Premiere Report - Fruits Basket 2019

by Jacob Chapman,

After many long years of waiting (and many bushels of paper cranes from Funimation), Natsuki Takaya's beloved shojo manga Fruits Basket has received not just a second season, but a complete remake from TMS Entertainment, with the author herself credited as lead supervisor on the project. Fans packed into theaters across the USA last night for the special two-episode premiere of this modern fairytale, many of them too excited to even regard the event-exclusive trinkets being passed out; I certainly didn't need the promise of buttons, a lanyard, and a rather poorly screen-printed plastic cup to get me excited for what I was about to see.

Like many Furuba fanatics, I've been pining for a spiritually faithful adaptation of Takaya's 23-volume manga ever since I first read it over a decade ago, and my fervor only grew as it gradually took its place in my heart as my favorite manga of all time. While I still hold some nostalgia for the old 2001 anime (and so does this remake's staff if its few sly nods are any indication), it was more a reflection of Akitarō Daichi's comedic sensibilities at the time than a vehicle for Takaya's feelings, resulting in a curious chimera that retains 90% of Fruits Basket's first-arc plot but surprisingly little of its emotional core. So as the lights went down in the theater and the feature began (sadly without its OP or ED for now), I was doing everything in my power to keep my sky-high expectations under control.

The series' opening scene immediately makes it clear that this version of Fruits Basket is going all the way to the end by starting at the very beginning. Tohru's gentle voice narrates the Zodiac God's final promise to his banquet of animals as we watch the spell that would become a curse over the following centuries actually being cast, with just one foreboding line of dialogue over the Cat shedding a tear to imply that this heartfelt moment of reunion might actually be a tragic mistake. I was immediately hooked, and the amount of ugly-crying I could hear around me made it clear that I was not alone. Not thirty seconds into the first episode, and it sounded like half the room was crying! Beginning the story of Fruits Basket with a monologue from our beloved heroine about a long-forgotten promise to reunite with the ones you love was clearly the right call, and the forty minutes to follow were pure magic.

I'm so happy to report that these first two episodes are an absolutely flawless adaptation of the first three chapters of the manga. Just shining perfection. (Since the first chapter was double-length, I assume that the series will be adapting two chapters per episode, which would necessitate a 50-episode run even with some material cut.) Sure, if I wanted to be picky, I guess I could thumb my nose at the distracting digital effects used for the Zodiac transformation smoke or admit that the character animation, while far superior to the 2001 anime, won't blow anyone away despite being a strong effort by shojo anime standards. But I came away from this experience with the strong desire to rewatch these new episodes right away, my heart already overflowing with love for the series all over again. It's a beautiful, adorable, and refreshingly thoughtful start to what will become a complex character story for a sprawling cast that I hope can reach a new generation. (I will miss Shigure's old fax machine, replaced now with slightly more modern tech, although you can see a rotary phone in one shot, and the DVD/VCR combo wedged underneath an HD TV made me smile. I wonder if anyone in the cast will still have a flip phone? It's hard to imagine Tohru with an iPhone.)

The greatest driving factors behind this remake's success are its artistry and its tone. The new character designs evoke the cuddly softness and rich sensory detail of Takaya's art without trying to copy her style too literally (which changed radically over the manga's eight-year run anyway). Strict attention was paid to tiny nuances in facial expression (Yuki's just-slightly-sad face when Tohru asks if he hates cats is a great example), while detailed character animation is reserved for brief moments of physical intensity or intimacy. The background art in particular has a stunning depth of field and color, where the horizon seems to go on forever even in a crowded bamboo forest, and every room feels incredibly spacious with not a ceiling in sight. (Even when Kyo destroys the ceiling in episode one, it's framed low from Tohru's perspective like an orange angel has fallen from on high to start some trouble.) The Sohma cottage feels remarkably lived-in, and the sound design of its aging creaky spaces helps cement the audience's immersion into a folksy yet dreamlike world. Of course, there's plenty of darkness lurking in the corners of Tohru's life as well, and that's where the remake's mastery of tone shines through.

I think the biggest problem with Daichi's Fruits Basket anime was its "mania". While there's plenty of boisterous comedy and wanton property destruction in Fruits Basket, the balance the story strikes with its more impassioned attempts at realism and emotional complexity, especially as the manga finds itself fully in later chapters, keeps any of its high-energy content from feeling very wacky. Where Daichi's anime would jump from moments of intense melodrama or mystery to bold screentones and cartoony hijinks depending on the scene, this remake maintains a tonal consistency not present in the majority of anime aimed at teenagers. Comedic asides and heartbreaking revelations will share space in the same scene (sometimes even the same shot!) without breaking the steady tone of slightly rosy naturalism. Even the manga's habit of seemingly undercutting (but really accentuating) its heartfelt moments with a shocking twist or cynical observation are retained to exciting effect from episode one, like when Yuki leaves to excavate Tohru's tent with a writhing wall of rats. (It's a much more striking and twisted success than the same scene from the 2001 anime, as Shigure parrots Tohru's words to Yuki sardonically instead of sincerely. Now that's the Shigure fans love and hate!)

Somehow every multi-faceted emotion comes through exactly as it was originally intended, retaining every important detail at a breezy pace that never feels rushed. If you only know Fruits Basket from the more hyperactive and treacly 2001 anime, you may find Takaya's 2019 retelling to be more gentle and cruel all at once; emotions come across smaller and more naturalistic on the surface, but cut deeper in the moment thanks to the nuanced dialogue and expert storyboarding. Manga fans will have a lot to anticipate on that front, as this is blessedly not a panel-for-panel adaptation, but a reimagining that finds new ways to depict familiar scenes more cinematically when possible, with the lovely but understated musical score helping to support and transition scenes with grace rather than standing out on its own, similar to the Disney-esque soundtrack for Snow White with the Red Hair.

There are no significant changes to the material beyond some added winks of foreshadowing that are understated enough not to distract from the main story (lingering shots of Tohru's hat or Kyo's beads in key moments), and Motoko Minagawa appears early to lead her Yuki Fan Club in episode one, now with jet-black hair instead of her original reddish-brown. It's the only major character design change in the cast so far, so I'm curious as to why it was made. My best guess is that since Motoko represents such a force of conformity in a story that uses colorful hair as a symbol for being different, maybe they gave her more traditional hair to show where she stands right away, but I have no idea. In any case, it's a great look for her! The only other notable tweaks to the material are the dashes and pinches of extra cuteness added to all of Kyo's scenes. Frogs jump on his head in the koi pond, he grooms himself nervously in cat form, and generally his full-volume anger is countered with adorability whenever possible. It's a positive change that allows Kyo to be full-throated and violent without ever feeling threatening, and all the extra TLC in his scenes helps reinforce how much both fans and the new anime staff love Kyo's character. (His appearance yielded wild screams and applause in my theater screening.)

Kyo is also the standout vocal performance in both languages, with Yūma Uchida and Jerry Jewell riding the line beautifully between the comedy and angst that defines his character. (The power in Jewell's voice is especially impressive, as he sounds even more youthful and boisterous than he did recording the first dub over a decade ago!) The other performances are likewise strong, and Shigure fans can breathe a sigh of relief that his true character is finally being done justice in both languages, exchanging the old anime's playful trickster vibe for a bitter yet sagely delivery that suggests his adult heart is deep and strong but also boiling with an unknown darkness. Like Kyo, Shigure's hidden pain enhances what makes him great comic relief rather than detracting from it; in his own words, empathy comes from life experience, and he's been cursed for 27 years by this point. Laura Bailey's Tohru is a nostalgic trip, and while it's pitchy enough to sound fake in the show's lighter moments, her true character shines through in her more vulnerable moments, making the too-nice chirpiness of other scenes feel more like an intentional choice. (Manga fans will no doubt be eager to hear Bailey take on Tohru's real depths later in the story.) The only mild disappointment is Eric Vale's Yuki, but that's only because I was never a fan of the raspy half-whisper voice in place of a more clear yet soft-spoken timbre, like Nobunaga Shimazaki's delivery. But setting that potentially divisive vocal choice aside, Vale performs Yuki's emotional nuances incredibly well. It's a much stronger performance than the more wooden take on the same whisper-voice many years ago.

At the end of this premiere, I found my mind returning to a remark made by Yūma Uchida in the interview before it began. Like his two co-stars, Uchida binged through the original manga in preparation for his audition, and his greatest takeaway was that "despite its fame as a shojo manga, Fruits Basket strikes me as more of a human drama that explores timeless emotional experiences that will speak to any gender or age." I couldn't agree more with his assessment, and the love that both voice casts, the staff, and of course Natsuki Takaya feels for these characters and their world is already coming through brilliantly in Fruits Basket 2019. I can't wait to eat my fill at this beautiful banquet every week this spring.

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