This week marks the July Manga Moveable Feast featuring Natsuki Takaya’s Fruits Basket, hosted by the always delightful Manga Curmudgeon, David Welsh. For an archive of all entries gathered throughout the week, please go here: Fruits Basket MMF.
SPOILER NOTE: If you’re not about two-thirds through this series (i.e.: you know Akito’s secret and the truth about the Rooster; you’ve gotten past volume 17), you might not want to read this column. Once you get to that point, the story’s ultimate ending should be clear(er), even if you won’t know how it gets to that point, so this won’t have many spoilers past that point (and I’ll try to keep out unrelated spoilers besides). The biggest twists in the story occur around volume 17, and I’ll be talking about one of those twists in particular fairly thoroughly and frequently. If you want a straight up review of the series, I’m sure they will abound this week, so please check out the MMF anchor page.
Here is a basic rundown: Tohru Honda has been living on her own since her mother died. She took up residence on a patch of land near a forest, which happened to be near a Sohma house. Stumbled upon by her classmate Yuki Sohma and his cousin Shigure Sohma, Tohru ended up moving into their house, along with Kyo Sohma. Almost immediately Tohru learned an incredible secret about the Sohma family – several members are possessed by the vengeful spirits of the Chinese Zodiac. Shigure is possessed by the dog, Yuki the rat, and Kyo the cat. When they are hugged by members of the opposite sex (except for fellow Zodiac members) they turn into their respective animal. The family is led by Akito, who is essentially God for the Sohma and rules over the Zodiac with a jealous, very strict, iron fist. Throughout the series, Tohru meets the rest of the Zodiac members, each of whom suffers some dark pain in their heart. With Tohru’s help, and the wisdom of her late mother, each of them are able to heal their scars and overcome their destinies. It won’t be easy (it takes twenty-three volumes of manga, after all), and the path will be filled with tears and broken hearts, but Tohru’s quiet strength will be there to guide them.
Fruits Basket is one of my favorite series. It was not the first manga I read, but it was the series that made me a serious manga reader. I would not be here writing reviews for you today if not for Fruits Basket. There are many things I’d love to chat away about regarding Fruits Basket. Like the incredibly sexy Shigure, an absolutely fascinating character, especially his deliciously twisted relationship with Akito. Or Tohru’s unbelievable (really, I don’t know anyone like this) strength and enormous heart. Or even how angry the anime adaptation made me. I decided, rather than go all fangirl all over the place (which I could do, trust me, for HOURS), that I would take a more serious approach to the series. One of the things that really fascinated me about Fruits Basket was the relationship between Akito and Tohru, separately and together (meaning their literal relationship with each other, and how they otherwise affect each other throughout the story). While Tohru is very easy to read, Akito is a bit more complicated to understand.
Akito is the head of the Sohma household, and the god of the Zodiac. For most of the series, Akito is believed to be male, but in reality is a female who was raised as a boy. I want to make a note here that Akito is not a transsexual character. She is forced to grow up as a boy for a couple of reasons, none of which were her choice. The obvious reason is her mother’s jealousy. Her mother was jealous that her husband (along with everyone else) was so deeply drawn to her daughter, and felt her own status diminish as soon as she had conceived. The exact reasoning is muddled, combining several elements. As a proud woman, she disdained another female in the spotlight; as a loving wife, she hated this new child drawing all of her husband’s attention and love. So to hide Akito’s femininity, and perhaps also to punish Akito out of revenge, she decided Akito should be raised as a boy. The family probably didn’t mind too much, as they likely preferred a family patriarch to a matriarch. The whole thing gives Akito a severe complex, and twists her mind and soul. Then Tohru comes along, all sunshine and butterflies, blooming with feminine airs and stealing the attention of several of the Sohma men, and it’s no wonder the kind girl becomes the focus of her hatred. I can back that up further, of course. Akito only acts like a man in public settings, and around those who don’t know her true identity. When she’s in her kimono, she oozes with remarkable sensuality. What’s more, she makes use of her femininity at every turn, seducing the male members of the Zodiac (specifically Shigure and Kureno, torturing one and manipulating the other), fighting her mother for their attention, and reacting with fierce and frequently violent jealousy when one of the male Zodiac members becomes involved with a female. Akito very nearly kills a couple of the characters in her violent rages, and permanently injures at least one of them; and let’s not forget the incredible mental abuse she hurls about. She’s hard to like. At all. It’s not helped that most of the characters even hate her. Yet…it’s hard to blame her. The curse has twisted Akito as well, and she perhaps is in greatest need of being healed and released from the curse. That is, after all, Shigure’s sole desire and what drives most of his actions throughout the story. I think even Akito wants to be freed herself; I can’t think of any other reason why she permits so much of what happens in the story (and she does eventually change). In a way, she seems to be testing the strength of the Zodiac bond, trying to prove its permanence, but at the same time terrified that everything will fall apart and she’ll be left all alone. She is very, very sick mentally, not helped by her equally as unstable mother who wages a constant battle against her daughter. Nor is it helped by members of the family who take care of and serve Akito, who uphold her position unquestioningly absolute and perpetuate Akito’s delusions. From the moment she was born, she was told she was special, that all the other Zodiac members existed for her, and that she was born to be loved and revered. The personal trauma from her relationship with her father and mother has had an enormous impact on her mental health and the twisted relationship she forms with the members of the Zodiac. Many things add up to create an intensely lonely, desperate, and paranoid young woman; and despite her mental instability, she is still held with great reverence and given absolute authority over the family, spoiled and catered to completely, her warped beliefs nurtured by the atmosphere around her. No one dares to go against her, so no one tries to help her, and the Zodiac members are bound by their very blood to obey her every word, by a foreign spirit within them that tears their own will away. Akito clings desperately to the Zodiac bond, terrified of being left behind, like how she was left behind when her father died. As the curse slowly begins crumbling, she becomes more and more desperate and crazed, incredibly frightened that without the bond holding them to her, everyone will leave her forever. So she forces them to stay near her, and attempts to sabotage any progress that any of the Zodiac members take that might move them away from her. This includes those outside and inside the Zodiac, and especially the male Zodiac members. Desperate to be loved, and viewing all women as manipulative whores trying to destroy her Zodiac (as she views her own mother), she violently lashes out at anyone who dares to love anyone other than her.
So what exactly is the Curse? It’s not simply that everyone changes into cutesy animals when hugged. Although that itself is not the cute little problem you would think. Because of this aspect of the curse, none of the Zodiac members can live a normal life. In crowded areas, there’s always a danger of accidentally transforming. In a co-ed school, the danger of exposure can be even greater for the incredibly good looking Sohmas. Now, imagine not being able to hold your newborn child because he or she turns into an animal any time you try. Or maybe your mother flat out rejects you; your parents abandon you or even despise your existence. Imagine not being able to comfort a loved one, or not being able to explain why you can’t hold the one you love because you’re bound to secrecy. More intimate actions (like sex) are near impossible. Now, imagine that if you do somehow allow yourself to fall in love, that a single person could bring your life crashing down. That this sole person controls your entire life, and threatens physical harm to your loved one, because you dared to try and find happiness. You are prevented individual happiness, you are prevented from finding your own path in life, and you are even prevented from living freely away from those you are unwillingly bound to. And you are inexplicably bound to them, simply because you were born that way, and because you are told that you must be. No questions, no arguing, no fighting it. Deal with it, live with it for the rest of your life, die with it, and then someone else will be born to continue the cycle. You are bound to thirteen others (thirteen members of the Zodiac, with the Cat, and then “God”) for life, without any willful choice of your own. And if Akito had her way, everyone would return to the Sohma estate to live shut off from the world for the rest of their lives, in a solitary house, locked in an eternal banquet, unable to grow or pursue their own dreams. Yuki and Kyo, with their unique positions in the Zodiac, are probably the most aware of this aspect of the curse. Kyo because he will be isolated for his entire life, locked away and forced into solitude. Yuki because as the “closest to God” (as the first Zodiac creature to arrive at the banquet) Akito has taken special interest in him and tries to drag him down with her in her despair. All of them have been hurt or warped by the curse, however, as has just about anyone ever involved with them.
There’s a beautiful line from Yuki in volume 5, while he’s talking to Kisa (the tiger, who is being teased at school): “Let’s try our best. I’ll try, too. And if you get sad again…or if things get too rough…come here. Here…is where she is.” Tohru Honda is their sanctuary, and it’s no wonder they all flock to her and away from Akito.
Tohru is beyond a doubt Akito’s polar opposite. She is an amazing young lady, with an infinite capacity for kindness, compassion, understanding, and patience, as well as a charming innocence and cheerful demeanor. Tohru attends high school, works part time, and runs a household of four (she cooks, cleans, does the shopping, puts up with Shigure’s pervy nature, and deals with continual fighting between Yuki and Kyo). Her strong domestic nature does bother me a tiny bit, but overall she’s an amazing person, capable of amazing wisdom, despite her naivety. Yet even she has her dark secrets. Hiro Sohma, who in general is rather obnoxious, first believes Tohru to be incapable of deep thoughts and feelings, but soon realizes that even such a ditzy girl can be holding something painful deep inside her heart. What traps Tohru as much as the Sohmas’ curse traps them, is the memory of her mother, Kyoko. Much like Kyo, who feels uncomfortable falling in love as he is to be locked away for his entire life, Tohru falters when she realizes that someone else is overtaking her mother’s presence in her heart. She is plagued with guilt, frightened of losing the memory of her mother, but eventually even she is pushed to the breaking point and must overcome her fears. Just as she helps the others overcome their own fears. For Yuki and Rin, she is the loving mother they never had. For Kyo (aside from the obvious), she shows him that there is too much of life to enjoy to spend it locked away. She teaches Kisa that there’s no need to be ashamed of her weaknesses, and Ritsu that it’s OK not to automatically know his reason for living. She helps bridge the gap between Ayame and Yuki as brothers. She provides friendship for the ostracized Uotani and Hanajima. She shows Kureno that someone loves him dearly. She accepts every single one of them for who they are, faults and weaknesses and all, even Akito. Tohru knows how frightful it is to feel alone, she knows the pain of loss and guilt, she knows what it’s like to be ostracized and bullied, so she understands their suffering. Perhaps most importantly, she knows the feeling of being left behind. Despite her cheerful demeanor, she holds dark secrets locked deep within her heart, like many of the members of the Zodiac, and as she helps them open the lid on their feelings, they help her in turn. I don’t know that it can be said that Tohru herself breaks the Sohma curse, particularly as it started breaking long before she came along. However, if I understand the curse correctly, the Zodiac bond is broken when it is replaced by a bond equally (or more) as strong, and Tohru definitely facilitates some of that. Her desire to see each of them grow and follow their own paths is like an outstretched hand ready to pull them out of a dark pit. And she does, just by being herself. Her infinite kindness is in such contrast to Akito’s well of hatred, her willingness to accept others and find the good within them contrasts drastically with Akito’s constant belittling speeches and spewed bile. Really, is it any wonder why Tohru is the one they want to come home to? When Tohru greets them with a smile and a cheery “welcome home.” When Tohru encourages them to grow and follow their dreams. When Tohru comforts them with kindness and love. It’s not a difficult decision, and even Akito finally realizes that everyone flocks to Tohru, and that the elevated status she upholds places her on the outside of everything, alone even when she is surrounded by the Zodiac. That in the end, this woman who seemed to be taking everything away from her, was actually waiting for her to join them, ready to accept Akito as a person. Sometimes all you need is someone to hold out a hand to you and say, “Come join us, there’s no need to be lonely, I’m here.” Which, oddly enough, is how the Zodiac “curse” got started to begin with. But exploring the intricacies of the curse itself and how it changed over the generations is another post entirely.
Fruits Basket was written by Natsuki Takaya and contains 23 volumes and two fanbooks. It was published by Tokyopop, which now makes it officially out of print, I’m very sad to say. It was originally published by Hakusensha from 1999 to 2006, then by Tokyopop from 2004 to 2009. They were published individually, and Tokyopop was in the middle of publishing hardback ultimate editions when they closed down (there are at least six of them, each containing two regular volumes). There is also a 26-episode anime, produced by Studio Deen and licensed by FUNimation. I can’t personally recommend it, though, as I did not remotely like it. If you do end up reading the manga, which I cannot recommend enough, I suggest a box of tissues at your side. There are a lot of heartbreaking scenes in this series, and there were one or two volumes which had me sobbing the entire time. This will always be one of my favorite series. I pick up on something new each time I read through it (and my books are getting pretty worn). Hopefully my entirely too long ramble didn’t bore you, but rather perhaps encouraged you to (re)explore the series yourself.