Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Blu-Ray - Complete Series [Sweet Sixteen Anniversary Edition]
Sixteen-year old Tohru Honda's single mother recently died, and not wanting to impose on her friends or grandfather, she decides to set up a tent in the woods. This arrangement doesn't work out so well after a rainstorm and landslide hit her vulnerable classmate, and she ends up being rescued by her classmate, Yuki Sohma, and his older cousin Shigure. When the Sohmas take Tohru in, she soon discovers their secret: they are cursed by the spirits of the Chinese zodiac and transform into their representative animals when hugged by a member of the opposite sex! As Tohru meets more members of the Sohma family, including the cat Kyo, who was tricked out of the official zodiac by the rat in the original folktale, she resolves to repay their kindness with kindness of her own – helping the Sohmas realize that no matter what happens, their curse does not need to define their lives.
Back when it was first released, Fruits Basket, based on the manga of the same name by Natsuki Takaya, was a sensation. Combining elements of fantasy, slice-of-life, and reverse harem romance comedy, it was a story that spoke to a lot of people. Although the premise is a fantastical one (members of a cursed family become animals when hugged by the opposite sex), at its heart this series deals with very basic human concepts of acceptance and the right to be loved and love yourself, no matter who you are or where you came from.
That aspect definitely still holds up today, perhaps best embodied by the lead trio of Tohru, Yuki, and Kyo. All three are grappling with their various emotional issues alone at first, but ultimately they confront them with each other's help. Tohru has been recently orphaned and carries the burdens of both her grief and her mother's expectations for her future. Yuki is struggling to get out from under his abusive family's thumb, but he's also afraid that his status as the rat of the Chinese zodiac won't allow him a regular life, so he keeps the outside world at arm's reach. Conversely, Kyo has an easier time connecting with the outside world but feels rejected by everyone within his family, because as the cat from the zodiac myth, he's condemned as the one who can never have a happy ending for the sake of the rest of the family's well-being. Through their sudden contrived cohabitation, the series is able to throw force these three into each other's lives, allowing them to slowly come to understand each other.
Of course, since this is a shoujo series, most of the understanding and emotional work comes from Tohru's interactions with the boys. This sets up a love triangle that isn't resolved in the anime's run, which stops about 25% through the manga's storyline, but it isn't unsatisfying for this restriction. Ultimately, this story isn't about picking who Tohru will end up with, but making them realize that being with Tohru is an actual possibility for them at all. That seems more immediately important in Kyo's storyline, since he feels so rejected from the rest of his family, but given what we know about the abuse Yuki suffered under Akito, the mysterious head of the Sohma family, this growth through acceptance still fits with his character arc as well.
As a character, Tohru is a combination of utterly relatable insecurities and an indomitable blank slate. This feels as if it may be deliberate on the original author's part – Tohru's experiences have made her devalue herself to the point of barely registering on most people's radar. She sums this up by recalling a game played in elementary school, the eponymous “Fruits Basket.” The game's rules are that one student gives everyone else a designated fruit and then calls them to join the game. But Tohru was labeled “onigiri” (rice ball), which definitely does not belong in a fruit basket. That's how she's seen herself ever since: the onigiri in the fruit basket, the person who doesn't belong. To that end, she works hard to give herself what she perceives as value, neglecting her own needs in pursuit of self-sufficiency, fading into the background as no one notices. This gives her friendships with Uo-chan and Hana-chan, themselves outcasts to normal school life, so much meaning – they're the only two people before the Sohma family who see value in Tohru that she doesn't see in herself.
It's because of Tohru's self-sacrificing personality that she's able to do so much not just for Kyo and Yuki, but for all of the other Sohmas as well. This holds particularly true for both Momiji and Kisa, who suffer from feelings of rejection. While Kisa's bully problems are horrible, they're also more familiar than Momiji's – he's been rejected by his mother because he's the rabbit of the zodiac. Because Tohru knows about the curse, Momiji can see her as a mother substitute, seeking affirmation and physical affection from her. That blank slate aspect of Tohru's personality allows these diversely dysfunctional characters to find what they need emotionally from her, and because of Tohru's own need to feel useful (and her genuine love for and fascination with the Sohma family), she's happy to give back to them.
Fortunately for the actual plot, all of the characters do grow over time. As Tohru becomes more secure, she begins to stand up for her friends against Akito's machinations, and she starts thinking more about what she wants from her relationships instead of just what she needs to give to them. Interestingly enough, it's her dead mother who helps her to realize this – as she interacts more and more with her friends, Tohru begins to show some of her mother's strength. Kyoko's influence is never forgotten, making her the best use of a deceased character I've seen in this kind of story. Rather than mourning her, Tohru begins to internalize her mother's strengths, helping her to become the person she needs to be.
Since the story holds up so well, it's a shame that the art and animation really don't. The 2001-era digi-paint doesn't necessarily damn an art style, but Takaya's original somewhat-bug-eyed artwork simply didn't translate well, with Tohru in particular suffering from off-putting design. (More narrow-eyed characters, such as Uo-chan and Hana-chan, fare better.) The color palette also doesn't quite hold up, and the animation is only ever serviceable at best. However, the real issue is the shaky blu-ray upscale. There's a lot of noise in the solid colors, making it look at times as though you're watching on a screen that's blowing in the wind. This rippling and distortion effect isn't bad enough to make reading the subtitles difficult, but it's an annoyance regardless.
The subtitle track is a bit better than the dub in this case, because a few of the English voices feel mismatched. The acting is also a little hammier than we might get in a more contemporary Funimation dub, but if you prefer English-language anime, it's not terrible, just a little dated compared to what we'd get today. That holds true of the translation as well – because some Japanese terms weren't as widely known to anime fans when the show was first released in English, there's some clear finagling in several lines, even changing the names of food in some cases, like turning takoyaki into jelly buns. Again, these changes aren't terrible, but it is something to be aware of.
As is typical of Funimation's fancier releases, this one comes with the usual spate of physical extras and an entire extra disc of commentaries, interviews (with both Japanese staff and English cast), and outtakes, which are always a lot of fun. Physical extras include art cards and the chipboard box, both of which feature new artwork from the Japanese release.
Fruits Basket's chief appeal may still be its nostalgia. It's one of those stories that spoke to a lot of people when it first came out, but elements of its plot have been reused in ways since then that may dampen the experience for fresh viewers today. That said, we've all been the onigiri in the fruit basket at some point in our lives, or the cat in the zodiac, or even just held ourselves back from living for our own reasons. This story reminds us that we don't have to be that way forever.
Overall (dub) : B-
Overall (sub) : B
Story : A-
Animation : C-
Art : C
Music : C
+ Emotionally engaging story that holds up beautifully today, interesting cast of characters, nice extras
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