Manga Moveable Feast: Fruits Basket
This review was written for the Manga Moveable Feast, but I tried to make it as spoiler-free as possible. I won’t say that there are absolutely no spoilers, but there are definitely no major spoilers. However, I cannot guarantee the same for any possible comments that may be made, so read those with caution.
TITLE: Fruits Basket
AUTHOR/MANGAKA: Natsuki Takaya
RATING: Teen (13+)
NUMBER OF VOLUMES: 23
SCORE: 10 (Masterpiece)
RECOMMENDED FOR FANS OF: Fruits Basket anime, Natsuki Takaya (mangaka of Tsubasa: Those With Wings and Phantom Dream), fantasy, romance, humor, drama, slice-of-life
Right off the bat, I’m going to admit that Fruits Basket is my favorite manga series of all time. I’m not even going to try to come across as unbiased during this review, because I’m not. I’m totally, completely 100% biased, and I make no apologies for that, because Fruits Basket is just that awesome.
Fruits Basket is the story of orphan teenager Tohru Honda. Not wanting to be a burden to anybody while her grandfather’s house is being renovated, she decides to camp out in the woods. Yuki Sohma — a classmate of hers and the “prince” of their school — and his older cousin Shigure happen to come across Tohru’s tent one night and inform her that she has been unknowingly trespassing on Sohma land. Tohru offers to pay them rent if they will let her continue camping in the forest, but snce neither Yuki or Shigure is good at cooking or cleaning, they offer to let Tohru stay with them in exchange for becoming their housekeeper instead.
Shortly afterward, Tohru meets another member of the Sohma family, the martial-arts-obsessed Kyo, whose goal in life is to beat his rival Yuki. It isn’t long, though, before Tohru learns that Kyo, Yuki, and Shigure are under a terrible curse. Whenever certain members of the Sohma family are hugged by a member of the opposite sex, they transform into an animal from the Chinese zodiac! As Tohru meets more of the cursed Sohmas and comes to care for them, she becomes determined to find a way to break the Sohma curse, once for all.
One could be forgiven for thinking that Fruits Basket is a fluffy shoujo high school romance at first glance. It does come off mostly as a romantic comedy at first, what with people turning into adorable animals and losing their clothes in the process, but it quickly becomes apparent that the Sohma curse is far more dark and sinister than it first seems. All the cursed Sohma members hold a deep pain in their hearts and have experienced plenty of darkness in their lives due to the curse, ranging from mental and physical abuse and bullying to rejection from family members and the loss of lovers. If you were to ask me who I thought was the worst off, I couldn’t even give you an answer, because the majority of their pasts are just that horrible. The Sohmas are the very definition of a dysfunctional family. In fact, it’s hard to think of a character in Fruits Basket who doesn’t live with some secret pain. Even Tohru and some of the more minor characters have their own tragic backstories.
Even with all the angst, though, Fruits Basket never completely loses the humor and warmth present from the beginning. Honestly, one minute I’ll be laughing my head off, then the next I’ll be on the verge of tears. I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so emotionally invested in a manga series before. What’s more, it’s the type of series that makes you analyze and consider things you might never have thought of otherwise.
Takaya is known for putting little “lessons” in her works, and there are two from Fruits Basket that particularly stick with me. The first is Tohru’s brilliant “umeboshi” analogy. She tells Kyo that everybody has a umeboshi (a plum usually used as flavoring in a rice ball) on their back, and the reason why people probably become jealous of each other is because while they can see the umeboshi on other people’s backs, they are unable to see their own — meaning they are unable recognize what is good about themselves. The second comes from a speech Yuki gives to Kisa, who has been the victim of bullying at her school. Her teacher sends home a letter, telling Kisa that if she wants her classmates to like her, she should try liking herself first, but Yuki realizes that it’s not that simple. A person needs to told that they are liked for who they are before they can start liking themselves, because otherwise, they won’t know what it is to like about themselves, only what they hate. I know from personal experience that is true, so Yuki’s speech really struck a chord with me.
There are other such lessons I could go on about — such as Momiji’s story of the Foolish Traveller or any number of things Tohru learned from her amazing mother — but this
review lovefest is already getting ridiculously long, so I’ll leave those for readers to discover and ponder on their own.
The main draw of Fruits Basket, however, is the characters and the various relationships between them. It’s actually rather amazing how well Takaya handles such a large and varied cast. The characters are integrated so well with each other, with the possible exception of Ritsu Sohma, who basically disappears from the story after his introductory arc. That was a bit of a shame, but at the same time, Ritsu is the type of character who is most effective in small doses. He had the potential to become annoying very quickly, so perhaps it was for the best that he didn’t appear too much in the story.
The cast of Fruits Basket holds the honor of possessing not only the manga character I quite possibly love the most, but also the character I quite possibly hate the most. Those two characters would be Shigure and Akito Sohma.
For those who watched the anime before before checking out the manga like I did, the differences between anime!Shigure and manga!Shigure will probably come as quite a shock. The anime (which I also adore and consider one of my all-time favorites) version of Shigure, while incredibly hilarious and loveable, lacks the complexity and somewhat manipulative nature of his original manga personality. Underneath his goofy, lazy, and perverted exterior is a man who will stop at nothing to get what he wants, even if it means possibly hurting those he claims to care about. He’s sadistic and selfish, yet at the same time, he does ultimately have good intentions. That contradictory nature of his makes for a fascinating character to watch.
Akito, on the other hand, makes my blood boil like few other characters. It’s difficult to put into words just how much I loathe the character, who is the cause of so much pain and suffering to the cursed members of the Zodiac. Perhaps the best way I can put it is that even I, an avowed pacifist, wouldn’t hesitate to punch Akito in the face if we were to ever meet. Though Takaya does a good job of showing exactly how Akito came to be that way and even manages to draw up a little sympathy near the end, it doesn’t change the terrible things Akito has done. Yet I still really appreciated the utter ruthlessness of Akito’s character, for it underscored exactly how disturbing and messed up the curse was.
Another thing I loved about the series is the love triangle between Kyo, Yuki, and Tohru. When it comes to most love triangles in shoujo manga, it’s usually pretty obvious who the heroine will end up with, right from the start. The unlucky suitor is mostly just there to cause drama for the main couple before they inevitably get together. Not so in Fruits Basket, since Tohru is not initially interested in either boy in the romantic sense. Her relationship with both of them starts out as just friendship, which to me, who whole-heartedly believes that the best romances happen when the couple starts off as friends, makes the gradual growing of romantic feelings that blossom naturally over time that much sweeter when they happen. Really, the romance is such a subtle development that up until about the halfway point of the series, when it becomes clear who Tohru has actually fallen for, I could see her ending up with either guy. Truly, one of the most well-done love triangles I’ve ever read, and the resulting romance is just as wonderful.
But romantic relationships aren’t the only relationships of importance in the series. Friendships and family ties — whether or not the people involved are blood related — are given just as much focus. I particularly loved the stong friendship between Tohru and her two best friends, former deliquent Uotani and mysterious Hanajima. There’s also the hilarious Mabudachi Trio, featuring three of my favorite characters: the aforementioned pervy Shigure, the straight man Hatori, and the over-the-top Ayame, who also happens to be Yuki’s older brother. Yuki himself becomes a part of a rather ecletic group of friends when he joins the student council later in the series. I know there are a lot of people out there who tend to dislike the student council and the chapters that focused on them, but I actually rather adored them. They (especially Kakeru and Machi) served an important part in developing Yuki’s character, turning him from a guy I really didn’t care much about at the beginning of the story to a character I actually loved by the end. And they made me laugh in the process, which is always a plus in my book.
When it comes to family relationships in Fruits Basket, there are a lot of complications due to the nature of the curse, especially when it comes to mothers who give birth to cursed babies. It is said that mothers of Zodiac members tend to either become overprotective of their child or reject them. We see examples of both kinds throughout the story, and it is truly heartbreaking to witness some of the more painful rejections, such as Momiji’s and Rin’s. Even those parents who don’t totally reject their children — such as Yuki’s and Ayame’s materialistic mother — are often cold and unfeeling toward them, and being the overprotective sort can be just as bad, such as in the case of Kisa, who can’t bring herself to tell her mother about being bullied, or Kyo, whose mother tries so hard to love him that it basically destroys her. It’s no wonder that several of the cursed Sohmas come to view Tohru as a surrogate mother.
Perhaps the most important familial relationship in the series, though, is that between Tohru and her late mom Kyoko, who raised her as a single mother after Tohru’s father’s early death. Even though Kyoko dies before the series begins, she’s one of the most important characters in the series. Her influence on Tohru continues well after her death, as Tohru strives achieve the dreams Kyoko had for her, but her bond with her mother is so strong that it also holds Tohru back from truly moving on and letting her go, which serves to support the main theme of the series — that there is no such thing as “unchanging” or “permanence” when it comes to bonds between people, that it is okay for things to change and to end.
Boy, this thing turned out way longer than I thought it would be. And to think I was actually holding back on a lot of things I wanted to say, since I was trying to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible. I think my overwhelming love for the series is pretty clear by this point, so the only thing more I can say is that if you haven’t read this yet and can get your hands on it — it’s unfortunately out-of-print now that Tokyopop has closed — do it. Obviously, I can’t guarantee that you’ll love it, but there’s a pretty good chance you will if you just give it a try.
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