And so, for the second time in my life, I have finished reading through Takaya Natsuki-sensei’s lovely manga series, Fruits Basket. This is a special series for me, because it was the very first manga I ever read, back when I was sixteen or so and just getting interested in Japanese culture. In some ways, this is an odd series to begin with, especially for a sixteen-year-old guy. It’s shojo, or “girl’s manga”–a genre specifically targeted at girls between the ages of 10 and 18. It’s a fairly well-known series, but it’s never gained the popularity of, say, Bleach or One Piece (which is a shame, because Bleach, at least, is a far inferior story). The only reason I ever knew about it was because it was recommended to me by a dear friend, to whom I am forever indebted for introducing me to this story. When I first picked it up, I’ll admit that the cover designs made me a little dubious.
See what I mean? But I quickly got over that. It took no time at all for me to fall in love with this series and especially with its characters. I enjoyed it so much that I was inspired to go on and read many more manga, and I’m pretty sure that Furuba (as the series is nicknamed by Takaya-sensei) was the real beginning of my interest in Japan and all things Japanese. I’d been doing karate for years by the time I read Furuba, so I’d had a curiosity about Japan for a long time–but this story really inspired me. Anyway, that’s a bit beside the point. A few years went by, I moved out on my own, and I decided upon finding out that a good friend owned most of the series that it was time to read it again. It didn’t take me long to remember why I liked the story so much–and also to realize that I’d forgotten most of what happened! I still remembered the most important points of the story, but I’d forgotten so much that it was almost like reading the manga again for the first time. This managed to push Harry Potter aside for the duration of my reading it–which is a huge compliment, coming from me! (although I should grant that this is my third or fourth reread of Harry Potter and I’ve also seen all the movies a few times) Anyway, I just finished my reread of Fruits Basket a couple of days ago, and so, I would now like to share a little bit about why I love this story so much.
Where to even begin…? Well, I suppose I’d better start with a short plot summary. This is how the story goes: a young girl named Tohru is living by herself in a tent on the edge of town, because her mother recently died in a car accident and she has nowhere else to go (although that isn’t quite true–more on that later). She discovers, while exploring around, a house belonging to fellow named Shigure Sohma, who is living with two other members of the Sohma family, Kyo and Yuki. They take her in when they realize she was living by herself in a tent, and all they ask in return is that she keep the house clean and cook their meals. She’s grateful to accept, and the story proceeds from there. It follows Tohru’s various trials and travails as she gets to know the members of the troubled Sohma family, who are afflicted with a curse: when hugged or held by a member of the opposite gender, they change into one of the animals of the Chinese zodiac. Over the course of the story, Tohru decides to break the curse on the Sohmas, and also eventually falls in love with one particular Sohma, Kyo.
Now I’ll get some technical stuff out of the way. For one, the anime: in my opinion, it’s hardly worth mentioning. It condenses the entire 23-volume story of Fruits Basket into a 26 episode anime series, and has to leave out so much that it’s hardly the same story. It’s still enjoyable, but, to use a reference to the character of Hatori Sohma, it’s the seahorse to the manga series’ dragon. The other technical aspect I want to touch on is the art–it isn’t terribly impressive. The best part about it is the expressiveness of the faces, which are admittedly some of the most naturally expressive faces I’ve ever seen in a manga. But other than that, the art is nothing to get excited about. Backgrounds are minimal enough to make me think that Takaya-sensei is either plain bad at them, or dislikes drawing them as much as I do. Characters are sometimes awkwardly proportioned, beyond the usual distortion of manga style, and the bare feet of the figures are always just a little bit “off”. But neither the lackluster anime nor the somewhat lackluster art are anything to judge this series by. The most important part of the artwork–the faces and body language of the characters–are done superbly, and that’s really all that matters.
So probably one of my favorite aspects of this series is its characters. There’s quite a few of them–the fourteen characters who are part of the Zodiac curse, Tohru herself, her friends, the student council at her high school (a group which Yuki Sohma eventually becomes part of), and a handful of other side characters. Without exception, they’re all fleshed out and complex. Most of them have painful pasts and, as the series begins, are living in confusion or struggle. Even the unpleasant ones are easy to fall in love with, because they all just hurt so bad. The main trio of the story–Tohru, Kyo, and Yuki–are developed the most, and it’s a mark of Takaya-sensei’s skill that they remain fascinating characters throughout the series, even once we know all their secrets. The characters and their relationships are the most important element of the story. Once you look a little bit under the hood, this story is really about a brilliant beam of light–Tohru–shining in and dispersing the clouds that have gathered over the Sohmas. The whole meaning of the story could be best expressed in the simple phrase, “Love conquers all.” That would be an easy thing to overdo or to make sappy or to ring false, but Takaya-sensei expresses it beautifully through her story. Tohru is, for the purpose of this story, love. She is able to love truly, in a way that is very rarely depicted in fiction. She isn’t blind. She sees the faults of those she loves, maybe more clearly than anyone else does–and she forgives them. She would sacrifice anything for the people she loves. She is so kind, but she is also courageous, and even implacable. She will stop at nothing to show love to the people around her. I’ve heard it said that the depth of her love, combined with her humbleness, make her seem a little too good to be human. I disagree; I think it is possible for real people to love like she does and to be humble like she is, although that’s an ideal that might be reached for over the course of one’s entire life. But more than that, I don’t think Tohru is meant to be just a normal girl. I would say that she is a saint, and this story shows what might happen if a saint were to come along and impact the lives of a broken, hurting family. But her saintliness is balanced by her humanity. She has flaws and she’s always afraid. But she is still strong and admirable.
It’s the light of love shining through Tohru that softens and heals the Sohma family. She utterly changes their lives, turns their world upside-down. And it’s beautiful. This story is such a powerful expression of the strength of love and forgiveness, of the redemptive power of love, that I can’t help but be a little awed. As a Christian man who wants to write stories that can show those same truths–because they are truths central to my faith–I find this incredibly inspiring. Whether or no Takaya-sensei is a Christian, whether or no her characters have any belief whatsoever in God, there’s still a good deal of holy truth shining through this story. I can’t recommend it enough. The time reading through those 23 volumes of manga with girly fronts and painfully ridiculous blurbs on the backs will be most definitely time well spent.