by Jacob Chapman,
How would you rate episode 20 of
Fruits Basket (TV 2/2019) ?
As the new animal introductions begin to wind down, we finally meet the zodiac member whose backside is in the greatest need of a paddlin': Hiro Soma. The polite word most commonly deployed for whippersnappers with his high level of fearless verbosity is "precocious," but Hiro's unruly first impression will probably make viewers think of different adjectives too rude to print in this review instead. At least if the Sheep is the first Zodiac member to actively dislike Tohru, it's a good thing he's powerless to cause her any serious trouble.
Of course, as he enters his tween years, Hiro's powerlessness has become the heaviest matter on his mind. In a refreshing change of pace for the Soma family, the Sheep's personality problems are largely typical for a quick-witted boy his age. He's long gotten used to everyone treating him like he's too big for his britches, so he's in a hurry to grow up and start actually wearing those big-boy pants in his relationships with others. Unfortunately, being brainy for a 12-year old is no substitute for life experience and emotional development, so Hiro keeps getting in his own way by acting out, which only leaves him feeling more embarrassed when his rebellious actions don't yield the results he wanted—and to make matters worse, he keeps disappointing the girl he likes! The more Hiro tries too hard to seem grown-up around Kisa, the more he ends up feeling like a child in front of everyone. Little does he know that this problem will follow him long into adulthood, especially when it comes to growing up in the Soma family.
"Childishness" is certainly the theme of the episode, with Shigure serving as a subtle shadow to the main focus on Hiro's juvenile efforts to be taken more seriously. We're introduced to the Dog this week after he rolls out of bed at the crack of dusk, and his deadline-dodging and morbid scheming continue to reflect his nature as a poor role model for the teens under his care. Then of course there's Akito, who leads the Soma family with the most childish disposition of them all. So while Hiro's perpetual reach for maturity that's beyond his grasp is something many kids who got singled out as "gifted" can relate to, his inferiority complex is only exacerbated by the Zodiac curse. Most tween boys have trouble communicating their feelings honestly, but in his efforts to do the responsible "grown-up" thing and confess his love for Kisa to the head of the family, Hiro is forced to confront the childish reality of his world with no way to process the tragic consequences.
Hiro wasn't in the wrong to be open about his feelings, but whether or not you grew up in a weird family cult, the world doesn't tend to reward young boys for being vulnerable. Even without learning the full darker story behind why Hiro closed off his heart, Tohru recognizes the emotional constipation and overcompensation of early adolescence in Hiro, so she gives him space to whine and vent about all the non-issues that irritate him. (In a short scene cut from the manga, Hiro complained about the lack of nutritional value in a piece of cake that he was still cramming into his face, which sums up his character well.) Given enough space to rant and ramble to himself without being interrupted by other childish challengers like Kyo, Hiro is forced to accept that all his intellectual posturing hasn't helped him become a better friend to Kisa, and his big mouth might even be responsible for driving them apart in the first place. Without the option to blame Akito, Hiro took the wrong lesson away from his brave attempt to bare his feelings, choosing to bury them deeper under a pale imitation of authoritative stoicism instead. But at the end of the day, Hiro's a thoughtful boy with a good heart, so he's already begun to realize that he doesn't like the callous jerk he's becoming—and Kisa doesn't want to see him this way either.
As a callous jerk who's already accepted his twisted personality as an adult, Shigure's perspective on the situation reeks of bemused bitterness. As he puts it, the Soma family is "the worst at love." The Zodiac curse provides them with unchanging stability in their predetermined family roles, but this way of life is antithetical to the unpredictable demands of learning to love another person outside of that system (like Kana) or even within it, which is the problem Hiro and Kisa are facing now. Not only are outsiders not allowed within the Zodiac's secret banquet, but the Zodiac members themselves must fulfill their roles in relation to tradition. The rat and cat must hate each other. The dragon must protect the family's secret. And the tiger doesn't snuggle with the lamb. All these rules compound on each other to squeeze the Somas into their destined roles, until they've all lost track of their true selves beneath the animal spirit they were born under, leaving them in an eternal state of arrested development as they grow on the outside but remain frozen within, and the world gradually passes them by.
Despite such grim circumstances, Hiro has already made great progress by recognizing that his first confrontation with the darkness of the Zodiac curse has started turning him into someone he doesn't want to be. Tohru reassured him that it takes great courage to admit that you feel childish and helpless; it's something even adults have trouble doing, much less literal children like Hiro. He wasn't wrong to be vulnerable about his feelings, he just chose the wrong person (perhaps the worst person) to be vulnerable around, which is something he can use that sharp intellect to adapt around as he becomes more savvy like his grown-up shadow, Shigure. By acknowledging his weakness to himself and others he trusts, Hiro can rise above it to become the best version of himself; that lesson may sound familiar, because despite their completely opposite reactions to trauma, Hiro's going through the same process of self-actualization as Kisa! Only instead of destroying himself through self-abandonment like the girl he loves, Hiro's been destroying himself through self-dissection, turning the same hyper-critical voice that he levies at others inward to berate himself for being a child, even though he has every right to be childish at his age! Even in the episode's final moments, Hiro can't quite turn off that inner judgment, as he breaks down the optimistic sentimentality of Tohru's advice and starts to doubt that it's even possible for him to become Kisa's "prince" someday. But seeing the smile Tohru brings to Kisa's face melts Hiro's heart just enough to consider giving kindness a try instead—just you know, not too much. He doesn't want to look uncool or anything.
As one of the most well-adjusted Zodiac members with one of the most grounded conflicts, Hiro's story is a fun half-hour of tween boy angst, but not a high watermark for Fruits Basket in terms of drama. If you removed the admittedly complex context that Akito's presence brings to the situation, Hiro's rebellious reaction to his first feelings of puppy love could be seen in any number of kids his age, but that also makes it a problem with familiar solutions we've seen explored more often in other stories. Though if you're thirsting for more melodrama, Hiro's appearance as the first Zodiac member who's not a Tohru fan does carry darker implications about the remaining Horse and Rooster. If any Somas are holding out on meeting Tohru this late in the game, maybe it's because they don't want to see her.
Stray Details Lost in Adaptation This Week: Originally, Hiro ran all the way back to the Soma estate with Tohru's pocketbook, which is why Kyo found him immediately and Momiji was able to fetch Kisa so close by. (The location was changed in adaptation because the original spot was important to Kyo for reasons we'll only find out in this first season's finale; that's also why Kyo gets mad at Hiro for loitering there.) There was also a scene removed where two random adults remark that Hiro's smart mouth could use some discipline, to which he responds with a deeply self-aware and convincing apology that ends in a smarmy "If I said that, would it make you feel better about yourselves?" (The busybody adults are framed as being in the wrong themselves, so my guess is that Natsuki Takaya's opinion on any given thing Hiro says can be summed up this way.) Finally, the original ending of this chapter saw Kisa attempting to take more initiative in life by inviting Tohru to hang out instead of relying on her to make plans all the time. Hiro is mentally defeated by the prospect of having to hang out with Tohru more often.
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