Every story has a cast of main characters, and most of the time, there is a designated central or protagonist character who plays the most important role. The protagonist must be capable of doing the heavy lifting in the story to make the narrative and morals stick. This storytelling rule applies to anime series as well, but some protagonists fall short while others become iconic.
My Hero Academia, despite being one of the most popular currently airing series, has some flaws, including its protagonist Izuku Midoriya. Though the anime begins with Izuku's point of view and centralizes him sufficiently with his connection to the Number One Hero All Might, Izuku alone does not always succeed as the protagonist for a variety of reasons. His ability to uphold and drive the story and its morals isn't as strong as Yuji Itadori from Jujutsu Kaisen, another recent anime icon. Though both characters are layered with likable qualities and solid motivations, being a proper protagonist requires more than a strong backstory and likability.
What Is a Protagonist?
While each character in a series has their own story to tell, there is usually a main character or protagonist at the center of the plot. According to Oregon State University, a protagonist is a character who is "the emotional heart of the narrative." They are "the main character who drives the plot" and "whose fate is most important." The website Literary Terms also explains that a protagonist "give[s] the audience someone to focus on and lend narrative unity to the story." In essence, a protagonist has to maintain the focus of the narrative, lead the narrative and influence the emotional message to centralize the entire series.
The Importance of Yuji and Izuku in Their Series
In Jujutsu Kaisen, the plot's focus is on fighting against curses and more specifically ridding the world of Sukuna Ryoumen, the King of Curses. The overall aim for the characters is to bring about peace for humanity, which the curses, and Sukuna especially, threaten. Yuji leads this narrative by choosing to be a Jujutsu Sorcerer and accepting his role as a compass to find Sukuna's remains. He is incredibly active in his story, and his actions of eating Sukuna's fingers and making his heroic choices are what drive the story. As a protagonist, Yuji influences the emotional message through his struggle to save everyone he can, even those who've committed crimes. His motivation to give everyone a proper death asks the question of what a proper death is. This reveal of his great compassion, even toward his enemies, supports the narrative that even the villains have their reasons for fighting, and Yuji stands at a moral crossroads that will surely impact the story and his development.
In the animated series My Hero Academia, the plot revolves around students who learn to be heroes and uphold peace by battling villains and saving lives. Izuku guides the story of what a real hero looks like, even though many characters strive to be heroes. Despite his diminutive stature at first, he proves himself and works hard to take All Might's place as the new representation of peace and fight for humanity. Izuku's role involves supporting the series' emotional theme to a large extent. He serves as an example for his fellow soldiers and viewers of what a true hero should be by genuinely wanting to save people in the face of all odds.
Izuku Is Weak Because Of Yuji's Strength
There is no question that both Yuji and Izuku are protagonists in their own right. They are both central to the plot, and their ideals and values are at the heart of their respective series. However, the difference is in their levels of proactivity. Yuji doesn't hesitate to make his decisions, and even in rare moments where he struggles with what to do next, he still takes the action of his own accord or shows that he's working through his mental process in his own way. Izuku, on the other hand, has a problem with hesitation and standing out from the pack. He has moments where he is too passive, and he doesn't always know how to speak his mind, which has a lot to do with his lack of confidence. Granted, in the most recent season of MHA, Izuku is starting to come into his own and make his own decisions despite the orders or expectations of those around him. His growth as an independent protagonist that fully leads has come a long way, while Yuji leads the pack from the very beginning.
There is No Replacement for Jujutsu Kaisen's Yuji, but MHA has other Options
Another difference between these two characters is a similar debate among the fans. It's a rarity to have more than one anime character act as a main character, but both JJK and MHA introduce characters that challenge the protagonist's cemented role.
Although Yuji and Yuta haven't yet crossed paths in the anime, JJK fans disagree over which character would make a more compelling protagonist. In the prequel movie Jujutsu Kaisen: 0, Yuta's thrilling journey is described. It emphasizes his impact on the plot as the wielder of the special grade curse Rika and how he serves as the emotional center of it as the curse's childhood sweetheart. Most fans would concur that Yuji remains the ideal protagonist and is therefore irreplaceable because Yuta is not significantly tied to the story that centers on Ryoumen Sukuna after the movie is over.
To be fair to Izuku, the first half of Season 1 does a great job of maintaining Izuku's protagonist role. However, with such a wide variety of characters, some of whom uphold the same values and ideals that Izuku has, it's easy to see other characters stand out. Paired with Izuku's unfortunate tendency to fall into the background, other characters stand out above him even more so. If it weren't for All Might and the quirk of All For One, Izuku's role as the protagonist would be much harder to uphold.
Even worse for Izuku is the fact that he wasn't initially meant to possess that power. When the series introduces the character Mirio and reveals he was meant to be chosen as All Might's successor, Izuku's status as the protagonist is challenged. During the "Shie Hassakai" arc, Izuku aims to prove himself the rightful successor, and although he does come out as the hero in the end, this only happens because of other characters' efforts and Mirio's unfortunate defeat. Throughout most of this arc, Izuku is passive and uninspiring as he fumbles on how to save the day. In the end, Mirio and other characters like Kirishima and Shoto are arguably a better fit as the protagonist, at least early on.
Izuku's hesitation and lack of confidence are the only things preventing him from being a fantastic protagonist. He will drive the plot and stand out as a central character more as he develops in those areas. Yuji has mastered what it took Izuku roughly six seasons to do. Yuji makes for a more compelling protagonist until Izuku becomes fully realized as the protagonist of his own tale. He serves as the catalyst for the heroes' ability to "fight the good fight," so to speak, and Jujutsu Kaisen's universe noticeably changes as a result of his example.