by Jacob Chapman,
How would you rate episode 1 of
Fruits Basket (TV 2/2019) ?
How would you rate episode 2 of
Fruits Basket (TV 2/2019) ?
It's hard to believe that just six months ago, we had no idea this was happening. One of the most beloved shojo manga of the new millennium—possibly one of the most beloved shojo manga ever made—is finally being adapted to animation in its entirety, all 23 volumes of story spanning three life-changing years for its warm and fuzzy cast of high schoolers. And since it took significantly longer than three years to publish all that manga, this modern fairytale also became a formative experience for the teen readers who grew up with it, making the short turnaround time between this project's announcement and the high quality of the final result feel like a dream come true for millennials who may only now be realizing how much this story impacted their lives.
For all those viewers coming across Fruits Basket for the first time, I'm so excited that you get to experience this surprisingly timeless epic of late-'90s angst in such a beautiful new form. (Since I talked about the adaptation/production aspects extensively in my premiere report, this review will only focus on the story.) Fruits Basket absolutely changed my life. I started reading it shortly after its English-language publication began in middle school and religiously consumed the story up through high school until it ended in my freshman year of college. Mere months later, I began the arduous process of separating myself from my deeply abusive evangelical family, and while I can't claim that Fruits Basket literally saved my life, there's no denying that it both prompted and helped me process that life-saving journey. In the years that followed, Fruits Basket has only ever grown with me, as I got closer in age to its older cast members and saw their perspectives anew with every revisit.
But even though Fruits Basket was commercially and critically successful throughout its run, I always felt alone in holding such a monumental level of reverence for it. Mostly, it would get tossed around in conversation as a modern classic in need of an animated reboot in the same breath as the Ouran High School Host Clubs and Skip Beat!s of the world. While those may all be contemporary shojo hits, Fruits Basket defies easy genre classifications compared to even its most high-quality peers in a way that's never since been replicated. Sure, even in these first two episodes, there's a clear style swing happening between comedy, mystery, fantasy, and melodrama, but that's still a familiar casserole of tones for many shojo manga. Fruits Basket has quietly grown in esteem over the years because it evolves from an adorable teen romcom into a raw treatise on learning how to love others when your family never taught you how to love yourself.
This cute little story is secretly Neon Genesis Evangirl-ion, but because of its frequently dismissed target demographic and lack of faithful anime adaptation, Fruits Basket's incredible power has only trickled out into popular consciousness by comparison. I promise to avoid spoilers for the slow burn journey ahead, but I'm just so ready for this masterpiece to have its long-deserved renaissance. A brand-new Zodiac Banquet has finally begun, and everyone's invited.
Of course, that's not how things start out in Tohru Honda's world, where disinvitation always seems to be in the air. After her mother's tragic death, no one was willing to take the 16-year old in save for her grandfather, who's grown senile enough to assume that Tohru is actually his deceased daughter-in-law. Like the Zodiac Cat from one of her favorite bedtime stories, Tohru instantly sympathizes with feeling unwanted and easily tricked, since she's teased for being slow in school and her single mother was estranged from the Honda family for her delinquent dropout past. Even her sole strong subject in home economics was fostered out of necessity to support her hard-working mom. So when Grandpa Honda informs Tohru that she'll need to stay at a friend's place for a few months, poor Tohru can only think of the ways in which she would inconvenience her surviving loved ones. Even though we've barely met them, it seems obvious that Uo and Hana would never consider their BFF an imposition, but Tohru's anxieties ultimately send her into the woods to live alone with her mother once more—even though Kyoko can no longer protect her from the many landslides life is bound to send her way. Fortunately for Tohru, not all the animals living in this forest are indifferent to her plight.
On the surface, it seems like the Soma family couldn't be more different from the hapless girl they take in. They're obviously wealthy, owning many square miles of land outside the suburbs, with the implication that their main estate in the city is far larger. Shigure is an eloquent and witty canine who can afford to live lackadaisically in a spacious two-story house, and his cousin Yuki is supernaturally talented at everything from academics to sports to just looking way too pretty for a dude. They're fortunate and gifted in all the ways you might associate with the Chinese New Year, and Yuki welcomes Tohru into their lives with such charming princeliness that it's downright suspicious. (Yet somehow Shigure's the more suspicious of the pair.) But the arrival of the Somas' token black sheep—er, orange cat—Kyo throws the family's facade of happiness into chaos.
The Soma family has been cursed for centuries, and the bad blood between its most privileged Zodiac animal and its sorriest outcast is now so dark and thick that Yuki and Kyo can barely even look at each other without getting downright violent. Shigure, finding all of this tremendously amusing for some reason, persuades the mysterious head of the Soma family to let Tohru stay with him and the boys despite having learned their greatest secret. The only justification he'll share for this potentially explosive living arrangement is that he thinks Tohru's presence will be "good for" the boys, to which Akito ominously responds that it will be in his own best interest as well. (This is the only important detail cut from the manga in adaptation; Kyo was not originally planning to live with Shigure and Yuki, just drop by for a quick ass-kicking, but Akito has now mandated that he stay at the cottage, which means he's bound by blood to hang out with Yuki all day. I'll always note in the future if any helpful context is cut from the source material.) Now that Akito thinks it's a great idea, Yuki is unsure if he's made a mistake welcoming Tohru into his life—he thought this was another step toward his own independence, but perhaps the Soma family is not so easy to leave.
On the other hand, why would he ever want to leave? That seems to be Kyo's perspective, as he fights with every fiber of his being to defeat Yuki in battle, which he's convinced will secure him a place in the "real" Zodiac somehow. Just like Tohru, both of these boys are immediately sympathetic in their struggles, and even their negative traits—Yuki has a truly cruel acid tongue and Kyo's violent outbursts can be alarming—ring true as coping mechanisms for the unique traumas they must have faced as children. Yuki was routinely demeaned by a family patriarch who tried to isolate him from the world and micro-manages his life even now, while Kyo acts exactly like a wild animal who's been chained up in the yard, never allowed to enjoy the familial warmth granted to his dozen cousins. Both of them feel trapped and isolated for completely opposite reasons—and yet, without really understanding how, Tohru is able to cut right through both boys' fears with her strangely powerful words of kindness.
It's because Tohru's mother showed her so much love and support that she's able to reflect this strength back to others, but the wound of losing that loved one is still so fresh that Tohru only reaches out with a touch soft and tender enough to get through the defensive bristles around other hurting hearts. Our heroine's immediate lovability has always been one of Fruits Basket's greatest hooks, but underneath Tohru's boundless optimism and compassion, I think her subtle streak of self-loathing has always been the most fascinating thing about her. It peeks through in humorous ways at first, as she constantly puts herself down in a broad show of humility, but things get startlingly real when she opens up about losing her mother. Underneath that sweet smile is a deep void of regret. "Why wasn't I there to say goodbye? Why can't I do better in school? Why did I get sick? Why am I so stupid?" Tohru doesn't go out of her way to try and understand Yuki and Kyo because she's a people-pleaser; she's just overflowing with the love her mother gave to her, and she deeply understands how painful it is to feel like you don't deserve that love. From her perspective, she's Cinderella entering the Prince's castle, so of course she's flattered to be considered Yuki's friend and honored to meet the Cat of the Zodiac. But for the boys who've been defined by cursed roles their whole lives, this may be the first time that someone outside their family has (literally) embraced them for who they truly are. Great transformations may be on the horizon for this tiny pocket of the Soma family, and I don't just mean the fuzzy kind.
Change is difficult, especially during the tempestuous madness of adolescence, so these four wildly different outcasts will have a long road ahead of them to understanding one another and growing stronger (or even wanting to do those things!), but I'll be enthralled to follow every step of the journey ahead. Fruits Basket is one of the most emotionally rewarding stories I've ever experienced, and I hope many more new fans can open their heart to Tohru and her animal friends this season.
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