by Jacob Chapman,
How would you rate episode 18 of
Fruits Basket (TV 2/2019) ?
Of all the many little character arcs in Fruits Basket's run, Kisa's story seemed to strike a chord with Japanese readers more than most. The Tiger always ranks in the top five of character popularity polls, Takaya loved drawing her so much that she always found time for more Kisa illustrations even when the character didn't appear often in the story, and this episode's final line of dialogue was voted the #1 fan favorite by readers on Twitter (with other lines from Yuki's monologue also ranking high), as they shared how much those words meant to them. It seems Yuki was right about Kisa's weakness becoming the secret to her strength, so how did such a meek character end up making such a powerful impression?
While I'd imagine most teens in Japan don't know what it's like to live with a family curse or to grow up in a delinquent gang, they likely have some personal experience with bullying. The discrimination that the Somas face for being different from their peers has previously been swept aside in comical sequences like Haru's humiliation of Makoto Takei, but their odd looks are still bound to ruffle feathers in Japan's scholastic culture of conformity, which is notorious for systemic bullying issues that overworked teachers—who are often encouraged to emphasize the success of their whole class over individual students—are ill-suited to manage, especially when the bullying is carried out by larger groups of students than the more individualized harassment that kids in America are familiar with. You can find dozens of articles on the unique history of group bullying in Japanese schools that cover the full nuance of the issue, but you're probably already familiar with the basics if you've seen many anime set in high school. For the more rambunctious boys of the Zodiac, it was easier to bite back against bullies by asserting the loud personalities that matched their appearance. Even if they were deemed problem children with violent tendencies that belonged in detention (and we'll learn more about Kyo's messy childhood later), at least they wouldn't face further humiliation from their now-terrified peers. But for sensitive and serious children like Kisa and Yuki, any unwanted attention only drove them deeper into their own shells.
Ultimately, Kisa's story is less about the Tiger herself, since she's literally unable to speak for most of the episode, and more of a centerpiece for Fruits Basket's biggest themes. (So this is your only advance warning that this review is going to be very long, very detailed, and entirely too personal.) Kisa's radiant cuteness makes her easy to love at first sight, but I think this episode makes a strong impression less for her character specifically and more for the perspective it offers anyone who remembers absolutely hating themselves at a young age, either because of bullying in school, mistreatment by their family, or even a persistent voice inside that insists you just aren't good enough for anything. This chapter's exploration of those feelings not only brings Fruits Basket fans together, it also unites Tohru, Yuki, and Kisa in profound emotional understanding, despite their fairly different childhood experiences. In another perfect example of Furuba's bittersweet balance, Tohru gives Kisa the unconditional maternal acceptance that the Somas aren't able to provide, while Yuki's righteous anger at the pain they've suffered prompts Kisa to fight back for her right to become the person she wants to be. The end result is equal parts soothing and invigorating, as we see the harsh reality that faces "cursed" children caught between the cruelties of their family and society melt into an unequivocally hopeful ending for once. What's not to love?
Well, just like The Foolish Traveler parable, I think there's a surprising amount of grit under the surface of this heartwarming story that might even spark some controversy upon deeper discussion. I jokingly referred to Fruits Basket as "Neon Genesis Evangirl-ion" in my first episode review, because it explored many of the same themes about adolescent self-worth from a more feminine perspective to heavily formative results for its global audience, but Yuki's speech in this episode—consistently ranked by fans as one of the most memorable moments in the entire series—has always struck me as a coincidental yang to EVA's series-ending yin. I'll try to keep my spoilers vague for the [in]famous ending to one of the most influential anime ever made, (it's still streaming on Netflix if you're still living under that rock!) but in the broadest terms, Evangelion ended its TV series run with its profoundly depressed protagonist accepting that no other person could justify or possibly even understand his existence, so he would have to accept and love himself for his own sake, and only by asserting his right to live as his broken self would he find acceptance from the world (or at least be congratulated by his own versions of everyone that lived in his head, depending on how you interpret things). Regardless of whether you loved or hated EVA's ending, it's hard to deny that the path Yuki lays out for Kisa goes in the complete opposite direction from Shinji Ikari's escape from self-hatred. Rather than promising her acceptance or at least inner peace through the commitment to loving herself, Yuki tells Kisa that loving herself will probably be impossible until she has been loved by someone else for long enough to rediscover who she's meant to be. Even if it's tiny and imperfect, this fragment of unconditional love will give them both just enough courage to keep living, even in the absence of acceptance or inner peace. It's a striking scene because Yuki makes such a compelling argument for the power that only comes with accepting that you are powerless—that choosing to carry the weight of our weaknesses each day without catharsis is what makes humans uniquely strong.
That sounds inoffensively inspiring on the surface, but Yuki's speech does buck against most conventional Western wisdom about the paramount importance of self-love to self-actualization. American culture in particular tends to glamorize individual expression without compromise, placing utmost emphasis on the power and satisfaction that comes from self-sufficiency and self-esteem. One of the most popular, inspirationally positive, and emphatically American reality shows on TV right now ends every episode with the phrase "If you can't love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?" This is essentially the same platitude that Kisa's well-meaning teacher offers her, but far from considering it even semi-useful, Yuki gets angry enough at this advice to suggest that it's basically garbage for people who don't understand what it's like to be "cursed" to feel better about themselves. After all, the world would seem so unfair to them, if they weren't able to find a way to love themselves without the love of others—but humans are a social species, and most people do lose themselves and disappear from the world without the support of a community. If growing up deprived of love and acceptance is already your reality, and you already know that no degree of hollow exercises in self-love will fill the void of loneliness you trudge through every day, just hearing someone acknowledge this unjust truth of the world feels like a revelation. That's not to say that people can't survive or pursue a better life without love from others—Yuki broke free of the Soma family entirely on his own, with no emotional support from anyone. (Shigure did offer Yuki a room in his house, but he's not been a therapeutic presence in Yuki's life. And for all Yuki knows, his new home could just be another chess move in Shigure's ongoing power game with Akito.) However, Yuki also acknowledges that he would have only continued to run away forever in isolation, unable to connect with a new found family until Tohru started showing him how to open up. I'm sure the Evangelion brand of self-actualization has inspired many people to take charge of their own lives, but for me, Yuki's assertion that it's valid to keep living even if you can't reach those conclusions, and that some people may only be able to find themselves through the pursuit of love for others, allowed me to actually start seeing myself as human for the first time.
Growing up, I was both the black sheep of my own family and a social outcast in school. I got bullied fairly often, but the closer I got to other weird kids who had their own bullies, the more I came to understand that my family did not show me love in the ways that other families did. Of course the parallels were coincidental, but the structure and culture of the Soma family turned out to be fairly similar to my own upbringing in a wealthy, rural, and deeply evangelical household, where everyone's words and actions were micro-managed according to the will of "God" that my parents asserted only they could understand directly. Living in a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere made my persistent desire to run away from home impossible, so instead I would run away to nearby houses and play with their dogs, cats, or horses for comfort (usually without their knowledge). I loved the company of animals as a kid for their peaceful simplicity. You could say anything around them without judgment, and they expressed all their feelings without deception. Without having any idea why, I spent most of my childhood wishing I had been born an animal instead of a person. It wasn't until many years later that I realized the truth: I didn't actually want to be an animal, but I had been traumatized deeply enough by my family's cult-like control that I felt like one—I had nowhere near the emotional development of most kids my age, and I was always afraid that everyone could tell I was "feral" in some way. My parents would joke that I spent all my time at gatherings around small children and old people, but it's because I was less afraid of them than other human beings. I had been punished for my vulnerabilities for so long that whenever anyone wanted to get to know me "as a person" (which was often, because I was just as outgoing as I was awkward), my instinct was to curl up in a corner and bite anyone who got too close.
As I rounded the corner into adolescence, I began to have a strange recurring nightmare, where I had turned into a rat that lived in the walls of my own house. Life continued on without me, but I was still around to hear my parents shouting at each other or worship music blaring through the walls, never able to escape into the outside world. Somehow it still took me several more years (and a different chapter of this story) to see myself in Yuki, even if his words had already had a profound effect on my desire to escape into the wild world outside, in search of someone who might show me how to love and connect with other people. Much like Yuki, I can't help but envy Kisa for finding that person in time to grow up more safely and repair her relationship with her own suffering mother. He's a little too old to sleep with his head in Tohru's lap like a baby, but it's clearly a comfort he's only now realizing was missing from his life at that same age.
It's no coincidence that Kisa spends so much of this episode in animal form and remains voiceless for three days afterward—for as much as our desire to love and be loved by others is intrinsic, the ability to discover and express ourselves as people must be learned from other humans, and Kisa is the youngest child in a long line of Somas who spent most of their formative days in emotional survival mode, after years of dehumanization in their strict family roles had stunted their growth and made them easy targets for an unkind world. And just in case the metaphor wasn't clear enough, Yuki directly compares society's emphasis on self-sufficiency and self-esteem to the "survival of the fittest" that rules the animal kingdom. Even in the bluntest evolutionary terms, humanity's greatest strength is our ability to work and grow together, but empathy relies on an understanding and acceptance of others' weakness, not just strengths. In another echo of The Foolish Traveler parable, Natsuki Takaya challenges the audience not only to be kind no matter how unkind the world around you, but even to normalize weakness as essential to true strength.
I hope by comparing Evangelion and Fruits Basket, I didn't give off the impression that I think one philosophy of self-actualization is "better" than the other. There's no one right way to take control of your own life, but for many people who grew up without acceptance from others, the desire to take care of ourselves cannot come from within a heart weakened by years of dehumanization. Sometimes we can only grow from the kindness that other people teach us, once we summon the courage to go looking for it. It's scary, because there's no guarantee that our fragile sense of trust will be rewarded, but the desire to love and be loved burns in all of us, just bright enough to keep hope alive if we can fight through the pain and fear. Yuki still doesn't believe he's good enough to be student council president, and Kisa still fears that her classmates will laugh at everything she says, but with the knowledge that they will be loved by at least one person no matter their decision, both of them choose to try and become the kind of humans they can love too, even if they don't yet see it in themselves. It might sound strange at first, but by accepting the fact that they don't love themselves, Yuki and Kisa are well on their way to discovering how to break free of that curse. If kind people like Tohru and Hatsuharu can accept their weaknesses with love, Yuki and Kisa will have all the time in the world to become stronger, until there's enough room in their hearts to care for themselves as deeply as they already care for others.
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