by Jacob Chapman,
How would you rate episode 19 of
Fruits Basket (TV 2/2019) ?
If you ever felt like your anxiety couldn't possibly get any worse, then it's reassuring to meet Ritsu Soma, the de facto Anxiety Elemental. Episode 19 takes the solid but wildly scattered bones of Ritchan's story from the manga and gently connects them into a humorous and heartfelt half-hour that's a significant improvement on its source material. I was tremendously entertained and even encouraged by Ritsu's perpetual state of "can't even", but if you were more put off by all his enthusiastic apologizing, you may be heartened to learn that we're not likely to see him again outside of brief cameos.
Of all the Zodiac's creatures, the Monkey gets the shortest end of the stick in terms of screentime, but given the history behind his tortured translation to the page, it's hard to blame Natsuki Takaya for leaving him behind. Like Uo's origin story, Ritsu's visit was originally located early in Act 2 of Furuba, long after the Act 1 climax that will conclude this anime adaptation's first season. While drawing the end of Act 1, Takaya began to notice some pain and dysfunction in her dominant hand, which may have led to her decision to meander through various characters' side stories for a while instead of pursuing the central drama further. But right in the middle of illustrating Ritsu's chapters, Takaya's left hand stopped working completely, due to a nerve disorder that necessitated surgery and a year of recovery spent reteaching her hand to draw. This fundamentally changed the art style of her manga in a way that initially drew anger from impatient fans, and Takaya has described the entire experience as traumatic enough to have altered the tone and style of her story going forward, ramping up the urgency of Act 2 and employing greater use of negative space and decompression to make drawing on deadline more feasible. Takaya apologetically explained that she originally had more shenanigans planned for Ritsu, but it's obvious that going through this deeply painful hiatus soured her on spending more time with the character, especially when there were so many other stories to tell before the final act.
It's a shame, because the Monkey is just as lovable as the other animals before him, even if referring to Ritsu as a "him" feels pretty dubious. Much like Hatsuharu's neurodivergence or Ayame's pansexuality, Ritsu's gender dysphoria isn't labeled specifically in the story, but its painfully direct parallels to real-life emotions and experiences make it impossible for me not to see him as a transgender woman (or at least genderqueer in some way) who's still nascent in his attempts to transition. This was the popular fan interpretation even in the 2000s, and this remake doubles down on that assessment in several positive ways. In the original manga, Ritsu's cross-dressing was often chastised directly by others, and his goal to "become more confident" included a desire to make himself feel okay wearing men's clothes instead. All of these scenes were replaced with an exclusive focus on Ritsu's self-destructive anxiety as the real problem, implicitly affirming his decision to wear women's clothes. The Soma boys do ask Ritsu if he plans to keep cross-dressing full-time in the professional world, which is a valid question considering how much more anxiety this could potentially cause him, but even the most lighthearted condemnations of his cross-dressing have been removed completely. It's a refreshing update for a world that's become more open to transgender issues over the years, but I thought the most notable trans-friendly change was the bold decision to never show Ritsu in boy's clothes, which he forced himself to wear often in the manga version. Even as a child, we only see Ritsu as he wants to be seen, in beautiful kimonos and dresses that accentuate his gentle spirit.
Well, perhaps "gentle" isn't the best word for Ritsu when his vociferous explosions of remorse ruin everyone's day. The irony of Ritsu's situation is that he's actually a kind and considerate person whose meek actions don't cause serious trouble for anyone—but his anxiety-fueled overreactions to even the mildest negative feedback turn his life into an endless self-perpetuating drama spiral anyway. If Ritsu was more confident and selfish, he would actually bother people less, but this is so antithetical to what he thinks he knows about how to avoid upsetting people—make yourself as small as possible and apologize constantly just in case—that he can't even begin to start asserting himself without beating himself up for wasting oxygen, which of course sucks all the air out of the room anyway. When blown up to cartoonish extremes, this self-flagellation can be hilarious to watch (which is why Shigure enjoys teasing Ritchan and his butcher counterpart Mitchan), but I would venture to say that most of us have felt like Ritsu during the most vulnerable moments of our lives, and while it's silly to hear melodramatic expressions of self-hatred shouted in falsetto, there's nothing funny about sincerely wishing you had never been born.
So after the first half of this episode finishes monkeying around, we cut rather jarringly to Ritsu contemplating suicide. The catharsis to follow does suffer from such a stark tonal shift, complete with Tohru almost falling off the roof for added tension, but the essence of her monologue still rings true as enriching and inspirational. (In another tasteful change from the source material, this roof scene was originally just played for laughs, defused by Ritsu twisting his ankle in his apologetic fervor. Tohru then delivered her big speech during their perfectly calm walk to pick up takoyaki the next day. While it's a little awkward to go from the heights of goofiness to even a halfhearted attempt at suicide, I think this change was ultimately for the best in terms of structure and tact.) There's little I can add to Fruits Basket's thesis statement about the Meaning of Life, especially when it's reiterated twice after Ritchan shares Tohru's insights with Mitchan, but just as people are born creatures of want with no understanding of kindness, I think it's fair to say that none of us are born with a destiny we are meant to fulfill or fall short of, even for members of the Zodiac. Because Ritsu doesn't see any clear purpose to his life—being a timid, frail, crossdressing primate with no special talents to speak of, which was only reinforced further by parents who didn't stand up for him—he thinks it's unfair for him to continue taking up space in the world, but he must embrace the courage that it takes to live "for no reason" in order to start building any confidence in himself. In the most powerful moment of Tohru's speech, she reminds Ritsu that even if he found some concrete "reason for living", he could just as easily lose it again. For as long as we continue to exist in this world, we will have to find new reasons to keep living, and in the dry spells between those times of purpose, we will have to be brave enough to love ourselves in spite of our flaws.
It's easy to see how the reassurance that it's okay—and even empowering—to have the audacity to live without a clear purpose encourages intensely anxious and self-critical people like Mitsuru and Ritsu, but this casts a darker shadow over Tohru's purpose for her own life. As recently as one year ago, Tohru believed that she was born to make her mother happy, which she felt would culminate with her graduation from high school. Even now, the biggest reason she doesn't drop out of school and commit to working full-time is to fulfill her mother's wishes. But Kyoko Honda is gone, and in her place, Tohru has been living for the sake of her friends and the Soma family, with little regard for what her own future holds. There is romance and adventure in the belief she shares with Ritsu that they will fall in love someday, once they find someone who feels like the person they were born to support. (In Ritsu's case, he may have already found that special someone!) But there is also danger in clinging to the wishes of the dead, especially while trying to forge a new path alongside people whose own needs and desires are likely to change your future. I'm glad that Tohru understands the need to reconsider her life's purpose as the seasons change, because as this cour's rain-themed opening song implies, another thunderstorm is bound to pass over her new home sooner than she knows.
Stray Details Lost in Adaptation This Week: Since Ritsu's story was so heavily rearranged in adaptation, it would be impossible to break down all the changes that got lost in the shuffle. Ritsu originally hung around for a couple days, Hatori and Momiji put in appearances, there was a ton of slapstick, property damage, and minor injuries, but frankly nothing worth missing in retrospect. (The one moment of comedy I did miss was Ritsu frantically apologizing to a stray cat that was trying to steal his takoyaki.) Yuki and Kyo's limited roles in this longer version of the story were cut completely because they were predicated on developing plotlines from Act 2 that haven't even been introduced to this anime yet. But of course the biggest difference is the excellent integration of Mitchan into the episode. Much like Kagura's 180 from hating to loving Tohru at the end of her introduction chapter (which was beefed up in the remake to make more sense), Mitchan and Ritchan's meet-cute only took place at the very end of the manga version—she showed up for maybe two pages, they hit it off right away, and it was implied in later chapters that the two had started dating, even though we barely saw either of them again. I was enthralled that Takaya took this opportunity to develop their romance more naturally, and it would be even more delightful if the anime's staff found a little space to revisit this odd couple in the future.
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