by Jacob Chapman,
How would you rate episode 17 of
Fruits Basket (TV 2/2019) ?
I gotta admit, I wasn't expecting Uo's episodes to hit me so hard. At this rate, I'm going to be a puddle of caliginous goop every other week for the next two months! I've revisited Fruits Basket dozens of times in my life, (with dozens more to come I'm sure), and it seems like a different character's story resonates with me deeply each time. Somehow, Arisa Uotani had not yet been one of those characters, but with its more optimal placement earlier in the plot, episode 17 breathes new life into Uo's origin story, creating one of this remake's best and most intimate episodes yet.
At times it's been difficult to translate Furuba's lackadaisical healing pace into an anime that needs to hustle through some material to meet a reasonable episode count, but after Tohru instinctively rescues Uo from a pack of older delinquent girls, the power of Natsuki Takaya's ability to marinate in understated emotional experiences shines through. Uo collapses in the Hondas' apartment, and at first her inner monologue overflows with the same bitterness and judgment as before. But after nursing her wounds in the soft silence of this warm home for a few hours, all the honest feelings she's been holding back come rushing to the surface, as she begins to understand that even though she enjoys resting in this peaceful place, she doesn't feel like she "belongs" with people like Kyoko and Tohru, because her years of loneliness have slowly turned her into someone who resents the very concept of happiness.
Uo's begun to realize with sorrow that she hates herself, so she's only ever been drawn to places that treat her like a thing to be hated, feared, and ultimately abandoned. After her parents' own abandonment (literally for her mother, and metaphorically for her father) deprived her of a healthy childhood, gestures of happiness in the world could only remind Uo of everything she had lost at home, so she found solace around other girls who were also aching with anger and betrayal, even if they were terrible at supporting one another in their mutual unexamined anguish. After a while, these feelings became so central to how Uo expresses herself that she could no longer find comfort in traditionally beautiful things—or so she thought.
Uo is probably right that she wouldn't react positively to any efforts her dad might make to change things now. Her relationship with her father in that depressing apartment is so raw with sensitive baggage that any efforts to imitate a happier life would be destroyed by the resentment that's been festering for so many years. But role-playing a happy family life could be therapeutic in a different setting, and if Uo can open her heart to the possibility that the Crimson Butterfly still possesses all the strong qualities she once admired, even living in a softer and brighter place, she can start to heal into the kind of person she wants to become.
She stops telling the Somas her story there, before it gets too "embarrassing", but I think it's safe to say they're missing out on the best and most inspiring part. Uo basically becomes Kyoko's second daughter after that, as a charming little montage drives home the endless number of excuses she would find to drop by her mentor's house. Was she happy about something good that happened? Better tell Kyoko! Was she heartbroken over something bad that happened? Better tell Kyoko! Was she just plain tired and needed somewhere safe to get some goddamn rest? Kyoko would always be there to help nurture Uo's growing sense of self, and Tohru would be around at school to help her start feeling like a normal part of the world around her. Unfortunately, while connecting with the Hondas at home was refreshingly easy, reintegrating into society after years of rejecting it would be much more difficult. We see a glimpse of the darker path Uo could have taken when she briefly contemplates pushing Tohru away so her purehearted best friend won't be tarnished by her bad reputation, but that old melodramatic trope is thankfully sidestepped when Uo snaps out of her angst just long enough to accept that she's willing to risk everything for the right to call such an amazing person her best friend. And if that's really true, she'll have to make a life-threatening decision...
If I have any criticism of Uo's story, it might be the lack of realism to her literal situation compared to the realism of the emotions behind it. (I guess that's true of Fruits Basket's entire premise, since it revolves around the problems of a supernaturally cursed family cult, which has no literal analogue to the real world, even though it needs to prescribe real solutions to its characters' emotional problems.) While girl gangs have existed across many cultures for decades, I'm pretty sure sukeban-style gangs this unified no longer existed in the late '90s, where they had already split into the wildly different gyaru and bōsōzoku subcultures that don't resemble what we see in these episodes (and are even scarcer today, as the appearance of smartphones has cemented that this remake does take place in 2019). Takaya lampshades this a little by routinely referring to Uo's style as "outdated", but the gang-wide circle of ritual punishment still feels like a slice of the '70s pasted into a modern-day context that doesn't quite fit. This kind of anachronism, along with its original placement in the middle of more pressing story arcs, is what led me to underestimate this chapter in the first place, but as a metaphor for the terrifying and arduous process of changing your life despite the pain of consequences that will follow you every step of the way, Uo's sacrifice is flawlessly executed and deeply moving, so I hope people can set that distraction aside.
Kyoko's post-rescue monologue is also powerful enough to wipe away those trivial gripes, as she reassures Uo that the pain she endured is not a waste she should punish herself for, but an asset that will make her stronger in the future. The word "bittersweet" comes up frequently when discussing Fruits Basket, not only because it describes the story's tone perfectly, but because it speaks to the core of Natsuki Takaya's own philosophy on life, spoken this week through Kyoko. We appreciate the sweetness of life more when we've known the depths of bitterness, and we can survive the bitterness of life when we know that there is hope for sweetness down the road. Even though she's already grown so much after the past few months of knowing the Hondas, Uo's first instinct is still to hate herself for both causing and enduring so much pain. She doesn't understand why it took her so long to start fighting for her own happiness, but it's because she didn't really know happiness until she met Tohru and Kyoko—like Hatori's long life of frozen apathy before Kana brought the warmth of spring into his heart. Likewise, if Uo can endure the pain that will follow the process of untethering herself from a life of self-imposed misery, she will grow stronger and happier than ever before—and with time, Arisa Uotani will become just as strong and renowned as her formerly untouchable idol. We should never punish ourselves for having learned something "the hard way", because surviving the climb up from rock bottom makes every ray of sunshine at the top soak in that much deeper.
None of this is revolutionary information—you've probably heard some variation on this advice before in dozens of other stories—but Fruits Basket's depth of detailed observation, relatability, and realistically developed character takes its messages from generic platitudes to enriching human experiences. I love the payoff we got for all those lingering shots of Akimoto-senpai, an unacknowledged pillar of support in Uo's life who probably saved her life right before leaving it completely. When we feel at our most alone, we're also most blind to the people still thinking about us on the fringes of our lives, and we may not be able to recognize their efforts to help us until years later, when the darkest clouds have parted. When Uo says she never saw Akimoto again, it's not meant to be a tragic twist on her dramatic story; it's just a little fact of life that everyone can relate to, that people will drift in and out of your life before either of you have any idea how much your interactions have changed you for the better. Then of course there's this episode's inevitable gut-punch, as the loss of Kyoko throws Uo's depth of love for her into starker reality. It was brutal to see her walk by the darkened apartment window, accepting that while Tohru and Hana are still with her, the place of healing that brought them all together is gone forever. Just hearing Uo repeat "I loved her" is enough to melt my stony heart.
The silver lining is that Kyoko still lives on in the stronger version of Uo who supported Tohru through that tragedy and reconciled with her father to make her own house a home again. We can see the resemblance between them even more clearly when she deflates the laughable efforts of the next generation of middle school delinquents to pick a fight with her. I don't know about you, but I think there's some serious sapphic energy radiating off this entire two-parter. Even setting aside the twitterpated vibes of Uo's newest admirers (she's way out of your league, girls), I can already feel a powerful Uo x Tohru ship setting sail in my heart. Yuki and Kyo better watch out; you know what they say about picking your mate based on your parents, and Uo is clearly a worthy successor to Kyoko's legacy.
Stray Snippets Lost in Adaptation This Week: Originally, the gap in time between the delinquent trio finding Uo in the restaurant and calling her out was caused by them leaving to try and find a store in the mall that would develop the photos they took of those hot Soma boys. Things used to be so complicated before the invention of smartphones! On that note, the manga version of the trio's reaction to Uo was also different. Only Delinquent A was smitten with Uo, while the other two girls began obsessing over Yuki and Kyo instead. Either way, hormones ultimately distracted them from their short-lived mission to form a delinquent army, but I certainly have no complaints with a gayer version where all three girls fall in love with Crimson Butterfly 2.0.
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