by Jacob Chapman,
How would you rate episode 24 of
Fruits Basket (TV 2/2019) ?
At long last, Fruits Basket's first act has reached its climax. We've gotten glimpses of the Zodiac curse's darker secrets peppered throughout the soothing life lessons of past episodes, but the reveal of Kyo's true form—a monstrous pile of warped limbs wrapped in rotting flesh that only vaguely resembles its source animal—represents the end of Tohru's life of cheerful passivity within the Soma family. The fallout of master Kazuma's gamble is tense and disturbing to watch, and even its temporary happy ending relies on Tohru and Kyo summoning every ounce of strength they've developed to weather the storm together, if only for one more day. Now there's no turning back from the void of horror this episode has opened. From Kazuma's mysterious grandfather to Kyo's tragic mother, the Soma family has untold generations of blood on their hands, and its most vulnerable member Kyo could easily become their next sacrifice for the greater good. If Tohru wants to change his fate, she'll have to stand strong in her promise to stay with him through all the darkness ahead, and that's a lot of pressure to place on one little riceball.
Between the intersection of manga fans and viewers who've only seen the 2001 anime, Kyo's true form was easily the most widely anticipated part of Fruits Basket to see animated (again), so before I get into the weeds of Kyo's backstory, I do want to discuss the things about this episode that didn't work so well, because there aren't many missteps, but its few stumbles do stand out. One issue is due to the source material itself, so I'll just be frank that Kyo's true form doesn't look all that terrifying. The detail that he smells like rotting flesh was an inspired choice that definitely enhances the concept, and Natsuki Takaya put in a laudable effort with those bony elbows, but by her own admission, she's much better at creating beautiful imagery than anything truly macabre, so Kyo looks much more like a Pokemon than the Junji Ito-esque horror his form is supposed to evoke. (It's hard for me not to think of him as Zombie-Mewtwo, whose design was also based on warping cat anatomy into something alien.) However, in the manga and 2001 anime adaptation, the creature was depicted mostly in shadow, always crumpled over on all fours, and the transformation process was left to our imagination. It's a good rule of thumb not to show your creature too much if what they represent is meant to be more frightening than how they look, but this remake vaults over these restraints with an extended transformation sequence and numerous well-lit full-body shots of monster-Kyo, who looks significantly less gruesome and tormented when standing on two legs. (Cross-fading to his incredibly toned human abs during a serious monologue was also ill-advised.) Fortunately, the underlying character material remains strong enough to counter these hammier aesthetic choices, but I think the presentation could have achieved more with less.
And then there's The Yeet.
In the only adaptation choice that truly baffled me, Tohru flies comically far through the air after Kyo strikes her, splashing down to somehow submerge completely into a six-inch pond without breaking any bones. Originally, Tohru simply collapsed to the ground where Kyo struck her, stumbling one or two steps back at most, which was also more realistic for the original size of his monstrous form. (They've made him about twice as large in this remake.) Tohru and Kyo exchanged a moment of mutually shocked eye contact, and then she turned around and left as he bellowed at her. I don't think I have to bother explaining why this is better staging, but even setting aside the silliness of the dramatic blow or how it tarnishes Kyo's character in its degree of violence against our heroine, the biggest loss to me is how close Tohru was originally sitting next to Kyo when she decided to get up, turn around, and walk away. Framing Kyo above Tohru and far away with his back turned when she goes is nowhere near as heartbreaking as seeing them sit crumpled on the same plane, before she stands above his huddled form to leave. The Yeet is the most bizarre speedbump in an otherwise engrossing experience, but I'm ultimately just glad that none of these dodgy choices were distracting enough to diminish the powerful ideas (and performances, particularly in the English dub) underneath the flickers of unintentional comedy.
Regardless of whether you find it scary or snuggly, the Cat's true form is more emotional metaphor than abstract fantasy, representing a concept we associate with a different animal in English: the goat. More specifically, the Cat is the "scapegoat" of the Soma family, the member singled out to punish and ostracize on a regular basis in order to maintain control over the "troublemaker's" inconvenient behaviors and provide a false sense of prosperity for the other family members by comparison, effectively diminishing their ability to recognize abuses they may be suffering under the same structure. This might seem too transparent to work long-term, like starting a war with a foreign threat to distract a nation from domestic problems, but children simply aren't equipped to challenge the dynamic they were raised under, so much like the Soma parents who either reject or overprotect their children, the scapegoat will usually spend years trying to beat an unwinnable game for familial acceptance until they either leave their home behind completely or end their own lives.
Sadly, scapegoating is an incredibly common practice in households that treat their children as assets to centralize power and security, because it consistently works to further those goals. You can't pretend that everyone is happy if nobody is, but you can pretend that everyone could be happy if it wasn't for the rotten example routinely disturbing the family's potential for perfection. Kyo can spend the rest of his life desperately trying to claw his way into the eternal banquet, but the unmistakable stench of the Cat's "true form" will always keep him outside the circle, and every year that the stress builds up from his fear that he's running out of time to prove himself is a year that he comes closer to giving up completely. While we don't yet know what led the previous Cat—Kazuma's grandfather—to be locked up in a storeroom within the estate, it's not hard to understand the sense of urgency that compels Kyo's master to forcefully open his student up to someone outside the Soma family. It's difficult to say whether this violation of Kyo's boundaries was right or wrong, but if a man who's spent 40 years inside that world thinks his pupil is running out of time to make serious changes, he's probably correct. Before Kyo made plans to defeat Yuki in combat for the right to join the Zodiac, his instinct was to kill Yuki and then kill himself, and I don't think those two goals have ever been far from one another in his heart.
I was singled out as the scapegoat in my own family of five. I may never know the reason for this, but in truth, there may not be one; sometimes a scapegoat is chosen based on their deviance from the family leader's desired dynamic, but sometimes the choice is just arbitrary. Whenever something disturbed the invisibly enforced tranquil atmosphere of the household, my father would quickly find something to punish me for, often justifying the outburst with comparisons to my other siblings while in their presence. As I got older, I would count the gaps of days between punishments in an effort to try and gauge whether I was "improving" in my parents' eyes, and over time, the anxiety from this process began to feel like a living death, as if I was always fighting for "good" days of dignity before the inevitable storm of humiliation resumed. For Kyo, this anxiety takes the form of a rosary that lends him a temporary human shape, which can be removed at any time to prove that's he's really a monster and encourage the other Zodiac members to pity or fear him rather than empathize with his unfair position. The rotting state of his body is not his own fault, but a consequence of this cycle of living death, since the Cat spirit has been reincarnated over and over for centuries without the eternal blessings offered by the annual banquet—the role of a scapegoat is to be needed yet unwanted, lingering between life and death until one inevitably takes over. Yuki, Kagura, and Shigure have all gotten old enough to recognize this cruel cycle, but none of them can defy the system for fear of being cast out themselves, so everyone stares at Kyo's suffering just long enough to punish themselves for being powerless, and nothing ever changes.
Since it's impossible for Kyo to be saved from his fate within the Soma family, Kazuma has decided to risk his entire relationship with his adopted son on the faint hope that Tohru can create a safe place for him far away from the world of the Zodiac, but this possibility is complicated by Kyo's ugly history with Kagura and his mother, two relationships that inadvertently taught him that he does not deserve salvation. It's reasonable to assume at this point that Kagura did not react well to seeing Kyo's true form, but given her personality, it's likely that she's never addressed the incident with Kyo directly, instead trying to paper over her discomfort and pity with exaggerated expressions of affection. Despite her best intentions, Kyo has only pushed Kagura farther away because he recognizes this pattern as a prelude to destruction from his relationship with his mother, who literally sacrificed herself to an unrealistic ideal of unconditional love instead of confronting the painful reality of their lives, in our first clear example of the type of Zodiac parent who becomes overprotective of their cursed child instead of rejecting them. Personally, I consider Kyo's mother one of the most tragic victims in all of Fruits Basket. First, she gave birth to the most cursed Zodiac child possible, then her husband left her, and then she spent the rest of her life trying and failing to make Kyo feel unconditionally loved, despite being so overburdened with grief and fear that she eventually surrendered to the pressure and fulfilled her promise to die for the sake of her son. Even if Kyo hadn't been taught to hate himself by the rest of the Soma family, his mother's self-hatred was so profoundly obvious that it bled through even her most passionate overtures of love, seeping into Kyo from a young age and leading him to the conclusion that anyone who shows him kindness is a fool who will die because they tried to help him, a monster who was born purely for the purpose of being punished.
In other words, everything about Tohru's boundlessly cheerful and loving disposition has been setting off alarm bells in Kyo's head from the day they met. When he chides her for being a dummy, he's worrying about how her naive proximity to him will cause her to get hurt, in an echo of The Foolish Traveler parable where he's the goblin hiding in the woods. When he can only compliment her by putting himself down, he's trying to reassert his position as the scapegoat so she won't be tempted to sacrifice herself for someone whose life is already over. And when Kyo tells Tohru that he has to keep hating Yuki to survive even though he can't explain why, he's desperately clinging to any excuse he can find not to believe that he's the real reason his mother is dead. To Kyo, the only way his story ends happily is if he proves that the fable about his spirit isn't true, that the Rat was the real villain of his life story, and the Cat deserves to be in the banquet after all. He's still playing the unwinnable game where he believes some magical thing will happen to make him worthy of his family's acceptance. Until that day comes, anyone who shows him love he doesn't deserve will suffer, and every gesture of kindness he accepts from that person brings them closer to sharing his fate when he inevitably fails to be human. So from Kazuma to Yuki to Kagura to Tohru, he pushes everyone away until the day the loneliness and hatred will burn him out completely.
Just when it seems like all hope is lost, Tohru finds the way to bring Kyo home by remembering his own advice to her and choosing to be irrationally, impulsively selfish. In that sense, it was not just Tohru's kindness, but Kyo's own kindness that saved himself; even if he doesn't see himself as a kind and loving person, the smallest kernels of compassion from Tohru have brought out the best in him, and his words have slowly inspired her to fight for the things she wants against all reason, just like Kyo has done all his life. Tohru doesn't love everything about Kyo, and she's far from understanding everything about him, but even in this darkest hour, she wants to be by his side. Instead of promising that things will get better or that she doesn't see the ugliness of his curse, Tohru admits that she wants to be there for Kyo when he's scared and angry just as much as when he's fun and happy, because he was there for her during her darkest moments, and she knows from experience that for as long as they stay together, that darkness between them only ever fades.
As with Yuki and Kisa, Kyo still isn't strong enough to start loving himself on his own. Even after Tohru's promise to stay with him and share his burdens no matter what, Kyo sees her love as something impossible that he doesn't deserve. He doesn't know how long their relationship will last, because he's still unable to believe that anyone can love him without getting hurt or eventually leaving forever. But the most important epiphany that Kyo has reached mirrors Tohru's own; right or wrong, happy or sad, they both accept that for now, they want to be together. If his wish for a life spent with Tohru comes true, perhaps Kyo's self-destructive wish to join the Zodiac will fade away. Much like Tohru and Kyo, this episode didn't handle everything perfectly, but it came through in the ways we needed most, sending us off on a high note before the finale's falling action can set us up for season two.
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