Manga Monday: Fruits Basket

mm_fruits_basketNatsuki Takaya’s critically acclaimed shojo manga series Fruits Basket is often listed among manga readers top ten series of all time.  It is certainly one of mine! Spanning 23-volumes, it was originally released in Japan from 1999 to 2006; it was translated to English and released in North America by the now defunct Tokyopop from 2004-2007. Tokyopop also did some Ultimate Editions that combined two volumes in one, however they never finished those so only half the series was covered.   There is also a 26-episode anime adaptation, covering approximately the first seven volumes; the anime was released in the US by Funimation.

Fruits Basket revolves around Tohru Honda, a sixteen year old orphan who is temporarily living in a tent in the woods.  After being discovered by Yuki Sohma, the “prince” of their high school, and his guardian Shigure, Tohru is allowed to move into the Sohma household temporarily in exchange for her working as housekeeper and cook.  

Unfortunately, her new living situation is busted, literally, by the arrival of another Sohma, the hot-tempered Kyo, who crashes in through the ceiling to challenge Yuki to a fight. While trying to stop him, Tohru unwittingly reveals the Sohma family’s secret: thirteen members of the family (including Yuki, Kyo, and Shigure) are possessed by the animals of the Chinese zodiac! When embraced by members of the opposite sex or are weak/sick, they transform into the animal forms of their respective zodiac member!

As she grows closer to the family and learns more about the way the curse has affected the lives of the 13, she becomes determined to find a way to break the curse and to free them from the tyranny of Akito, the head of the clan who rules the cursed with capricious cruelty as the “God” of the zodiac ball. But it won’t be easy, especially when not everyone wants the curse broken and when Tohru herself has her own secret pains she must face.

Without a doubt, Takaya is a master storyteller.  She takes what could be a rather silly idea and turns it into a rich, multi-layered story with a huge range of complex characters that are compelling even when they may not be particularly likable.  Despite the large cast, she manages to keep this quality up from start to finish, and as you reread the story you can see how even small bits early added to the layers of each character’s story.

Some readers, as well as some fans of the anime which mostly focuses on the comedic elements, complained about the series growing darker as it continued.  To me, the slow shift is perfectly in keeping with the overall set up of the story.  Much as when you first meet anyone for the first time, Tohru only sees the happy outside, “our representative” as Chris Rock would say.  It’s only as Tohru grows closer to the Sohma clan that they allow the exterior covering the fall away and unveil the true nature and histories underneath.

It also really shouldn’t be a surprise to reader. Tohru herself is warned very early in the series that the curse is not “all fun and games” and the affiliated characters regularly make comments amongst themselves that make it clear there they have some heavy issues burdening them.

Oddly enough I’ve also read complaints, very wrongly, that Tohru is a “Mary Sue” type character.  By the original definition a “Mary Sue” character was an idealized characterization of the author utilized for wish-fulfillment in fan fiction.  Now people throw the term around so much that even TV Tropes can’t pin down a single meaning for it anymore. Sadly, the predominate usage now seems to just be a way to give a derisive label to a character one personally dislikes, versus there having real common or defining attributes.

I suspect people really are aiming at trying to call her a Pollyanna, a character who is “constantly or excessively optimistic”, which at least makes more sense (especially for folks who haven’t read the manga).  However, it is still a wrong label to apply, to me.  Tohru is just as complex as the other characters, in some ways even more so.  She has gotten so good at hiding her true feelings that most of the others don’t realize that she isn’t always happy and optimistic.  And this is pointed out early in the series, though it takes some of the characters a while before they start picking up on the subtle clues that show it.

Suffice to say, I really love this series.  The art is excellent and despite the huge number of characters (no less than 20 regulars), Takaya manages to make them all distinct from one another, both in design and “voice”.  In a way it’s almost surprising as some of the character designs can be found in her first series, Phantom Dream, making me think she made a deliberate choice to retool some of her favorite designs for this series versus her having a limited character design range as some artists have shown.

The only negative thing I can think of to say about this series is that towards the later chapters, Takaya’s artwork seems to take an almost downward drop when it comes to some of the characters faces as they grow older.  I think the visual change is deliberate for that purpose, but I can’t say that it was quite as beautiful as the original models.  Regardless, she continues to have amazingly detailed textures in character clothes and to be able to indicate character’s mental states with a deftly subtle hand.

Some might say Fruits Basket runs a bit long for a shojo series, but I felt it carried the length well and no part of it ever felt like “fillter”.  This series makes me laugh, it makes me yell, and it makes me cry a lot, especially in the later half.  And even after multiple rereads, if I start reading volume one, I’ll be reading the whole thing through, if not on one sitting then within a few days because I can’t put it down. 

Fruits Basket is, sadly, out of print, but all 23 volumes are easy to find at affordable prices on the used book market.