by Carl Kimlinger,

Fruits Basket

GN 16

Fruits Basket GN 16
Kyo remembers a long-ago encounter with Tohru's mother during which she tells him about her upbringing, marriage, the birth of Tohru, and the devastating loss of her husband. A troubled girl, she is saved from a life wasted when she meets Tohru's father, Katsuya Honda, just as his meeting her saves him from a lonely, emotionless existence. The birth of Tohru completes their happiness, but the hammer-blow of Katsuya's death nearly destroys everything. Meanwhile Kyo tortures himself over his feelings for Tohru, Yuki begins to form a tentative friendship with deeply damaged student council member Machi, and Akito catches a glimpse of the changes in Yuki, with predictably nasty results.

Someone once described Fruits Basket as a harem comedy for girls. They've been eating those words ever since. The undertone of family dysfunction and air of slightly sinister mystery have been present from the beginning, lending the opening romantic comedy an unusual edge, but they only really begin to pay dividends here in the later volumes. The twisted dynamics of the Sohma household become ever clearer, as do their effects on the members of the household. While Yuki is on the path to self-healing, Kyo suffers from a poignant mix of impossible desire and potent self-hatred. The Sohma curse is as nebulous as ever, but sometimes seems as much a deep-rooted dysfunction as a supernatural force. The potential harem comedy factor has long since been smothered by tortured psyches, unrequited loves, and self-destructive family relations. Even the series' central love triangle has been quietly dissolved—no histrionics or indecision, just the gentle, natural drifting of feelings into a single direction.

That said, the part of this volume that makes the strongest impression—besides Kyo's truly nightmarish nightmares—is the half of it devoted to Tohru's parents. It's a beautiful little story about two dangerously unstable individuals who become strangely stable when together. Their approach to family life and parenting is informed by their own failings as members of destroyed families, and the result is exactly the kind of family that would produce someone like Tohru. As such, the moment when it falls apart, though inevitable (we've known about Katsuya's death from the beginning) is no less than devastating, and the events that follow go a long ways towards explaining exactly what it is that Tohru has been trying so desperately to suppress for the last couple of volumes.

Those looking for the humor of even the last volume's school play silliness will be disappointed, as this volume is non-stop angst from cover to cover. The series is running the risk of going entirely over the top that so many angst-epics run; every character suffers from some trauma or dysfunction. In the world of Fruits Basket, good parents are as common as penguins in the Sahara—every single one is either neglectful, smothering, unfeeling, abusive, misguided, or dead. It stretches credulity on occasion, and the endless wrangling of all of the characters with their personal traumas could easily grow tiresome were it not for their careful construction, inherent likeability, and the often touching, often painful realism of their reactions to their circumstances. The character evolution and interaction, such as Yuki's slow, self-instigated metamorphosis and the effect that Kyo's self-hatred has on Tohru, make it easy to forgive some of the plot's more blatant contrivances—of which Kyo and Kyoko's meeting tops the list.

The real strength of Natsuki Takaya's artwork isn't that that it looks good—though it definitely does, from its beautiful characters to the intricately rendered textures of their clothing—but how well it communicates mood and emotions. Not content to rely on facial expressions, though she does them well, Takaya is particularly apt at using shading and shadows to indicate character's mental states. This volume, angst-ridden as it is, is filled with dark shadows, shaded faces, and black, black blood. The details of character's emotions—the disparity between Tohru's private emotions and her public front, the punishing intensity of Kyo's feelings for Tohru—are not only discernable but tangible, all without a word being spoken. Adult male faces are a little lacking in variety, but the main cast is as distinctive as can be—particularly Rin, and they've all matured favorably physically. Panel layouts, while complex, are intuitive and cannily used to regulate pacing and communicate moods and mental states, but dialogue bubbles are sometimes confusingly arranged.

With two exceptions—color inner covers, and Japanese sound effects with unobtrusive English translations—this book is standard Tokyopop. Which, for those not in the know, is a generally good thing. Not outstanding, but good. Extras include the usual Fans Basket fanart selection, and a short excerpt from a manga called Me & My Brothers that Fruits Basket fans will apparently love because it has a lone girl living with a bunch of guys.

What small comic respite there was last volume is now firmly in the past as the series again moves deep into drama territory. The incremental evolution of relationships is still a treat, while the Kyoko back-story wisely forgoes big revelations and opts instead for simple explication of Tohru's tragic—but entirely plausible—family history. The dreamy, ever-so-slightly menacing atmosphere is as strong as ever and the characters as intensely likeable (and emotionally damaged). There's no doubt that the series will take its own sweet time in moving forward, so patience is a virtue, but it is moving forward, and there's plenty to enjoy on the way there. If only Tohru played a bigger part...

Overall : B+
Story : B
Art : A-

+ Kyoko's story provides both important background on Tohru and a hefty kick to the emotional testicles.
Artless plot contrivances; Tohru deficient; and is there anyone in Fruits Basket that doesn't have a screwed up family?

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Story & Art: Natsuki Takaya

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