One request – be happy.
Fruits Basket has always been a bit of an oddity on my lists of beloved anime. The original anime series was nothing like anything I was watching way back when and it certainly didn’t fit amongst the copies of Bleach, Evangelion, Death Note or Darker Than Black. The closest similar shows I was watching were Sailor Moon or Cardcaptor but even they were more action driven.
Let’s be real, as a teen and then a young adult, I really just liked horror and action with a heavy focus on supernatural stories. Emotional or dramatic stories that slowly plodded along were fairly far off my radar and by and large didn’t interest me. The occasional romance more slip through but really I just wanted my stories to move along and stories that had clear and obtainable goals such as escape the monster, defeat the monster, turn off the bomb, blow up the bomb, etc, really worked for me.
So why Fruits Basket?
I’m going to be fair. The original Fruits Basket anime did not look great. The OP was this languid and slow high pitched song that at first I found really quite grating though as the years passed and countless rewatches of the show occurred, it would become one of those opening themes that could make me mellow and smile out just from its first notes. And honestly, the story didn’t finish. The anime just stopped and there never was a season 2 or 3.
The only thing that drew me to Fruits Basket initially, as in the reason I pressed play at all on it, was because of the curse. The supernatural aspect of the Soma family. I will admit, I never expected the story to focus as much as it did on the everyday. On teenagers being teenagers and enjoying their school days together. I expected a story about a girl fixing a cursed family.
Despite the anime not actually being anything like what I expected I did fall in love with it. I did watch it again and again. I did google the manga online and read enough of the later chapters to feel like I’d resolved the story enough that the lack of ending didn’t drive me crazy. I still hoped and hoped that Fruits Basket would one day get a reboot. Then 2019 came along and we got just that.
As we turn into the final season of this story and I’m finally actually getting to see it resolve as an anime (and fill in all the gaps that I didn’t spoil for myself way back when) I’m left reflecting on how this story managed to become so important to me. The only conclusion I can draw after all this time is that it has nothing to do with the narrative at all. Really, the story can end however it wants at this point in time. I don’t care. All I care about is how the characters will feel and where they end up. Do I need to prepare to give them all mental hugs and cry with them or will we smile through bitter-sweet tears at the end?
It would be fair to say that the original Fruits Basket was probably the reason why I ended up falling in love with a story like March Comes in Like a Lion. If I hadn’t watched Fruits Basket all those years ago, I’m not entirely sure that the me who started this blog would have ever even given March the time of day. And honestly, the 2019 reboot of Fruits Basket and the subsequent sequels have only improved on the original.
So how does an anime like Fruits Basket make the audience grow so incredibly attached to the characters, especially when there is such a large cast?
Part of the charm comes from the fact that all of the characters are very human. Even over-the-top and exuberant characters like Ayame get moments where we see the chinks in his armour and realise that a lot of what he does is simply the façade he’s chosen to face the world with. Underneath the mile-a-minute speech, the ridiculous antics, and intrusive nature is someone who is very aware of his own flaws and that he’s made mistakes that have widened the gap between himself and his younger brother.
Tohru Honda, as the central character who comes into the Soma house is very human. While on the outside she seems way too nice and accommodating and at times her lack of self-preservation skills kind of make me want to give her a good shake, she’s also aware of her own flaws and weaknesses and full of a desire to improve.
Every character, even those that play a smaller role in the story, have their own goals and motives that sit behind their actions and their actions are logical based on their driving need. Hiro initially comes across as an obnoxious and spoiled brat, a character trait he’s become self-aware of as he’s getting older and even he realises its just a front to hide his own shame at his powerlessness to protect Kisa. Kyo’s obnoxious attempts to attack and bring down Yuki aren’t just comedic entertainment (though some of them are pretty funny in season 1), but are rather revealed to be an act of desperation as he has to beat Yuki in order to win a deal with Akito. The fact that it’s impossible, and Kyo more or less knows that, doesn’t stop him being driven to try again and again.
However, it is more than just making the characters feel human and giving them plausible weaknesses and faults. It is more than just the fact that their motives make sense. Admittedly, even if that was all Fruits Basket did it would still put these characters fairly high up the ladder because most characters don’t even get that far.
The next element that works for Fruits Basket is that this is an ensemble piece. While we come into the story through Honda, the outsider to the Soma family, the story isn’t Honda’s alone. Instead we see the perspectives of many characters and follow storylines at times that Honda has no awareness of. The last two episodes of Fruits Basket (3 and 4 or season 3) have almost been without her presence at all.
Supporting characters are not less exciting or interesting. Their stories are not irrelevant to the main plot. The characters aren’t just sitting around and waiting for the hero of the piece to decide on a course of action before they stand around behind the hero for moral support. Sure, Honda is trying to find a way to break the curse, but so is Rin. And one could arguably say that Rin has been far more willing to put everything on the line to succeed at her goal. Kyo’s been facing his own demons and made his own deal with Akito. Shigure has always had his own agenda. Momiji has his family situation that he’s dealing with. Kureno has deep secrets. Ayame is running his own business and also trying to reconnect with his brother. Yuki is trying to find a place in the world for himself that isn’t decided by his family. Haru is trying to support Rin and Yuki. Hiro wants to protect Kisa and so on and so on.
None of these characters are wasted. In a cast where there are 12 members of the zodiac plus Akito, plus the various school friends, plus other members of the Soma family, there is a real chance that the cast would feel bloated or the characters would be under-utilised and left standing around without anything really to do. I mean, the latest Doctor Who can’t even figure out how to keep three companions actually engaged with the story for the whole episode and they spend a lot of time just kind of standing there not doing much.
While I personally don’t enjoy episodes that focus entirely on Yuki or in the later seasons episodes that focus on the student council members, these characters are still rich characters with lives that are going on outside of the actions Honda is taking. Personal preferences are always going to play a part in this and if we were to run a poll to find out who your favourite member of the zodiac is I think we’d get a few characters coming up rather than a single one (on that note, I’m with Honda in that the cat rocks and really should be part of the actual zodiac).
The last point I’m going to make is that Fruits Basket really is a character driven drama. The first season in particular created various situations (Valentine’s day, trips away, Honda getting sick, etc) for the characters to interact in but the overall plot didn’t really do much. Season one could really be summed up as Honda meets various members of the Zodiac. Very little is learned about the curse and practically no progress toward fixing anything. Instead, characters deal with old demons and Honda helps them to reconnect and make friends.
Wow, that sounds like something I would hate watching and yet I loved it.
I think what makes it work is that the character drama feels real. We don’t suddenly create a totally random problem for the characters to face. There is no evil student council swooping in to suddenly ban blue hair ribbons or something equally ridiculous for the sake of creating drama. Sure there is a Prince Yuki fan-club, but there were established in the first episode and actually mellow out as the show progresses rather than becoming more of a hindrance for the sake of drama.
Honda’s family situation and financial problems were also established as her backstory so when these moments crop up they feel like valid obstacles to be overcome.
The set-up was pretty clever in that we know there are 12 members of the zodiac but we don’t meet them all right away which allows a drip-feed of new characters and drama throughout the run of the show before we finally get to where we are now and the focus is turning to the curse itself.
It is because of this approach that character moments are given the time they need. Characters can sit beside each other or offer comfort or advice and we’re not needing to instantly get over things and run off to face the next challenge. Instead, characters can mope and contemplate and the audience can come back to them after they’ve had a reasonable time to deal with things.
Basically, Fruits Basket gets its formula right. The story created characters that feel real and then gave the audience time to get to know them and helped us form attachments to them by growing with them as they overcame the various obstacles life presented to them. Now the audience is attached we’re plunging into dealing with the actual plot and we’re so emotionally invested that every single thing that happens feels like it has so much more impact than if we’d skipped through all of those sad or fluffy moments and jumped right into the plot.
Now, I’m not suggesting every story should be like this. I’m still very fond of stories where people simply cut their way through their obstacles before punching their biggest problem through the floor. However, Fruits Basket is a story that has become more than just a story. I genuinely want to reach out and help these characters and I want them to succeed or at the very least to find a momentary happiness. I will laugh with these characters and I will cry with them and at the end of this final season of Fruits Basket I will be both beautifully satisfied that I finally saw the end of this story and also in mourning because it will be the end of this story. However, I also know I’ll visit these characters again and again in future years and they’ll probably still be making me cry when I’m 60.
Images in this article from:
- Fruits Basket: The Final. Dir. Y Ibata. TMS Entertainment. 2021.
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