MMF: Fruits Basket – A Place Just as Real, but Not as Brightly Lit
July 29, 2011
This month’s Moveable Manga Feast, hosted by David Welsh over at Manga Curmudgeon, is focused on Fruits Basket. There’s lots of other wonderful content about the series over there, all of it worth checking out.
First, let me start off by saying I did not have the pleasure of re-reading the series for the MMF this month. Unfortunately, my volumes are stored in another state at the moment, so I couldn’t lay hands on them. Thus, my thoughts are mostly still of my initial read-through of the series, though I have read the first 10 or so volumes twice through once upon a time. My opinions might also be a little stale since I finished the series a couple years ago at this point (and also light or hazy on detail), but hopefully I can convey some of my thoughts here.
I did review the series as it was coming out right here, so you may feel like following along with my fresh impressions as I read the volumes over the course of several years.
One thing I do remember: it was hard for me to put the volumes down. Once I started in on them, I tore through every single one. It’s an absolutely charming series. I compared it to Oh My Goddess early on, as the first volumes of Fruits Basket are loosely connected short stories that are all about the warm, fuzzy feeling you get from good deeds, earnest relationship-building, and the motherly aura that Tohru Honda radiates in general. As each member of the Sohma family is introduced initially, all the stories are a little funny, a little sweet, and well-written enough to break out of the usual shoujo mold. This is true all the way through, actually, though it does start to get much darker after the first five volumes.
The characters are all easy to like. Homeless Tohru Honda, so eager to please and feeling unworthy of the roof over he head, has no idea just how much the three Sohma men grow to rely on her in such a short time, and how easily both Yuki and Kyo begin to fall for her. Yuki’s princely aura, and Kyo’s mild troublemaking all fit the usual character types, but Takaya manages to still make them far more likable than they ought to be. And this continues to be true all the way through the series, from Tohru’s eccentric friends that stick with her to the end, to every single member of the Sohma household, even the tertiary characters on the student council that are introduced much later manage to support their own stories and make them interesting.
The themes of belonging are also easy to relate to. We may not all be poor orphans with a heart of gold, but the metaphor of the children’s game of fruits basket, where all the other children pretend to be fruit while Tohru is a rice ball, destined to forever be set apart from them, is something almost everybody can relate to, and Takaya does a good job of summing it up in that scene and throughout the stories in all 23 volumes. As for the drama… well, we all have the dark places too, and a lot of the character hang-ups are easy to sympathize with.
And yet I just cannot bring myself to like this series, beloved and well-written though it may be. I tore through the volumes as they came out. It’s addictive, and I had to know how the romances went down, whether everybody was going to be okay, et cetera. And even with all the good, it puzzles me that there aren’t more people like me that dislike it for what I perceive as the flaws.
And let me say that I was just about the target audience for this series when I started reading it. Slightly older than intended, but I was still 19 when I picked up the first volume.
After around four or five volumes, the foreshadowing began to drive me crazy. Especially in a series like Fruits Basket, which has a very sunny and happy disposition, all the dark foreshadowing seemed out of place. It was a killjoy for me, and I became increasingly annoyed when it would show up uninvited in otherwise pleasant stories. Also, in dramatic stories. Eventually, in every chapter. Worse of all, it takes volumes and volumes and volumes to answer some of these questions. The dark, cryptic flashbacks offered so little information as to be completely useless as anything but a device to tell you that, yes, there were worse things to come. When the stories began to get too dark for my taste, these became even less welcome as a reminder that there was still a ton of emotional fallout yet to come.
And after awhile, I began to get tired of the Sohmas. At first, I was really charmed as each one was introduced, and each was a different and unique character. I still appreciate that about it. But one of my biggest pet peeves in manga are stories that accumulate a huge, useless cast, which 14 members of the Sohma family eventually became. Not to mention all the characters connected to them, Tohru’s meager family and close friends, characters at school… To her credit, Takaya does a good job of giving every single one of these characters an interesting voice, and I still remember basically all the characters to this day. But when you have as many characters as Fruits Basket, you’re going to like some of them better than others. By the early teen volumes, which began telling the stories of the student council characters, I really, really just could not bring myself to care about any of the student council members, regardless of how much they may or may not like Yuki.
And every one of these characters has a sad story to tell. After awhile, I dreaded the dark, sad flashbacks. Some were more interesting than others. I grew tired of the child abuse stories of the Sohma family after awhile, and by the time we were telling yet another story about how someone had a complex because another member of their family was more well-liked than them, my patience had worn thin. Perhaps it was because I couldn’t really empathize with any of these stories. Not fitting in is a pretty universal theme, but the Sohmas dysfunctions, repeated again and again for every member of the family, were frequently… hard to relate to. One story about your parents not loving you is fine. But that sob story starts losing its meaning when repeated over and over again. The details on just what was up with all the members of the Sohma family is something I’ll freely admit has likely slipped my memory over the years, but I think that almost all of them were shunned by their parents on top of having other problems. Plus, the head of the family emotionally abused all of them. Also, one of them literally turns into a monster and that is so sad, which I thought was really stupid regardless of the context even when I was 19.
And I grew to hate that Tohru was the solution to just about everybody’s problem. I get that she has a big, forgiving heart, but seriously? A few kind words from her make all the Sohmas realize that suddenly life is worth living? That was another plot device that grew less probable as the series went on.
I have a high tolerance for romantic triangles that run themselves into the ground, and I was most interested in the relationships between Yuki, Tohru, and Kyo. The plot was busy elsewhere most of the time, so this doesn’t get a chance to become stale, but I was begging for story development along these lines while suffering through the volumes of student council stories.
And the whole Sohma curse thing. It made sense early on, when the stories had a light touch. But as the volumes wore on, being cursed to turn into an animal as an absolutely tragic fate worthy of being thrown out of your family became less probable, and it was hard to wrap my brain around such a silly plot device in an increasingly serious story.
And then there’s Akito. By the time Akito appears, and it’s revealed that, for some reason, every member of the family needs to show up routinely to take emotional abuse, and is in fact cursed to do so, and to take Akito seriously… Akito was just silly. It was the last super-sad straw that broke the camel’s back for me. Akito is an interesting character, but a purely figurehead villain that all the characters kept coming back to for abuse. Akito is who Akito is, but even the explanation of the role in the family did not satisfy my disbelief that so many people would tolerate that behavior.
So basically, there are a lot of things to like about Fruits Basket. Somewhere in there, there’s a shoujo manga about friendship and fitting in, complete with romances for all your favorite characters and lots of helping each other out of tough situations. But it’s not for me. The large cast put me off, and that each of them had an utterly tragic story to tell became boring after awhile. And as it became more serious, the root of the suffering, the Sohma curse, became increasingly outlandish and unlikely.
And honestly? I never forgave it for being called Fruits Basket instead of Fruit Basket in English translation. Why? WHY?! The only satisfying explanation I’ve ever received is that it’s simply the Japanese title… but I’d like to think it’s okay to fix things like that when translating something into English. It kills me to type it every single time.
And that’s my two cents on Fruits Basket. It feels good to get that off my chest.