The backstory of Uotani Arisa, friend of Fruits Basket protagonist Honda Tohru, is a genderswapped retelling of Jesus’ parable of the “prodigal” son found in Luke 15. Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it was fun to say, and it got your attention, didn’t it? And there really is some great thematic resonance between the two stories. It’s not often that a story from anime so strongly reminds me of a specific story from the Bible. I’m sure Fruits Basket had no particular intent to reenact a Bible story, but exploring the connections makes for an interesting intellectual exercise. Arisa corresponds to the younger son, Kyoko (Tohru’s mother) to the father, and Tohru to the elder son. Uo-chan initially rejects the friendship extended to her by the Hondas, but is eventually reconciled to them through a process that involves suffering and repentance. The narrative is a bit disjointed, but the major elements are there. The most dramatic incongruity is that the saintly Tohru (surely one of the kindest characters in all fiction) bears little resemblance to the arrogant, self-righteous elder son of the parable. But more on that later.
Arisa’s journey to salvation kicks off when Tohru (literally) runs into her at school, and through the daughter, she is introduced to her mother, Kyoko. Arisa is invited in and asked to stay for supper, but instead yells at Kyoko before storming out. When Tohru chases after her to return an item Arisa left behind, she angrily rejects Tohru as well. “Your family makes me wanna puke!” she says as she stalks away. This skips over the background in Fruits Basket for the moment, but the scene brings to mind the opening events of the parable. Like the younger son in Jesus’ story, “Uo-chan” repudiates a loving parental figure, as well as a sibling, and goes her own way. Jesus’ parable doesn’t include all the dialogue, but the younger son demanding his inheritance is as good as saying to his father “I wish you were dead.”
The background for Uo-chan’s behavior is that after being abandoned by her mom and left with a dysfunctional father, she became a delinquent and joined a gang, becoming, as she puts it, “A problem child that left my teachers and dad hopeless.” It was all too easy to go bad, she discovered—“You don’t even wanna know half the things I did.” Along the way, she heard stories about Kyoko’s wild past, when she was leader of a biker gang before later becoming a wife and mother. Meeting Kyoko shattered the idealized image Arisa had formed, leading her to ungraciously reject her erstwhile hero: “I’m just completely disappointed! That the Crimson Butterfly turned into a domestic, overly friendly, doting parent! I can’t believe you’ve sunken this low!” Thus she rejects the kindness of Tohru and Kyoko in appalling fashion.
In the parable, the younger son goes to a distant country and squanders his entire inheritance through loose living. Reduced to poverty, he winds up tending pigs, and contemplates stealing the pigs’ food. For a Jew, this is about as low and desperate as one could get. Unfortunately, the son needs this to help him finally come to his senses. In the show, Uo-chan also realizes she’s fallen “to rock bottom,” though her worst moment actually comes later. Tohru (literally) runs into her again, and brings her home. Pondering the loving nature of the Honda family, Uo-chan discovers to her chagrin that she wants this kind of warm home life. She recognizes her own need: “All this time…maybe I was actually just lonely.” She acknowledges that she was “a great big idiot” and reconciles with Tohru and Kyoko, noting that her hero “smiled and forgave my selfishness,” and “always warmly welcomed me.” Like the lost son, Arisa had to recognize how bad her situation was and what she truly needed, and then humble herself to receive it from a parental figure.
The climax comes when Arisa is violently accosted by her former gang compatriots for trying to leave the gang. As she’s being assaulted, she admits, “I wanted to change. It was the first time I wanted to. I didn’t want to be like this anymore.” If we described this decision to change in biblical terms, we’d say Arisa repents of her sins. And who shows up at this juncture but Kyoko, rescuing Arisa from her attackers and carrying her home. It easily brings to mind the father in the parable, scanning the horizon for his son, seeing him from a great distance, and running to embrace him. A tearful Arisa feels foolish for needing to get hurt to learn her lesson. Kyoko answers her with this speech:
“There are feelings that you don’t understand until you get hurt and make trouble. There are feelings you start to understand only when you’ve hit rock bottom. You rebel against what’s pure. But when you’re filthy, you start to long for what’s pure.”
Kyoko assures her that hitting rock bottom wasn’t a waste for Arisa, because she learned from it, much as the lost son “came to his senses” precisely because of his dire situation. And in both stories, a loving parental figure came running to receive them once the wayward child chose to repent.
We’re all Uo-chan. We’re all the lost son. We’ve all at some point “rebelled against what’s pure,” failed to understand what we truly need, repudiated our loving Father, and squandered our blessings. Even if our situation gets as bad of those of Arisa and the lost son, Kyoko is right in saying that it’s not a complete waste if we at least learn from the experience—if, amid our filthiness, we start to long for what’s pure. A parental figure infinitely mightier than the Crimson Butterfly stands ready to receive us, if we will but join Arisa in swallowing our pride and being willing to change.
But there’s one more figure in both stories—the elder brother. The most striking difference between the parable and the anime is this other sibling, the one that didn’t leave home. In Jesus’ tale, the elder son is a proxy for the Pharisees, convinced of his own moral superiority, devoid of love, and actively opposing the father’s outreach to the lost one. Fruits Basket’s “elder daughter,” however, shares her mother’s benevolent outlook toward the wayward sibling. Arisa declares, “Tohru was standing by me from the start. Whenever I swallowed my pride to seek her out, she was already right there.”
In a happy deviation from the parable, we have an elder brother even more good and loving and humble than Tohru, one who took on human form and came to this world to pursue us. Tohru plays a Christ-like role in this story, kind and gentle and working with the parental figure to reach out to the lost individual. Interestingly, several scriptures depict Jesus as our elder brother, so it’s not even a stretch to make this connection with a benevolent sibling. While the older son in the parable serves an important function within the story, I’d much rather have a sibling like Tohru, or Jesus, one whose kindness leads us to repentance and salvation.
Fruits Basket can be streamed on Crunchyroll.