What’s Your Sign?: The “Fruits Basket” Manga by Natsuki Takaya

Copyright © 1999 by Natsuki Takaya.

I know I review a lot of anime series on this site, but I haven’t really looked at just a manga series on its own merits.  And to be fair, I haven’t really read a lot of manga all the way through (except for Black Lagoon, which is awesome).

So today I give you a shojo series that’s done very well in both Japan and the US, a sweet but serious manga called Fruits Basket.

The Story: Meet The Sohmas, Save A Few Lives

Tohru Honda is a high school student who ends up living in a tent in the woods after her mother dies.  By chance, she ends up discovered and taken in by three members of the mysterious and powerful Sohma family: Yuki, Shigure, and Kyo.  While living with them, Tohru discovers that their family is “cursed” to transform into animals represented in the Chinese zodiac, particularly whenever they’re touched by someone of the opposite sex.  She endeavors at first to meet each member of the Zodiac, but soon learns about the dark and terrible secrets in the Sohma clan.  Eventually, as she grows and perseveres through hardships, Tohru makes it her mission to help break the ancient family curse and save the Sohmas from the poisonous rule of their patriarch, Lord Akito.

The Cast: One Big Definitely Unhappy Family

Copyright © 1999 by Natsuki Takaya.

Tohru Honda is our heroine protagonist, a self-effacing and anxious girl who tries so hard to stay optimistic and help others, even when she has every right to mourn the death of her mother and the other problems in her life.  Her pain comes from trying to make things better for others, often when they don’t want to be helped or can’t understand why she would want to help them.

The Sohma family is, suffice to say, large and colorful, with such people as:

  • Yuki (The Rat), who wants to be free from the family and the guilt that binds him to Akito
  • Kyo (The Cat), who has been an outsider within the family and feels he has to fight Yuki for Akito’s acceptance or else live alone forever
  • Shigure (The Dog), who owns the house where Yuki, Kyo, and Tohru live and who has a special bond with Akito despite his easygoing demeanor
  • Momiji (The Rabbit), who is of half-Japanese, half-German descent and tries to be happy despite a sad relationship with his mother and sister
  • And many, many more…

There are also side characters like Tohru’s friends Arisa Uotani and Saki Hanajima, who swore to protect her after her mother died, and the various schoolgirls who make up the “fan club” for Yuki, which he’d rather not have.

The Theme: What It Means To Love And To Be Loved

It took reading the entire manga to appreciate this, but despite the fantastic element of people transforming into animals, it’s really a metaphor for human relationships.  The “family curse” isn’t just something to be exploited for wacky scenes and running gags.  It’s a serious affair, one that both binds the family together and tears relatives apart from each other.  People are afraid to get close to one another, to fully express themselves, or to do anything that might upset their elders.

This series is also about the bond between parents and children–namely, how seriously children take their parents’ words and how some parents do not fully realize how their words and actions affect their children.  There is a lot of guilt and shame driving Tohru Honda and the various members of the Sohma clan, and sometimes it’s clear that even the parents who shame or hurt their children were themselves victims in their own childhood.  Because of this, it’s rare to see a healthy connection between adults and kids in this story.  Not even Tohru’s own happy memories of her mother are entirely safe.  But the story becomes richer for it and there is a lot of growth within the Sohma family by story’s end.

Final Verdict: A Very Rich And Long Banquet For The Heart

Fruits Basket really touches me in a warm place.  It might seem at first like a lot of sentimental high school fluff, but it doesn’t shy away from confronting a lot of pain and turmoil throughout the cast.  Issues like verbal and emotional abuse are confronted and answered from beginning to end, so that for every light moment with Tohru, there’s an equally dark moment delving into the tragic background of the Sohma clan or one of Tohru’s classmates.  The story can be long and painful, but because it does strive to get every character some kind of buildup and resolution to their trauma, it’s a worthwhile read.

As a final note, I’d like to add that I got into Fruits Basket by listening to the Furuba radio drama adapted by JesuOtaku (which doesn’t require having read the manga).  It’s a great way to bring back the forgotten form of radio dramas, especially with all the things that modern editing software can do.  The writing, voice acting, and sound effects are top-notch, and I’m always happy to be an audience for new creative ventures on the Web.  I highly recommend this series for both longtime Fruits Basket fans and first-time audiences.

Bibliography: Fruits Basket (manga).  Written and illustrated by Natsuki Takaya.  Chiyoda, Tokyo: Hakusensha.  Tokyopop (US release).  Hana to Yume, Shojo Stars.  January 1999 – November 2006.

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