Tokyopop promoted Natsuki Takaya’s Fruits Basket as its “most eagerly-awaited manga series”, and sales figures and top rankings have borne that out. With its blend of comedy, romance, fantasy, and drama, all expressed in an attractively mainstream art style, there’s something here for everyone.
An eternal optimist, Tohru Honda is proud of taking care of herself, even though she’s been living in a tent after her mother’s death. She’s on the property of the Sohma family, a rather unusual group whose members are possessed by the spirits of the Chinese Zodiac. When they’re hugged by a member of the opposite sex, they turn into their corresponding animal.
She knows Yuki, a mysteriously aloof charmer, from school; he’s the Rat. He and Kyo, the Cat, fight constantly because of a legend about the Rat tricking the Cat out of his place in the zodiac. Kyo’s determined to beat Yuki and regain his place in the family, but his anger often gets in the way of his desires. Combined with cousin Shigure, the Dog, it’s almost cartoony.
The guys feel sorry for Tohru, who’s trying so hard to be the daughter her mother wanted. They also need someone to take care of them and do the cooking and cleaning. (The situation is vaguely reminiscent of Wendy and the Lost Boys.) In return, she gets a place to stay and a family who cares about her. She also gives them a new appreciation for their relatives, even with the burden of their curse.
Not every Sohma is male; Kagura (the Boar) is female. She’s got a crush on Kyo, which she acts out rather violently, while reminding him that family members can hug each other without transforming. (At this point, the reader may justifiably begin wondering if “hug” is code for something else.) Other family members represent the Rabbit, the Dragon, the Ox, the Snake, the Tiger (Cub), the Ram, the Horse, and the Monkey. Over the course of the series, we meet them all.
The various volumes send the cast through your typical manga events — a cultural festival, holiday celebrations, school athletics, a hot spring visit — as we meet more of the relatives, leading up to head of the family Akito. He appears to be the same age as many of the others, but he’s more maturely devious, frightening all the others into obeying his dictates. We also meet Yuki’s older brother Ayame, whose flamboyance disturbs many of the others. He runs a costume shop and often behaves outrageously in comparison to Yuki’s reticence.
Hiro, introduced in volume seven, is a selfish, obnoxious, conceited kid with the ability to twist anything anyone says into a failing on their part. He’s always on the attack, always ordering people around, and always complaining. He’s a complex personality, quickly established through his twisty dialogue, and humanized through his jealousy.
Tohru’s friend Arisa gets a lengthy flashback as well. She was a gangster-type, a near-criminal troublemaker, until Tohru’s mom took her under her wing. Now, she still looks and sounds tough, but she and Tohru have an unbreakable bond.
In volume eight, Tohru, Yuki, and Kyo are asked to write about their future plans for school, which sends them into reflective moods of self-examination, especially when it comes to wondering about the possibility of relationships. It’s a subtle reminder that the past affects the future. Often, the chapters are heart-warming stories of encouragement, with Tohru providing moral lessons of determination or patience or endurance.
The family vacations at their seaside summer home in volume ten. Even while goofing around, the characters’ feelings for each other reveal themselves through the way they tease and who they play with. Shigure, back in town, visits a former girlfriend who also has connections to Hatori. Her story provides a more mature, melancholy contrast to the lighter summer fun, and when the story returns to the larger group, the tone carries over. Hiro finds out that his mother is pregnant and he’ll soon have a sibling, which leads to meditations on the nature of family. Tohru realizes that not everyone might have had the close, loving relationship she had with her mother. Other people deal in more complex ways with their parents and family members, especially once Akito arrives for a visit.
In volume eleven, Akito joins the family at the summer home, instantly forcing himself into the center of attention. He’s playing jealous games, demanding the others spend time with him instead of Tohru. Although she barely knows of him, he sees her as a threat and a monster. He’s not above using guilt and threats to manipulate the other family members, fighting a competition she’s not even aware of, although she’s too good to be hurt by his schemes. When he tries to arrange for her to be left alone, she barely notices, as she’s happy that the other family members can be together. Caring wins out over fear, and Yuki demonstrates a growing maturity as he begins to understand Akito’s games and motives.
When the family returns home, they feel that they’re fated to do what’s in their blood, but Tohru is determined to fight against their fate, if necessary. These are key questions of Japanese culture. How much does the past influence the present? What are one’s responsibilities to the family when their desires conflict with those of the individual?
The fundamental conflict of the book is between Tohru, and her optimistic belief in the future and improving change, and Akito, consumed by his power and determined to keep things as they always have been. He hates her because he recognizes her disruptive force for good. She loves the family, even in the face of their eventual separation. The variety of types of love displayed are complex: unspoken, until both partners are ready to accept it; destructive, aimed only at controlling the emotional object; protective, even if it appears to be desertion at first; resolute, determined to help.
Volume sixteen opens with an exploration of Tohru’s mother’s past. As so often happens, she was able to give her daughter what she never had as a kid — the feeling of acceptance and love that could be relied on, no matter what. The mother’s own childhood was one of acting out due to neglect, with a near-criminal past, until one person finally had faith in her.
Over half of this book tells her love story, leading to her marriage and the birth of Tohru. Two outsiders built their own kind of family together, able to overcome their individual uncertainties together. That tells the reader more about where Tohru gets her strength and her belief in the power of love to make impressive changes.
Tohru and her friends are preparing to graduate in volume seventeen, but first, they think back to the New Year and the changes that came with it. Yuki finally stood up to Akito, disturbing the family dynamic, and Akito’s secret was revealed to Tohru. Or rather, secrets — like many of the Zodiac members, Akito’s toxic family relationships stand in sharp contrast to the love Tohru was raised with.
Underneath the fantasy transformations of this series, the emotions feel real and varied: jealousy, a longing for acceptance, friendship, dealing with a legacy, facing one’s fears, learning to care for others unselfishly. There’s an underlying theme of memory and loss, pondering when, if ever, it’s ok to forget, and whether memories are valuable even if painful. The themes are deep and meaningful, providing much material for thought underneath the entertainment.
The art is typical for manga, huge eyes dominating pointy-chinned faces under spiky hair. The emphasis is on faces and figures with minimal patterned backgrounds, but the animals are simply shaped, emphasizing their oddness, and cute. Tohru and the kid characters are cute like baby pets, and the boys are cute like teen idols.
The title comes from a game Tohru played as a child. We called it “Fruit Basket Upset”, where every kid was given a fruit name, and when their fruit was called, they changed places. When her class played, Tohru was named “Onigiri”, or “rice ball”, instead of a fruit, symbolizing how she doesn’t fit in with the family she was born into.
The large cast can be a lot to keep up with, so the introductory pages listing names, signs, and basic characteristics are much appreciated. Some books also have extras, which may include background on the zodiac signs, creator interviews, game rules, or fan art. I gave up reading the series after volume seventeen, because I just wasn’t that interested anymore. There were too many characters to keep track of and the resolutions for main plotlines were too drawn out.