Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga Fruits Basket
by Jason Thompson, Sep 20th 2012
Episode CXXI: Fruits Basket
If you haven't read Fruits Basket, you probably haven't read any shojo manga in the last 10 years. This is the manga that kept Tokyopop alive from 2004 to 2009 (and it's sad that it's out of print now). As much as One Piece and Naruto ARE Shonen Jump, Fruits Basket IS the star title of the Hakusensha magazines (LaLa and Hana to Yume), where fantasy/sci-fi elements and bishonen teases coexist with romance and drama. Well-drawn, full of memorable characters and great lines, it's a manga that's very different and much deeper (and darker) than it first appears.
It's the last days of summer in Seattle: the weather is still warm, there's green grass, sunshine, and bluejays singing on the fence of my house. What better day to stay indoors and lead all 23 volumes of Fruits Basket from 9 am to whenever in a massive FRUITS BASKET MARATHON? I haven't read the series since 2007, when Tokyopop had only translated about half of it, so like when I reviewed Hoshin Engi a few columns ago, I'll be plugging myself up to the pulse, blood pressure and respiration machines and READING THE HELL OUT OF this manga. Will I survive? Are you ready for spoilers? Then follow me into the dark and dive into the Well of Loneliness as we enter the pitch-black room that is the soul of Natsuki Takaya!!!
It's just after 9 am, and I'm sittin' at Herkimer Coffee in Seattle was 23 volumes of manga. The original editor of Fruits Basket was all-around cool dude Jake Forbes, which probably explains the nice one-page intro in volume 1 ("Something about Fruits Basket is special. What that special ingredient is, you'll have to discover for yourself.") Notably, Jake manages to avoid saying the "R"-word, Ranma 1/2, which was the #1 manga that people used to compare Fruits Basket to back in the early '00s, although really they have nothing in common except the idea of people transforming into animals.
Meet Tohru Honda. Now this is the ultimate cheerful shojo manga heroine: she's living in a tent in the woods, with nothing but her dead mother's shrine for company, but she's still unbelievably perky. ("I can't say my life is easy…but I never let it get me down. That's me—ever the optimist!")
Thinking back to her dear departed mother, Tohru remembers how her mom used to tell her stories of the Chinese Zodiac, how all the 12 animals gathered for a great banquet. Tohru always felt sorry for the 13th animal, the cat, who was tricked out of his spot in the banquet by the cunning rat.
While roaming around in the woods Goldlilocks-style, Tohru finds a strange house and meets Shigure Sohma, a novelist. (I love how all writers in manga are handsome adult men who lounge around the house wearing traditional kimono. I need to work this image.) And—surprise! Shigure Sohma shares the house with his young relative Yuki Sohma, the handsomest boy at Tohru's school. The Sohmas are wealthy, and it turns out that Tohru is camping on their property.
Yuki and Shigure figure out that Tohru is homeless and offer her a place to stay. But then, suddenly, into the house busts Kyo Sohma, a fiery teenage martial artist who has a grudge against Yuki and is always trying to beat him! Yuki, who is as good at karate as he is at breaking ladies' hearts, defeats Kyo, but in the process, Kyo gets knocked into Tohru's arms! And as soon as they're face-to-face…KYO TURNS INTO A CAT!
TALKING ANIMALS!! The Sohma clan are possessed by the "twelve vengeful spirits" of the Chinese zodiac! Shigure is the dog (personality-wise, he's a dirty dog, specifically), Kyo is the cat, and Yuki is the rat. Whenever they're embraced by a member of the opposite gender, they change into cuddly animals—which really makes them the perfect non-threatening love interests for a shojo manga. After a certain period of time, they change back to human, but then they're naked. YES. It sounds like a cool superpower, but think again! "If normal people knew your secret, it would sicken them. They'd stay away from you. You would be forced to live alone."
And so begins the major theme of this manga, beneath all its shojo sparkle and superpowers: the fear of loneliness. In Fruits Basket, loneliness is the ultimate bad thing, a trend that perhaps reflects a larger Japanese cultural trend expressed in many other manga, novels and TV shows from the 1990s onwards. Even Tohru is such a perky go-getter because she's afraid of what'll happen if she isn't. ("If I don't push myself a little, I'll die alone.") But the Sohmas are a family, and they (at least Shigure, Kyo and Yuki) welcome Tohru into their house as a honorary family member.
Of course, Tohru does the cooking. Just once, I'd like to read a manga about a guy who lives in a house full of girls and does all their cooking for them.
So this is the setup: Yuki is the cool, super-smooth, slightly aloof guy who's secretly insecure, and Kyo is the fiery, rash, immature guy who's openly insecure. They hate each other's guts (although they also each secretly envy one another) and are always fighting, and Kyo always loses. Shigure plays sort of the big brother role, giving them advice, while also being just a little sleazy (he writes softcore romance novels, after all).
It's interesting that Tohru seems to like Kyo more, since normally in shojo manga, it's the 'cool' guy who's the #1 love interest, and the 'hot' guy is just some laughable dork, like Shuichi in Hana-Kimi. Although it's actually a very even love triangle…I can't quite tell who Tohru likes the most…
Crud, a half hour has passed and I'm still only halfway through the first volume. MUST READ MANGA FASTER. Of course, shojo manga almost always takes longer to read than shonen manga. And also, like most manga, Fruits Basket gets less dense as it goes on; it's like the first chapters have to be super-jammed with info to get you into the story, and as it goes on, it starts to ease up.
Speaking of shojo and shonen: it occurs to me that if this were a shonen manga, it'd be full of fight scenes, like Sumomo Momomomo. Instead, Yuki and Kyo are martial artists, and some of the other characters are super-tough too (Kagura, the boar, a hyper girl who has a crush on Kyo, is always smashing through walls), but the fights are just little squabbles in the background, and the focus is always on character & dialogue. Presumably, Takaya (and/or her readers) just isn't interested in focusing on that aspect of the story: it's like how in Twilight all the fight scenes and gory vampire stuff takes place offstage, because Stephenie Meyer just doesn't care about it. (That is the ONLY way I will compare Twilight to Fruits Basket. I PROMISE.) Although it's smart to have "martial arts" and "fights" as part of the backstory at least, because that way, the animators in the anime or the filmmakers in the movie can expand 'em out into full-on fight scenes, and then everybody's happy.
Here's one way in which Fruits Basket is special: I actually like these little meditations on kindness and loneliness and sociability that the characters say in this manga. They aren't cheesy, instead, they are pretty wise and thoughtful.
Remember what I said a sentence ago? This isn't the best example: Tohru compares the Sohmas to fruit and herself to an onigiri and sadly thinks "There would never be room for an onigiri in a Fruits Basket." This is true, Tohru. This is true.
Due to a temporary plot complication, Tohru temporarily leaves the Sohma house and moves in with her grandfather. As a keepsake, she takes two books from the Sohma house, representing her two love interests: "Pleasant Vegetable Garden" and "Martial Arts: The Passionate Soul."
New childhood memory flashback: Tohru's "first love" was a mysterious little boy with a baseball cap who led her home when she was a little girl, crying and lost. WHO COULD IT BE???? Could it be Peter Dinklage???
More Onigiri Metaphor: "People around the world are like onigiri! Everyone has an umeboshi with a different shape and color and flavor. But because it's stuck on their back, they might not be able to see their umeboshi. 'There's nothing special about me. I'm just white rice.'"
From Takaya: "Boys with feminine faces are destined to cross-dress (or be made to)."
New characters show up. One is Momiji, a "weird foreigner", who is half-German, dresses as a girl, eats lollipops, transforms into a rabbit, and basically is the most shota character imaginable. Another is Hatori Sohma, the family doctor, who seems harsh and cold at first, and has a tragic backstory. Behind them both, we start to see hints of a mysterious figure: Akito, the reclusive young head of the Sohma clan. The first things we find out about Akito is that (1) he locked up Yuki in a dark room and tortured him, and (2) he stabbed out Hatori's eye in a jealous rage. Family is not always so good. Dark clouds are gathering.
Takaya loves to draw stick figures. Check out the "Zero Punctuation" action scene on vol. 2, p.89.
Every New Year's, the Zodiac clan gathers at the Sohma estate for the "banquet," where they get to experience the pleasure of Akito's company, but outsiders are not invited. Tohru says she'll be fine spending the New Year by herself, so Yuki and Kyo head off to the banquet…but while they're halfway there they realize that even Tohru isn't that self-sacrificing ("No one's like that!"). They run back home and arrive, panting and exhausted, to find Tohru crying and alone. Tohru immediately apologizes and smiles and tells them she wasn't really crying: "I was just listening to an old folk song, and my humble Japanese heart…" But nevermind: now she can dry her tears and the three of them get to spend New Year's together. THIS IS THE SWEETEST SCENE EVER.
Nevermind people transforming into animals; Momiji's outfits may be the most unrealistic thing in this manga.
Momiji tells Tohru a folktale. It's "the story of the foolish tourist," and it's the story of a tourist in a foreign land who is so gullible he gives away everything he has, ending up completely broke and naked. He even gives away pieces of his body to demons, until finally he's just a blind, eyeless head sitting in the forest, but he's still happy. The moral of the story: the greatest pleasure in life is to sacrifice yourself for others. HOLY CRAP. THAT'S SO DEPRESSING. Although actually, it's very Buddhist.
Although the Zodiac clan look like normal humans when they're in human form, they do have one oddity: their hair color. The student body president chews out Hatsuhara (the cow Zodiac) for having dyed hair, until Hatsuhara proves that his color is natural by…going to the bathroom with him. If you think this is dirty, it's nothing compared to Hatsuhara's line in volume 4, when he explains that of course the Zodiac clan can have sex with normal humans without transforming: "We can do it without actually embraci--" (Then he gets slugged.)
New character: Ayame the snake, Yuki's older brother. Ayame is just as androgynous and bishi as Yuki is, but instead of being cool and standoffish, he's a flamboyant, vaguely bisexual narcissist who embarrasses his little brother. He also gets some of the best lines in the series, like when he volunteers to sleep with the entire student body: "To the under-aged youths who carry these carnal desires…let us extend the hand of salvation! FROM NOW ON, DIRECT YOUR PASSIONS AT ME! As the elected representative of the student body, it is only a matter of course that I should shoulder all their carnal desires! IF IT COMES DOWN TO "ATTACK" OR "ACCEPT"…THEN I CHOOSE TO "ACCEPT"!" If this were left untranslated as "seme" and "uke", it'd be even hotter!
Aaaaand we switch from yaoi teasing to MORE DARK TRAGEDY! The Sohma clan has the power to erase people's memories, Men in Black-style, and it turns out that Momiji's mother had her memories suppressed and doesn't remember that she ever had a son.
Apparently the experience of giving birth to one of the Zodiac clan was too much for her: "To have a baby with your true love…and hold that baby…and then have it turn into a strange baby animal…" "The greatest regret I have in this life…is that that creature came out of my body!" (But he's just a cute bunny, for God's sake! It's not like his Zodiac sign was The Leech or The Trapdoor Spier or something!) There's not much that's more depressing than mothers rejecting their children. If even Momiji has a tragic backstory, no one is safe. The truth is, everyone in Fruits Basket has a tragic past, they just haven't all been revealed yet.
New character: Kisa Sohma, the tiger, a little girl who doesn't speak and tends to spend all her time in tiger form. On her first meeting, she just bites everybody, including Tohru. I kind of wish she kept biting people, even in human form.
Yuki's teacher tells him that he has low self-esteem and that he needs to learn to like himself. But Yuki scoffs, "What does that mean? I only know things that I hate about myself. Even if you force yourself to find good things, it feels so empty. People like your teacher just don't get it. I think…when you hear someone say they like you, for the first time…then you can begin to like yourself."
Fruits Basket is really getting good. The mix of humor and tragedy is great. In fact, the story's hit its stride and it's coasting along, so it's "filler stories delving into previously introduced characters" time! Tohru's non-Sohma friends Uo-chan (the yankii girl) and Hana-chan (the creepy psychic girl) finally get fleshed out from stereotypes into somewhat three-dimensional characters.
Takaya loves to write about video games in her author's columns. It's like time traveling back to the days of late '90s JRPGs.
SPOILERS!!! Now comes one of the turning points: the true story of Kyo. It turns out that Kyo is the pariah among the Zodiac not just because of the legendary rivalry between the cat and the rat, but because the cat has a second, true form: when the protective charm on his wrist is removed, he transforms into a hideous monster. (He actually looks kind of like Mewtwo from Pokémon—Takaya simply isn't capable of drawing something really hideous—but he apparently smells like rotting flesh, so that's bad.) When he accidentally transforms, he runs into the woods to hide from human eyes, and Tohru has to summon up the courage to bring him back and tell him she likes him even though he's a monster. ("Shutting yourself off from the world because of your hatred of Yuki…is that the way you want to live? Is that the way you want to die? Completely alone?").
Shigure is in the bath in this scene. Man, I wish I could read this manga in the bath. There's nothing better. then they'd get all warped from the steam. Forget manga cafés—someone should start a manga onsen.
Okay. I've gotta get lunch. Be back soon.
All right! I'm back!
"Shigure, it's night and you just woke up. Why don't you get a normal sleep pattern?" "I became an author so I don't have to."
New character: Hiro Sohma. Despite being a cute little kid on the outside, in his introduction scene where he meets Tohru, he is immediately established as the world's biggest asshole. (Pardon my French.) The pseudo-military clothes should have tipped me off. But then it turns out he's actually a big softy, and he just acts rude and snobby because he likes Kisa and it's "a boy's shyness."
New character: Ritchan, the monkey, a total neurotic who's constantly apologizing for everything ("It's not her fault! I'm sorrrrrrry!!! I always have corn flakes for breakfast, so Tohru-san poured the milk that would have been yours, Kyo-san, into my bowl! I am the one who drank the last of the milk! I am the one who am steeped in sins! I am the evil one! Now please, without hesitation, render judgment!") The apologizing must have gotten tiresome to Takaya too, because of all the Zodiac clan, Ritchan ends up having the smallest role in the story.
Tohru starts getting worried about the future again. "There are times when I'm troubled with anxiety. Will I be able to find a good job? Can I really live by myself? After I graduate, three years…in ten years down the road…someday I'll leave this home…" Shigure tries to cheer her up with his metaphor that life is like being surrounded by a mountain of laundry: if you look at all the laundry, you'll get depressed, so you just have to do the laundry that's at your feet first. This impresses even Shigure himself: "Oh my! I'm shocked! Wow! What a wonderful analogy!"
WHO IS RIN SOHMA!?!? ANOTHER CREEPY WEIRDO?!?!? Hmm, well, she's also a hot girl. And she gets naked a lot. Subjectively, I have to admit this is a bonus.
We're introduced to two new non-Sohma characters: Kakeru Manabe, a cheerful guy who babbles constantly, and Machi Kuragi, an angry emo girl who looks sorta like Tohru. They both work at the student council with Yuki and, initially, seem to have no importance to the story whatsoever…but, looking back after finishing the whole manga, I think this is when Takaya made a very important decision about the ending of the series.
When the characters aren't wracked with sobs thinking about how their parents abused them, this manga is full of summer homes and vacations and good times. I guess there's something soothing about reading manga where the characters are just hanging out enjoying themselves. Apparently the recipe for Fruits Basket is:
2 cups emo
1 cup school festivals & vacations
1 cup optimism
1 tbsp. bishonen
2 tsp. cute transforming animals
Mix the ingredients and place in a greased baking pan under 375 degree heat for 30 minutes. When a toothpick placed inside Fruits Basket comes out clean, it is ready to eat.
v10 p14, top panel: Total perspective fail.
Considering that the characters have animal forms, it's really surprising how little time they actually spend as animals. (Another plot point which doesn't come up much is the fact that they can summon other animals of the same kind. Where as the rampaging hordes of snakes and cows?) The supernatural elements of the series seem to be fading as it goes on, which is sort of a pity, because Takaya is really good at drawing cute animals.
Someone try Shigure's pickup line in real life and tell me how it goes: "Why not go out with me, then? You seem lonely. You're at a point where you don't care who it is, as long as they're with you, right? And I've been bored. So I'll go out with you."
Hold on a second. Is Mayu, the homeroom teacher, male or female? Is Akito male or female? Takaya sure likes to draw 'em androgynous…not that there's any problem with that, it's actually sort of delicious, but I feel like I'm missing plot points here.
"In a pitch dark room, I would listen to pitch dark words."
As a romance manga (although it's not really a romance manga per se, it's more of a drama), this is so slow-paced. Ten volumes pass before a kiss (and it's not even on the lips!) and a "I love you."
v11 p.31 - A truly amazing glomp by Momiji, doing what he was made to do!
This is the midway point of the manga, and things are getting more serious. The emo level is going up and up! KYO STEPS ON A FLOWER!!!
In volume 11, we finally learn more about Akito, the evil, yet seemingly perpetually bedridden master of the Sohma family. Akito's goal, it seems, is simply to keep all the Zodiac members by his side: at a certain time, they will all move permanently into the Sohma estates and live forever with Akito, in an endless "banquet," until they all die. Why does he want this? Maybe just because he's sick. In contrast to all the manga bad guys who are jerks because they want to rule the world, or they just are, it's kind of chillingly believable how Akito is a vicious control freak seemingly just because he's in physical pain all the time: when Momiji asks him, "Why are you so mad?", Akito screams "BECAUSE I FEEL SICK!" and punches Momiji in the face.
We also discover why Kyo hates Yuki so much: not only does he envy him for his privileged position, Akito has promised him that, if he cannot defeat Yuki before he graduates high school, he will imprison Kyo forever in a dark cell in the Sohma estate. To be trapped for the rest of your life in a dark room—is this a metaphor for death? And Akito's desire to have all the Sohmas to himself is like a warped version of the fear of loneliness that all the characters have. He just wants them to be a family, forever; except that it doesn't sound like a good thing when he wants it, it sounds more like a kind of hell, like Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit.
SPOILERS: Akito isn't any one of the Zodiac animals. Akito is God, the unifying force of the Zodiac, who has the power to command respect from all the other Zodiac members, the previously unspoken reason why they haven't just up and left him because he's such a jerk. (Sadly, and inconsistently, Akito doesn't turn into God when you hug him.)
A Typical Insane Ayame Line: "Then you must strike! Give in to your wounded heart and strike, strike, strike with reckless abandon!"
The characters are noticeably getting older. The male characters, who were once short and kidlike, are now taller than the female characters. Everyone's growing up. Babies are getting born. Time is moving on.
I've been reading about loneliness for the last seven hours. This manga is making me sad. Takin' a break.
Okay, I'm back!! And I just have…10 volumes to read!
The true "bad guy" of this manga, the second big theme, is bad parenting. As we discover the stories of the Zodiac, one after the other, it turns out they almost all had unloving parents. Their parents were either openly angry and hostile, like Kyo's father, or cold and loveless, like Yuki's mother (although she's still 100 times more loving than Louis C.K.'s mother in Louie.) Perhaps no one in this manga is really 'evil' deep down, it's always the parents who are to blame (but then, why doesn't Takaya just delve into the parents' backstories too, and reveal that the parents also had bad parents? How far back does the chain go? Isn't anyone actually responsible for anything?)
Similarly: Tohru is lovable because she's motherlike. Tohru's mother is one of the only good parents in the entire series, and Tohru has seemingly inherited her motherly magic. ("I was looking for a mother. I needed a mother's love. And before I knew it…I found it in Honda-san.") No one would exactly call Tohru 'sexy', but every guy (and some girls) think she's motherly. I wonder…will this manga end with the baby carriage??
v.13 p.154-155: I've always wondered if this would happen, and it finally does: a girl cat comes up and hits on Kyo, because in his cat form, he's also a hotty.
Takaya doesn't really go into it, but I'm assuming that the extended family of the Zodiac clan has some kind of powers of good fortune or wealth or something that comes from being related to the Zodiacs. Because otherwise, why would anyone tolerate Akito?
Volume 16 is the tale of Tohru's mother. This is a very 'adult' story, about marriage and pregnancy and adult tragedies. The only thing I don't buy is the idea that Tohru's mom told the whole story to Kyo. So she told her entire life story to a five-year-old kid she just randomly met in the street?
Tohru has her heroic goal for the rest of the manga: to free the Zodiac clan from their curse, so they can live their own lives, rather than being Akito's servants forever. But how can she possibly do this? Is there some magic way? Or some psychological/emotional way? Is this manga going to end with a dark, up-close-and-personal tragedy? Or will it end with a big magical explosion? Or neither?
There's so many secondary characters by now. Tohru is becoming a secondary character in her own manga.
It's all spoilers from this point on! I'm warning you!
SPOILER: Shigure finally explains everything to Tohru: why the Zodiac clan needs the Cat, why Akito is the way he is, everything. It's very dark and dramatic. But…
…but I don't entirely buy it, sorry. Primarily, I just don't buy that the Zodiac Clan are monsters ("Do you know how many handicaps we have, how much pain we have to go through to love within the framework of this world?"). Sorry, Takaya. I'd LOVE to be able to transform into some weird animal if I was hugged. LOVE it. (Well, unless maybe I was the seahorse.) In this small way, Fruits Basket is like Ranma 1/2, in that the characters have this awesome gift and they spend the whole manga complaining about it.
AGGGGHH! I'm missing volume 22! *sob*
Okay, I found it. Problem solved. Rushing on toward the ending…
At nearly fourteen hours, not counting breaks, it's over: I finished Fruits Basket. Reading it all in one stretch probably wasn't the best way to appreciate the emotional beats, but even at that speed, the pacing is good. The characters are well fleshed-out. The dialogue is great, whether it's funny (like Ayame's lines) or serious (like all the meditations on loneliness and friendship). Its cute, fairytale surface conceals deep depths of anxiety and sadness, moments of fear and loneliness like little gems twinkling in a dark room. And in the end, it's got an interesting message: you have to accept change, you have to leave the family, you have to move on.
On the other hand, the ending is a little sad, and I think not entirely in the way that Takaya intended. (Since, actually, it's a very happy ending.) By the end of the manga, all the supernatural elements have vanished, leaving the characters completely human. Everyone has been cured of their problems, people forgive one another even for gouging their eyes out, and everyone is 'normal.' For that matter, all the seemingly Boy's Love/yaoi relationships in the manga (even Ayame's!) also turn out to be illusions and by the end, everyone is in hetero relationships. (Very typical for manga.)
I'm not surprised that, in a manga, everyone lives happily ever after, but…compared to the beginning, I miss the kinkiness, I miss the cute animals, I miss the magic. I'm glad it didn't have an inconclusive non-ending (again, like Ranma 1/2) but does "happy ever after" just mean pairing off all the characters so that no one's alone, making them all good parents, and giving them all 'normal' happy lives? I wanna believe there's more to Fruits Basket, and frankly, more to life. This is a good read and a well-written, well-thought-out manga, but I wish Takaya left some spells unbroken, some mysteries unrevealed.
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