I think my favorite thing about Yuri On Ice is that I REALLY can’t anticipate the way Yuri acts??
When I first started the anime I thought I wasn’t going to like Yuri much, he seemed like a lot of the usual ‘talented but socially awkward anime protags’ - he instantly reminded me of Onoda Sakamichi from Yowapeda, actually. I thought they were gonna be more similar.
But Yowapeda’s really cheesy, has a big cast, and focuses more on the friendship/team aspect; YOI is like… so aggressively mature and Genuine, which is the word I always round back to when trying to describe the anime. Yuri feels like a real person because even though he’s so anxious and unsure of himself a lot, and dorky and easily flustered, he’s also got a lot of strength to his personality and his own less appealing traits and selfishness shine through, still. Which I think is something that doesn’t happen a lot with most protags like him?
I’m somewhat limited, I’ve only watched Yowapeda and Free! so I’m not well versed in the sports-anime tropes, but Onoda is a good example of a really likable protag who’s… a little one-note, I think? Like, I adore Onoda, he’s great, but he’s not nearly as compelling as Yuri in terms of depth of character (in my opinion anyway). Onoda’s kind of the ‘heart’ of the team, he’s the optimism and tenacity. But that’s also, sort of, all he is?
Meanwhile Yuri’s someone who’s already recognized as being great at what he does, it’s just that he’s constantly holding himself back. He even admits that, despite having support around him at all sides, he still felt very alone and afraid, which is! Really interesting!! Yuri isn’t just some flatly written, nervous person with a heart of gold who just needs more practice to excel. He’s a person with worries and self-doubts but he’s also selfish, he has a hard time recognizing things outside of himself, and it hinders his ability to really grow as a person.
I think that’s why I find his relationship with Viktor so refreshing and compelling. Viktor isn’t just a driving force who helps Yuri become a technically better athlete, he’s constantly helping Yuri recognize new things about himself, things that force Yuri to be thoughtful and grow as a person. The fact that he’s Yuri’s idol as well as an immensely accomplished skater helps Yuri take his words to heart, but I think the fact that he’s a clear love interest too - or, more specifically, not a lifelong friend or family member - is what really gives him an advantage in bringing out Yuri’s full potential. He can recognize aspects of Yuri that other people might never have been able to see, and he can coax them out through a mutual bond of trust and affection.
And what I REALLY love, and what is seen in episode 5 too, is that Yuri is also giving Viktor a chance to be surprised and learn new things! Viktor is disappointed in Yuri (and surprised, I think) at Yuri’s attitude to a fellow skater/admirer, which has a lot to do with Yuri’s hyper-focus on himself and inability to see his own worth through the eyes of others, I think. Viktor also doesn’t expect Yuri to be disobedient, or to have the audience gravitate to his performance, despite flaws. He realizes this is part of Yuri’s appeal, too.
All in all, Yuri is just an extremely compelling protagonist, and certainly one of the view I’ve cared for so genuinely, one that’s always acting beyond my expectations. I find myself so terribly invested in his performances (my heart was racing during his free skate program…!), I want him to learn and succeed! To grow as a person and become more comfortable and understanding of himself. It’s so refreshing to have a protagonist like this, who’s easy to admire but feels so human, too.