographic sequence of Seimei, these stirring programs did not only please fans but also served as a catharsis for Hanyu, whose personal foibles often became an inspiration for his skating.

Witnessing GIFT was equal parts an out-of-body exultation, a recollection of one’s most painful and joyful memories, and a dash of personal growth to find your way back down to Earth. It was a journey that depicted Hanyu’s life through a mix of his skating and monologues that were sometimes theatrical, sometimes poetic, and always achingly heartfelt. 

True to its name, GIFT was an evening full of love. It was Hanyu’s token of appreciation for all the support he has received over the years. Months ago, he admitted to feeling uncertain of his future as a professional skater. Surrounded by the respect and admiration of thousands of people, he now felt ready to venture further into this chapter of his career. 

“If my wish will come true, I want to fly with everyone a little more,” he imparted. 

Rating: 4.0/4.0
Amanda Palmera

By Amanda Palmera

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