by Jacob Chapman,
How would you rate episode 16 of
Fruits Basket (TV 2/2019) ?
You don't need to be born with a centuries-old Zodiac curse to have a tough childhood. Episode 16 kicks off a two-parter all about Arisa Uotani, the reformed delinquent whose rough edges only disguise her enormous open heart. Uo's had just about enough of seeing her best friend wear the same worn-out middle school swimsuit year after year, so she urges the Somas to pony up the cash to give Tohru something more flattering to enjoy the summer in. It's always delightful to watch Uo and Hana overwhelm Tohru's easily intimidated love interests, but her increased comfort around the Soma boys also allows Uo to open up about her own past, leading this episode to indulge in the full range of bittersweetness that's so quintessentially Fruits Basket.
Actually, this episode is a great example of the improved pacing and more clever editing we can expect from later storylines in the series, because it was bumped up from its original position much later in the source manga. Even though this remake's first season is bound to conclude with the end of Furuba's Act 1, Uo's backstory was originally explored early in Act 2, a whole 13 chapters after the camping trip from last week. It makes sense to move Uo's story up for multiple reasons; obviously it wouldn't be affected by any of the private Soma family revelations that dominate Act 1's climax, but more importantly, like most of the chapters early in Act 2 that we're bound to see moved up into this season, Uo's tale was one of many "side story"-like chapters Natsuki Takaya chose to illustrate rather than returning to the main plot, as her drawing hand began to fail her due to a neurological disorder that would eventually require surgery and a long recovery to fix.
I'll discuss how this injury affected Takaya's storytelling more profoundly when we reach the material that was written after her surgery, but for now, viewers may already notice a slight difference in style during this episode. While Furuba's Act 1 chapters tended to revolve around just one special event and a character or two in relation to Tohru, Act 2 saw Takaya attempting to expand the number of storylines and perspectives that each chapter would juggle at once, as they began to flow into each other more cohesively. So we get a comedic shopping adventure, a tragic origin story for Uo, our first major flashback to Kyoko's life with Tohru, and there's even more happening on the sidelines with the appearance of some childish delinquents who seem to have a bone to pick with Uo, as the cycle of troubled girls growing up and out of gang warfare repeats itself into the present. (It's already impossible to see these three stooges as a threat, especially after their post-credits run-in with Momiji. If I ever become fluent in a second language, I'm totally going to pull that same trick on any strangers who antagonize me in public.)
It's also nice to see Uo's story adapted earlier so we can have a clearer perspective on the difference between what the Somas are facing—a more high-concept and cosmic flavor of troubled adolescence—versus the more grounded and relatable hardships that Uo faced as a child. While Yuki and Kyo must combat a literal antagonist in the form of their family's supernatural control, Uo's only true enemy in life is her own self-hatred, which makes her struggle against the darkness hit home more immediately as something everyone remembers experiencing in their angstiest years of self-discovery, even if you never joined a violent street gang. Uo is flippant about how big of an "idiot" she was at 13, and it's certainly easier to see how she could have recovered from that dark spell to become such a healthy and supportive friend only a couple years later, but that doesn't mean Fruits Basket makes light of the pain and loneliness she endured. Her rebellious years reflect a more classic struggle we've seen explored in far more anime compared to the Somas' woes, but its nuanced attention to detail and heartfelt execution is what makes this familiar tale of a girl gone bad still feel special.
After being abandoned by her mother at age 6, Uo didn't have anyone to blame but herself for the emptiness that consumed her heart. Her dad's own despair had left him lost at the bottom of a bottle, so Uo channeled her uncontrollable aggression into a drive to become strong and intimidating enough that no one would be able to hurt her ever again. In place of her own negligent parents, she sought out role models that spoke to the betrayal and anger she felt toward the world, which is a pretty common coping mechanism for damaged children to adopt. Psychologically speaking, everyone needs a parental figure's love and acceptance to grow beyond their arrested development into a healthy self-sufficient adulthood, so many lost children (including teens and adults who never passed this developmental stage) seek out these nurturing qualities in their mentors, romantic partners, and friends to make up the difference. But Uo was unable to stop blaming herself for being a "bad person" that the world had rejected, so the mother figure she idolized was someone who had rejected the world right back to seemingly thrive in her powerful isolation: Kyoko Honda.
Uo hoped to find a kindred spirit in the Crimson Butterfly's daughter, so it left her in shock to see the woman she had long relied on to justify her rebellious path melt into the role of doting motherhood so easily. Even if we know they'll become friends in the future, it's still downright upsetting to see Uo physically threaten Tohru in her anguish. I think it even bothered the anime's staff to draw this moment, because they cut away from it as quickly as possible! (You can stare at it for as long as you want in the manga, though. Feels bad, man!) But the empty darkness of her filthy apartment and the angry memories that torment her mind remind us that Uo is no heartless gangster, and she's more heartbroken by Kyoko's maternal normalcy than insulted. Beneath all her bravado and aggression, Uo simply believed that becoming a criminal was necessary because an unwanted tomboy like her would never be good enough to live a life in the sun. At such a tender age with no one to reassure her that the world could ever get any brighter, Uo just wanted someone to accept and understand her choices, instead of rejecting her for taking the "wrong" path. But if even the Crimson Butterfly, once revered as the most fearless female delinquent in Tokyo, could grow up to find a life of seemingly conventional happiness, then was there any point to continuing down this dark road alone anymore? For Uo, seeing her idol leave that darkness behind must have felt like being abandoned by her mother all over again.
The complicated reality of Kyoko's life has thrown Uo's delicate heart into even deeper chaos, but it's always darkest before the dawn, and there can be no change in life without struggle. I look forward to seeing how this rabid lion cub will metamorphose into the big-hearted girl who cries over old people in the convenience store next week.
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