by Jacob Chapman,
How would you rate episode 3 of
Fruits Basket (TV 2/2019) ?
As the years passed and Fruits Basket slowly became absorbed into otaku subculture, I remember seeing the casual perception of Tohru Honda morph into something much broader than the more complex character this new anime is now bringing to light. She's been deemed an unrealistic angel, a mother/savior fantasy, and even the dreaded "Mary Sue" moniker would get busted out from time to time. So it may surprise viewers to hear a character so associated with healing and purity deliver the line: "No one's born with kindness, just selfish desires and survival instincts." Frankly, I don't think Tohru would be considered such a shining wellspring of emotional wisdom if she only said sweet and positive things. It's the bitter realities underlying her positivity that make it so powerful, like seeing the sun rise after weathering a terrible storm. In episode three, we finally see Yuki's real smile for the first time, and I don't think any simpler platitudes about kindness could have given him that renewed sense of peace.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. This episode cleverly combines chapters 4 and 8 of the source manga, which is especially impressive considering that many important things happen in chapters 5-7. Fortunately, if you just fudge a few details and lines of dialogue, the major revelations that take place in those chapters don't have to be mentioned at all! For reference, the story about Yuki's problems in the middle of this episode is from chapter 4, while the bookends about Kyo's problems and the culture festival are from chapter 8, along with the introduction of the little German stranger. The only mild downside to this re-ordering is that Tohru and Kyo do seem much closer all of a sudden (and as such, some of their flirtation from chapter eight was toned down for this episode), and Tohru reaches her conclusion about the nature of jealousy much quicker. (In the manga, she had a longer time to mull over the riceball metaphor, and let's just say riceballs have long been on her mind for reasons we'll see in this adaptation's episode five.) Otherwise, I think it's a brilliant adaptation choice that allows the mutually envious relationship between Yuki and Kyo to be explored in a more cohesive way.
I think Yuki gets kind of a bum rap compared to his more fun feline cousin. Where Kyo broadcasts his righteous anger at being an outcast to the world at all times, scaring people or pissing them off until he apologizes just as brashly, Yuki extends his gentle brand of charm and compassion toward everyone equally until his bottled-up emotions come out the wrong way in a savage insult or passive dismissal. In real life, you would probably rather hang around Yuki than Kyo at first, but if you really wanted to be his friend (or more-than-friend), you would quickly grow frustrated with the intimidating gap between his outer strength and complete lack of vulnerability. As a child reading the manga, I sided with the greater number of Kyo fans embracing the bad boy, but as I've grown older, I've come to identify just as strongly with Yuki. No matter how capable or cool someone looks on the outside, on the inside they may only see themselves as a helpless, disgusting rodent. Contrary to how his classmates see him, Yuki not only doesn't think he's too good for anybody, but even believes that he's too pathetic for anyone to love the "real" him.
As children, we are molded by how our families want us to see ourselves. To that end, we're often given roles as guidelines to shape our identity, based on our gender, birth order, talents, belief systems, or even a magical cursed Zodiac spirit. In abusive families, these roles are often used to control children for the benefit of their parents. If you tell someone they're absolutely worthless for too long, they simply can't keep on living, so abusers rely on caveat compliments to keep their victims in line. Yuki has been told all his life that he's beautiful, smart, and kind, but he's also been told that those talents are a gift of his birthright, so he owes every good thing about himself to his family and the Rat spirit. That's why he immediately dismisses Tohru's compliments; he still sees anything that benefits him at all as selfish. Even if he knows his family was wrong to mistreat him, and even if he's trying his hardest to find a new life outside the Soma cage, Yuki has never been taught how to express his own feelings beyond how they can fulfill his role as a tool for the benefit of others, so he doesn't know how to connect with people or express his emotions unguarded. He still thinks he has to earn the right to be happy from others now that he's chosen to reject his family, and this calculation and fear make his kindness ring hollow to anyone who wants to push past his generous princeliness and see the flawed human underneath. He thinks that the universal emotion of wanting people to like him makes all his genuine kindness invalid. No matter how far Yuki runs from the Soma family, their words still live inside him, and every time he tries to make himself stronger to prove them wrong, he's closing his weaknesses off from acceptance by a kinder world. Seeing him literally turn into a rat is just a useful metaphor for a feeling of helplessness that mistreated children everywhere can understand.
Tohru's speech about the "true nature" of kindness—specifically that no such thing exists because we all have to teach ourselves empathy in different ways—is powerful because Yuki needs to understand that there are no rules when it comes to connecting with others. Just because someone doesn't understand your genuine effort to show them love doesn't mean it was wrong. No one is judging Yuki's every action as right or wrong because it benefitted him too much when he didn't "deserve it" yet. All those calls are coming from inside the house, and Yuki must learn to accept rejection from others who don't understand his form of kindness, in order to eventually find acceptance from the people who are meant to be in his life. This also calls back to Shigure's advice for Kyo in episode two; "getting good" at human connection means years of hard training that will inevitably leave you bruised but much stronger on the other side. The only difference between them is that Kyo is more afraid of hurting others with his true self, while Yuki is more afraid of others hurting him.
In some ways, Kyo's internal path to escaping the Soma family is easier because he isn't worried about proving himself useful to the world. (His external path is a different story, but we'll get to that much later in the story.) He's been told that he's a worthless embarrassment his entire life, so he has no standards from others to reach or reject either way. (Mild spoiler but important for present context: Kyo has also experienced unconditional parental love before, while Yuki has not.) Even if Kyo wrongly thinks that acceptance from the Soma family is the only way out of his self-hatred, there's an undeniable freedom in having nothing to lose. But it's also impossible to be happy if you sincerely believe that you're the "dud" in a mountain of riceballs. So once again, Tohru busts out a beautifully cheesy metaphor to soothe the savage beast. My favorite thing about re-ordering this material from the manga is that I actually prefer the pickled-plum-riceball fable coming before the riceball-in-a-fruits-basket fable. (Yes, we will soon get an explanation for this story's strange title, and I'll explain why I like the scene-swap so much then.)
Just like every human's way of expressing kindness, the many flavors in different riceballs may not be to everyone's tastes, but just because you can't see your own filling doesn't mean you're empty, and just because one person doesn't like your flavor doesn't mean you taste terrible. (Though if you are chives-flavored, I wouldn't recommend hanging out with Kyo!) This episode told two simple yet beautiful intersecting stories with nuance and humor to spare, but it looks like the oh-so-temporary peace in Shigure's house is going right out the window next time, as a new Soma family member arrives in search of Kyo. (Side note: due to rearranging this story material, Tohru has now been awake for well over 24 hours with another boisterous Zodiac animal at her door! Perhaps it's best not to think about it.)
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