Fruits Basket is an insanely popular manga series created by Natsuki Takaya. Manga, for the uninitiated, is the Japanese version of a comic, except that it is usually in digest form (think Analog or Ellery Queen).
Fruits Basket is considered a shojo, a girl’s tale, although there are many male characters and enough humor to hold the attention of any fan of animated storytelling.
There are hundreds of mangas, and many anime either from those mangas or original to the screen, but not all anime or manga have what I most desire in a story – in-depth characters, a strong plot, and for this medium, well-done, even beautiful artwork.
Fruits Basket excels at all of these things.
It’s called A Fairytale for the Rejected, but it shines as a story of eccentrics, tolerance and the redemptive quality of love. We have an old, wealthy family, the Sohmas, who look normal from the outside but harbor their own secret – they carry a family curse, and each generation members of the clan are born with the involuntary ability to transform into one of the animals of the Chinese Zodiac. Stress, whether physical, emotional or climate, and actually hugging or otherwise running into someone of the opposite sex, causes the change – and of course they are jay-naked when they resume human form. Since our protagonists are in their first year of high school (10th grade in the USA), this promises humor and terror in equal amounts.
Into this circle arrives our heroine, Tohru Honda, an orphan camping out in their woods while her grandfather’s home is remodeled. An unusual but not impossible series of events finds her using Shigure Sohma’s guest room and doing the cleaning and cooking in exchange for room and board. “Prince” Yuki, the boy voted most gorgeous by the local girls, also lives here, and it’s his first exposure to actually dealing with a normal young girl.
The genius of this translation of Takaya’s mangas is that they start out with the light-hearted innuendo and identity questions of most good anime for young teens – but as characters add and interact, we find that the Sohma curse really is a curse, causing the family to warp itself in strange ways, including having a head of the family who is the “hub of the wheel” for the zodiac. He will die young, allowing the others to live. Siblings can’t help each other, running away as soon as they can, and mothers often reject – or become fiercely protective of — their zodiac children. Kyo, the cat who has another, secret form, is almost universally rejected by the adults, and he and Yuki can’t be in the same room without a physical fight. Yet the zodiac members are fiercely united against any threat to one of their own.
Until Tohru enters their lives.
Tohru is a very normal girl, pretty but not gorgeous, intelligent but not brainy or one who excels at school. Her mother, who had in her own past being a “yankee”, or member of a girl gang, grew up to find a good man and then to raise their daughter alone after sickness carried Tohru’s father off. Tohru knows how cruel children can be – in the Fruits Basket game, they assigned her “rice ball”. And no one serves a fruit basket with rice balls. Between her own life experiences and her ability to translate and share insights her mother taught her to look for, Tohru has tolerance in spades. Her best friends are Uo, a former yankee who depended on Tohru and her mother for help leaving a gang, and Hana, who is a psychic and enjoys scaring classmates with her observations about “electric signals.”
On top of her tolerance, Tohru also strives to be cheerful and friendly to all, and has a deep streak of compassion. So when she accidentally discovers the Sohma’s secret, she kneels and says to the talking animals: “So this is…normal?”
When they realize she really can keep their secret, Tohru’s adventures with the Sohma clan begin. The other members of the current zodiac, all apparently under the age of thirty and most sixteen or younger, begin visiting the small house she shares with Shigure the writer (who is the dog), Yuki (the rat) and finally Kyo (the outcast cat whom the rat tricked into missing the great banquet.) Some of them are desperate for acceptance, others desperate to be hugged by someone who doesn’t recoil from their shift. All of them, trusting or suspicious, could use a friend. In generous and innocent Tohru, they have found water in the desert, but not without lessons learned and painful truths.
The first 26 episodes reach a comfortable endpoint, although a 23 volume manga series promises much more involvement with the many different Sohmas. We see only a brush of the curse’s tragedy, starting with the cat’s second, terrible form and moving through love lost and violent punishment of the doctor of the clan (the dragon) for daring to love someone not approved by the head of the clan. And while we have hints of what the other two 27-year-old men use to deal with their curse cutting them off from half of humanity, the youngest viewers will probably not pick it up. It’s reduced to slapstick; funny without much of the bite I suspect is below the surface.
Tohru works her mixture of compassion, protection and cheerful friendliness in a manner that slowly unwinds the tension of the small house she shares with eventually three shifters. There is humor galore, but something dark can rise from the depths at any moment. Tohru’s overwhelming tolerance of anyone different even brushes against the great clan house – and becomes her greatest trial, as she sees full force what the curse of the Sohmas is truly about.
This anime can be purchased in a box set of four diskettes for the twenty-six episodes. The Viridian version does have extras, including a Japanese “making of” interview that was quite interesting. The background music fits beautifully, the titles music composed and sung by a delicately voiced singer/composer. The dubbing seems very good. Characters have voices that suit them, and oddly, the Japanese voice actress who performs both Tohru’s mother and Tohru’s friend Uo sounds amazingly like the woman who did the English dubs of the same characters. The Japanese version was good on emphasis, but I disliked the voice used for Yuki – much too high and young in Japanese.
If you enjoy a nice mix of humor wrapped in wonderful characters and a slow and painful path to maturity, joy and truth, I’ll bet you’ll enjoy this series. I was lucky enough to borrow it from a friend, and then bought my own copy as soon as I could. It’s rated PG, and that covers some fist fighting, innuendo and brief but not graphic violence directed against the zodiacs by their cursed clan chief.
(PS–this anime is also an example of animators taking what they probably thought was a good visual shortcut on a character’s appearance–and they blew it big time. One question to the manga artist would have avoided the anime’s storytelling error, but it looks like they didn’t ask. Manga creator Natsuki Takaya was so unhappy that of this writing she forbid any more anime made from the manga series.)