Drive-by “Fruits Basket,” part 1: An Incurable Curse and an Incurable Optimist
When you went on road trips as a family, was your father like mine, the type that Dave Barry described as thinking that “seeing” a certain landmark meant “driving past it at 70 miles per hour”?
One of the very few manga series I’ve read from beginning to end, Fruits Basket by Takaya Natsuki is a skillfully woven tale of a family with an ancient and terrible curse, and a girl who dares to become a part of this family in spite of their problems and hers. The wonderful and miraculous things that happen to the entire cast through the presence in its midst of a girl who will not and cannot stop hoping for the best, would take at least two dozen essays if I wished to go into detail. Therefore I will try a different approach. In perhaps five or six essays, I wish to guide us through the 23-volume manga series of Fruits Basket, pointing out some of the landmarks as we drive past them at 70 miles per hour. I can promise you that many details will be skipped, including your personal favorites. Maybe this isn’t all bad, since the amount of damage I do by spoiling the story will be minimized.
(Nevertheless, SPOILER ALERT just in case!)
In many ways, my approach is so laughable as to be personally embarrassing. Reading this manga changed my life, and here I would dare to offer the Cliff’s Notes version of the Cliff’s Notes version? I would risk making light of the unacknowledged God in manga who breaks fictional generational curses, when there is a real God who breaks real curses in real people’s lives? It is a fair point. And it is a risk I am willing to take, because the story of Honda Tohru and the Sohma family is too important not to tell. I will be open and frank about my agenda: my hope is that dealing with this masterpiece in this way will encourage some of you who haven’t read the manga to do so, even if you’ve watched the anime version. Collecting all 23 volumes of Fruits Basket is a considerable investment, of both effort and money, but it is worth it. There is something for everyone in this series, but if you will trust me with the controls of this car, I will do my best on our road trip to whet your appetite. And although it will take us a while to get there even at our rate of speed, the ending of this story is glorious.
Fasten your seatbelts, please — for we start at a familiar place for those who call themselves fans of anime and manga. To be precise, we start with an ordinary high school student.
And ordinary Honda Tohru certainly is, except that she has lost both her parents and has been dislocated from her grandparents’ home into a tent on the Sohma property. On this property live Sohma Shigure and his young relative Yuki (a classmate of Tohru), who are likewise completely ordinary — apart from the horrible curse on many members of the Sohma family. When hugged by someone of the opposite gender who is not a Sohma, or when especially stressed, they turn into one of the twelve creatures in the Chinese zodiac, depending on which of the animal spirits possesses them. Having pity on Tohru, while at the same time hoping she might help them get their wreck of a home in order, Shigure and Yuki take in Tohru while her grandparents’ home is being remodelled.
Enter Sohma Kyo, who is possessed by the cat spirit, whereas Shigure and Yuki are possessed by the dog and the rat respectively. The cat is a Chinese zodiac reject, destined since long ages ago to quarrel with the rat. Living in the Sohma household, Tohru begins to learn something of the lives of Kyo, Yuki, and Shigure. She learns of the deep, even genetic longing of Kyo to beat Yuki just once. She learns of Yuki’s “secret base” where he plants vegetables and fruits. She learns of Shigure’s work as an author. And she meets Sohma Kagura, who considers herself Kyo’s fiancee, though the feeling is not mutual.
Even then, there isn’t a jealous or manipulative bone in Tohru’s body. Tohru says only that she wishes she can be like Kagura, can love someone that deeply someday. And in the midst of all her considerable misfortune, Tohru won’t allow herself to complain, as she believes complaining to be selfish. But when she is called back to her grandparents’ house, the remodelling done, it takes less than a day for both her and the three residents in Shigure’s house to realize how much they miss each other. Kyo and Yuki bring Tohru back, little realizing that an unseen hand is already at work through Tohru in the Sohma family.
When Tohru’s girlfriends Uotani and Hanajima invite themselves for a sleepover, it is out of concern for their friend who is living with three men. But the Sohma secret must remain hidden. During their time together, the girls and the Sohma boys reflect on Tohru’s unselfish, longsuffering spirit. At the school festival, we meet three more Sohmas: Momiji, Dr. Hatori, and (for an instant) Hatsuharu. Through Hatori, we learn of the Sohma family head, Akito, who is in precarious health due to the curse. We also learn of Hatori’s ability to erase memories, which he has sometimes used for the sake of keeping the Sohma family secret hidden. But after interviewing Tohru, he decides not to erase hers. Could it be that Hatori’s past love relationship, and the suffering it caused him and his beloved, make him reluctant to resort to such means with Tohru?
At school, winter break is over, and soon it is Valentine’s Day, when boys receive chocolates from potentially interested girls. Such a day is a nightmare come true for any Sohma male. When Kagura comes by and ropes Kyo into a double date with Tohru and Yuki, Kagura notices that Kyo seems to be getting along better (or at least less badly) with Yuki. This news is far from welcome to Kyo. But one of the rules of anime and manga is that we must go to the onsen, so Kyo, Yuki, Tohru, and Momiji set out. There, Tohru is much moved when Momiji tells a tale about a traveller who gave up his clothes, his body, his very life for other travellers — and died thinking himself lucky. In any case, slowly but surely, and even in spite of them, the ice is melting for both Yuki and Kyo. The unseen hand continues working in the Sohma family, the more that Tohru stays with them.
When Tohru finally meets Akito, we get a glimpse into Yuki’s troubled past. We also meet Ayame, Yuki’s eccentric and flamboyant older brother, with whom his relations are strained. Tohru wants to see this situation healed too, wants to see them “meet halfway.” And we learn something of Momiji’s mother too: her memories of ever having given birth to Momiji have been erased. A curse so terrible that it separates a mother from her son? Could it really be?
During Golden Week, Tohru goes on vacation to a Sohma-owned inn with Shigure, Yuki, Kyo, and eventually Ayame. More “together time” for Yuki and Kyo forces them to get along just a little better still, thanks to Tohru’s influence, even as Ayame tries also to mend his strained relations with Yuki. Later we meet Sohma Kisa, a little girl so damaged by the Zodiac curse and by her schoolmates who teased her, that she has stopped talking, and going to school along with it. But Tohru reaching out to her with love as she always does, with help from a letter from Kisa’s teacher, gives Kisa the courage both to find her voice and to return to school. As a result, Yuki learns that courage is not an absence of fear, but the strength to do what must be done in spite of the fear. Though he does not want to be student council president, he realizes that people are depending on him, and accepts the responsibility.
In our whirlwind summary of the first five volumes of Fruits Basket, we have seen redemptive ripples start to spread from one high school aged girl to everyone within her circle. A terrifying and age-old family curse may have met its match in Tohru, who does nothing unusual except continue to love everyone around her in spite of both the cost to herself and her considerable personal troubles. Who will win, the girl or the curse? To find out, we must continue our course of travel through this amazing and heartwarming story. In the next leg of our journey, we will continue to the end of the anime version of Fruits Basket — and beyond.