An Anime Review – Fruits Basket

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.

Highly recommended.

(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.)

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About Katharine Eliska Kimbriel

Cat Kimbriel is working on a a contemporary fantasy about curses, ecological change, and very different ways of looking at the twilight worlds. She's still working on a short Nuala piece and mulling over a new Alfreda novel. You can find her fantasy & science fiction, including free samples, at her Book View Café bookshelf. These books can also be found at major online booksellers. Her personal blog is here, and you will find her on whatever social media currently interests her. Cat builds worlds that contain compassion and justice -- come join the journey.

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An Anime Review – Fruits Basket — 6 Comments

  1. Oh, lovely, another Furuba Fan!

    I was so impressed by this series that I started a fansite for it with indepth analysis (based on the subtitled version, though – which actually has incredibly good translation if you watch it and can read subtitles fast enough). http://furuba.bookish.net

    I only had enough energy to analyze the first six episodes, though ^^

    However, having finished the Furuba manga (which is completely available in the US as of this year) I would like to point out that since the anime was made after only the first six volumes of the manga were out a lot of the subtleties that Natsuki Takaya set up weren’t included in the anime or misinterpreted.

    That doesn’t take away from the fact that the anime in itself is a beautiful story in and off itself (even if the mangaka didn’t like it).

    If you liked Furuba, have you seen Princess Tutu? Now there’s the perfect dramatic shoujo anime (not based on a manga – that came later and was completely stupid) with themes on story tropes, breaking of stereo- and archetypes, friendship, love, redemption, hope. There’s a great review of that here: Manga/Anime Review: A Great Present for Kids of all Ages: Princess Tutu – with minor spoilers.

    I’d love to read your take on that. Also completely available in the US.

  2. My daughter reads the manga (translated, of course!) when she can–I had no idea it was an anime series, too. We’ll have to watch that.

  3. Thanks for writing, Estara! I’ve just started the manga, and I understand minor grumbling by those who have read the manga. By mangaka do you mean Natsuki Takaya, or is this a general protest by comic artists against what they feel is a poor translation? I’m sorry she didn’t like the series.

    I think this is an important place to treat it like the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings movies. The animated series is enough to understand the flavor of the story and with luck will lure people to her manga series. I’ll certainly finish it and look for other works of hers. I know people who did not start the HP or LotR books until the movies ended (yup, they’ve survived without the Harry Potter books all this time!) From what I’ve seen so far (I’m ending volume three of the manga) I see that a lot of subtext has been cut, scenes combined (as when Torhu meets Hartori) and some things added for slapstick (the Sohmas meet Hanna and Uo) and to drive home the most obvious problem of the curse. Much of the dark streak has been diluted or cut.

    I imagine the director and adapters laid out the entire anime series before starting the animation. They wanted to stay as close to the manga as possible, but also get it ready for the shojo market. If there is enough interest in the anime, then more of the series can be animated — and some of the dark streak added back.

    I am doodling with a manga myself, trying to see if I can condense my style enough for the medium. Two things I’m wondering about — I have not stumbled over the honorifics (or whatever they are called other than social modifiers) for -sun, kun, and chan. Sun seems the most formal, and I thought that -kun was less formal and -chan for family/intimate, but I see classmates using -chan with Torhu, and while Torhu may use Yuki’s name when talking about him, she always calls him Sohma-sun. Up through #3 at least he calls her Miss Honda (Honda-sun) at all times. Do you know the convention? Or is it based in slight observed interaction which word to use?

    The other thing I’m wondering is if I should use kanji in panels for sounds. My instinct is to use English and let a translator handle it, if it ever made its way back over the water.

    Argh! Must return to work!

  4. I’m always so happy when people whose work I admire find things I also enjoy enjoyable ^^, that’s why I wrote such a lot.

    re: wrath of the mangaka – yes, I meant Natsuki Takaya specifically – Funimation made a whole lot of money from the anime (for there then current anime line-up) and even started a petition of US fans folding 1000 paper cranes which were delivered to Takaya – to rethink her dislike of the anime and make it possible to have more than one season (seeing as the manga has 23 volumes and – as said before – the anime only covers the first six).

    From what I remember she really disliked the director’s vision, although he is a renowned one. Akitaro Daichi

    Personally I now know that certain things were manifestly wrong in the anime, but that was because the storyline had already been mostly worked through and the Takaya just tantalised with some hints in the early volumes which would be explored in more detail later – but truly, I think they could have worked around that. There isn’t a huge divergence of the innermost themes or complete misinterpretation of characers, so it would have been doable.

    Well, she didn’t like it, so we’ll have to be happy with this arc – and it’s so good on its own.

    And don’t worry about the dark streak not showing up, you’ll get a LOT of darkness in the build-up to the eucatastrophe and the aftermath ^^ – enjoy the lightness while it lasts, it gets toned down more and more (it doesn’t get nihilistic, but there is major grief and pain to work through after all).

  5. The Japanese terms of address really are an important part of the interaction (which is why scanlation fans are often totally annoyed when the licensed manga doesn’t have them – I mean what do you do when one of the major scenes in many a shoujo romance has the girl call the boy/the boy call the girl their first name without a honorific for the first time – and the licensed version has never used the honorifics?

    Luckily since the day that Tokyopop started the trend of actually publishing manga in the original format and read from right to left, more and more publishers use the honorifics (or something comparable) to indicate the relationships.

    I found a very good site with in-depth explanation of their use here (but you still can often find the explanation at the end of the volume of licensed manga)
    Sensei’s Library: Japanese name suffix

    Basically
    -san is Mr/Mrs/Mz (People can keep on using this even if they’re married to each other to show extreme respect – the yaoi manga by Youka Nitta Haru wo Daite Ita – partially released as Embracing Love – has one of the two grown-up male lovers using -san to address his husband even after a gay marriage ceremony in the USA, even while their making love ^^ – it probably started out because one of them is a few years older than the other and was a more experienced person in the same business => this sort of works into sempai and kohai as well)
    Very high honors are -sama (old fashioned -dono) which by the way work for males and females. (that high honor of -sama can go so far as to address gods in fantasy manga with -sama)
    Boys very often have -kun when they’re teenagers, – have -chan when they’re still kids
    Girls mostly have -chan
    -sensei is any kind of expert (even doctors)
    -sempai/-kohai is the situation of someone being in the same community for a longer length of time and more experienced, while the kohai has just come in (this works for school as well as workspace). The sempai is supposed to look after the kohai and help him along, but the kohai is supposed to listen to the sempai and do what he says.

    Fascinating stuff but if you immerse yourself in manga and anime it won’t be long until you instinctively get a fell for the nuances (since manga and anime of course are as much an exaggerated art form as comics are here, so stuff gets simplified). Mostly, anyway (there are new cute suffixes among teenagers like -tan and -rin and what you use when there I haven’t quite grasped, I do understand that there more en vogue at the moment, so it’s more modern to use them).