Fruits Basket
Natsuki Takaya

Morality: B-
Writing: A

Tohru Honda became an orphan when her mother died a few months ago, and now that her grandfather’s renovating his house, she’s also homeless. Determined to cause no one any trouble, Tohru takes to camping in the woods. But it turns out these woods belong to the Sohmas, a rich and mysterious family. Three of them live in the house on the property: Shigure, a grown but not grown-up man who makes his living as a writer of sleazy romances; Yuki, the wildly popular but shy “ice prince” of Tohru’s high school; and Kyo, a cranky martial arts student who has declared Yuki his rival. After her tent is destroyed in a mudslide, Tohru ends up living with the three Sohmas, and then she makes another discovery: the Sohmas are cursed. Certain members–including Shigure, Yuki, and Kyo–are “possessed by the vengeful spirits of the zodiac,” so that they turn into their patron animals when hugged by someone of the opposite sex.

Cute boys who turn into animals when you hug them: it sounds like a pretty stupid premise, or at least like something that could never be more than fluffy romance with a bit of soap opera thrown in. Certainly there’s plenty of fluff, romance, and melodrama spread across Fruits Basket’s 23 volumes, along with whacky characters and high school hijinks. And for the first few volumes, there isn’t much else. But as the story progresses, Tohru learns more about the Sohma family. The curse doesn’t just make it difficult for them to be around strangers; it has isolated the entire family and locked them into a cycle of misery for centuries. And there’s more to the curse than just the hugging problem . . .

At its heart, Fruits Basket is the story of good-hearted but messed-up teenagers learning how to love and be loved. It’s about the courage necessary to love and be happy in a world where neither love nor happiness is guaranteed. And it’s about change–how it’s scary and difficult but utterly necessary to stop handing down misery from generation to generation.

This is a character-driven series, and it works brilliantly despite how whacky some of those characters are. The really over-the-top personalities do get toned down a bit over the course of the series, but none of them become exactly realistic. What makes them work is that thrown in among the wackiness are moments of emotional realism. Forgiveness isn’t easy in this story. Neither is changing yourself: several characters have important epiphanies but still have to struggle with their faults afterwards.

I especially enjoyed the treatment of Tohru’s character. Cheerful and self-sacrificing to a fault, she could be a boring paragon–except that the story acknowledges the problems of being compulsively selfless and explores the traumas that have made her that way. In her own way, Tohru is as wounded as any of the other characters. Yet while she must learn to acknowledge her own feelings and needs, it’s never implied that her kindness is foolish or weak–and if she were any less than what she is, she would never be able to change the lives of those around her in the way that she does.

The artwork, too, is impressive. Though I’m not a huge fan of the style in the earlier volumes, it’s still lively and pretty. But the style changes a lot over the course of the series; a glance at some of Takaya’s earlier and later works makes me think this is a general development in her artwork rather than just a technique to show the passage of time, but it still creates that effect. Plus, even when the style isn’t my favorite, it’s still very expressive; Takaya has a knack for layouts that convey deep emotion without any words, and by the end, there are some panels of great beauty.

In case you haven’t guessed: I love this series. I can still say that there are some problems. The first four to five volumes, as previously mentioned, do not rise far above the level of fluff; they’re enjoyable, but nothing to write home about. Around volumes five and six, the story kicks into high gear and becomes much better–but there are still sections that are needlessly padded with high school hijinks and romantic comedy. If you like the characters, it’s still fun to read, but I think the story would have been tighter without it.

I think that pretty much all of the moral positives have already been covered. On the minus side there is not a lot besides the effects of nobody being Christian. (NB: the zodiac myth talks about “God,” but it eventually becomes clear that this is not meant in any theological sense.) One male character talks about how his first crush was on another boy, but by the time the story starts, he is in love with a girl, so that element doesn’t have the chance to become hugely problematic. Shigure and his (male) cousin Ayame enjoy making suggestive remarks to each other–mostly, it seems, to irritate Yuki and Kyo–but that also comes to nothing. There are also several people having sex outside of marriage, but none of these relationships are healthy, so it’s not as if they’re being held up as paragons.

Also, one of the Sohmas has memory-wiping powers that he uses to safeguard the family secret. This is portrayed as a bad thing, but because of the grief of those who’ve been forgotten, not because it violates the dignity of the human person.

Content warning: there is a little bit of bad language, plus a few panels with topless female nudity, of which the most explicit is in a non-sexual context.

Posted by Rose | July 31, 2011

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