Fruits Basket was my gateway drug. When it was first published, in the mid-2000s, both my daughters were not only reading every volume as it came out, they were actually spending their own money to buy duplicate copies so they wouldn’t have to share. Curious about what was causing such passion, I started reading it myself—and got hooked.
The concept is kind of weird, if you’re hearing it for the first time, but also a really good structure to hang a story on. The members of the Sohma family bear a strange zodiac curse: 12 of them turn into the animals of the Chinese zodiac when they are stressed, or when they are hugged by a member of the opposite sex. A 13th member of the family, Kyo Sohma, is also cursed, but his animal, the cat, is not a part of the Chinese zodiac because, according to legend, the rat tricked him to keep him out. Although a lot of people would think it would be cool to transform into an animal, the Sohmas regard it as shameful, and the dysfunction is magnified by the head of the family, Akito, who manipulates the other members and makes them miserable.
When the story opens, two of the Sohmas, Yuki and Shigure, are living a bachelor existence in a house outside the family compound. Yuki goes to the local high school and Shigure, who is older, is a novelist who lounges around in a kimono all day, looking dreamy. Along comes Tohru Honda, a sweet schoolgirl with a spine of steel who has been living in a tent on the Sohma property because she’s an orphan and her family are jerks (as is usually the case in manga). After a chance encounter, she winds up living with the Sohmas, and she has barely moved in when Kyo comes crashing through the roof. Kyo has been out in the woods, training in martial arts, because his greatest desire is to defeat Yuki in a fight, and he is constantly throwing down challenges.
So far this seems like a pretty ordinary shoujo romance, except for the transforming-animals part: An orphaned teenager ends up living under the same roof with one or more cute guys, and intrigue and infighting ensue. But Fruits Basket is not your standard shoujo romance. As the story goes on, we learn that the family is seriously dysfunctional, with all kinds of heartbreak and rejection stemming from the characters’ shame over the curse. The Sohmas may have a supernatural curse, but there is plenty of human misery as well, with Akito, the head of the family, sitting in the center of it all and manipulating the others. Not just a romance or even a soap opera, Fruits Basket is a complex story that goes deep.
It has been over a decade since my daughters spent their allowances on Tokyopop’s edition of Fruits Basket, and they don’t have much time in their adult lives for manga. But when I showed them the new Yen Press edition, they sat down and read the first two volumes straight through, then fetched the older volumes out of storage so they could keep going. All these years later, the story still pulled them in.
So why do we love Fruits Basket? Let me count the ways…
It’s a Reverse Harem…
Fruits Basket is a teenage girl’s dream: The world is full of hot guys who think about you all the time. They argue about you, they defend you to each other, they elbow aside bullies, and when you’re not around, they talk constantly about how awesome you are. And Takaya checks all the teenage-girl boxes: Kyo is the bad boy (whom only Tohru can tame), Yuki is the cool, silent (but secretly vulnerable) type, and Shigure is the suave older guy who smokes cigarettes. As the story goes on we get more and more guys. It’s a perfect wish-fulfillment fantasy for a certain type of girl.
… But Not Entirely
It’s not a total sausage-fest, though. There are strong and interesting girls in Fruits Basket. Tohru’s friends Uo (the glam-tough gangster girl) and Hana (dark and psychic) are intensely loyal and affectionate; they stick by her in school, and when she’s not around, they talk constantly about how awesome she is. Kagura is a different case: Her love for Kyo is so strong that she’s downright violent. It’s typical of Tohru that she views this as somehow a good thing, seeing it as ardor rather than abusiveness. One of the most interesting women is Tohru’s mother, Kyoko, who died in a car accident before the story begins but who appears in flashbacks and ends up being very significant to the story.
Tohru Honda is overly sweet and sort of spacy, but she’s also very perceptive. Kyo may be rough and Yuki may be smooth, but she looks beyond these exteriors and understands them as people. That’s an important sort of story for teenagers (and for adults as well, come to think of it). In addition, this story is about accepting the fact that you are different—and being accepted by others. Uo and Hana love Tohru with all her quirks, and they stand up for her when the other girls try to bully her. The Sohmas do the same, to greater or lesser degrees, and Tohru’s acceptance of the Sohma family, in turn, is the key to their salvation.
One of the things that makes Fruits Basket such a good read is the way the characters in human form reflect their zodiac animals—or not. It’s not a stretch to see how the jumpy, super-cute Momiji could be a rabbit or the aggressive Kagura could be a boar, but Kyo is also aggressive (unlike the stereotypical cat) and Yuki, the rat, is a good-looking “prince” who betrays none of the usual characteristics of rats.
Although Yuki, Kyo, and Tohru are the main characters, each of the Sohmas gets some time in the spotlight, which makes for some interesting side stories. As the series goes on, we learn their backstories and see the traumas they have gone through—and the different ways in which they cope with the family curse. They aren’t cardboard cutouts, and often they are not what they appear to be. That makes for a rich and intriguing story that never gets old.
When I asked my daughter, who is now in her 20s, what she liked about Fruits Basket, she said “The art was cute.” And it is. Takaya creates a world filled with good-looking people and adorable animals. Tohru is almost a fairytale character, donning an apron and kerchief to do the housework, and Momiji’s frills-and-lederhosen look is… different. Also the boys dress like girls a lot. It’s a manga thing. Takaya also has a way of pausing the story for close-ups of the characters as they muse about what’s going on (which happens a lot). She also often puts a cute avatar into a word balloon to let the reader know who’s talking—the zodiac animal for the Sohmas, and a rice ball for Tohru (you’ll have to read the story to find out why).
Fruits Basket is a story that starts out pretty simply: A homeless girl finds her place in the world in a house of lonely males. They provide her with a surrogate family and protect her from harm; she does the cooking and the cleaning. What Takaya does very well, though, is settle you into a comfortable status quo and then pull back a corner to reveal that something else is going on. She does it with the first big reveal of the book—that the Sohmas turn into animals when hugged—and then she continues to do it as we slowly see that Shigure and Akito have bigger plans for Tohru, and that the curse of the Sohmas goes far beyond merely turning into animals at inopportune moments. This also means that there is a momentum to the story: It’s not just a series of adventures and teenage hijinks; it has a plot and an ending. At the same time, Takaya lightens the story with sunny moments so it never gets too dreary.
Whether you are reading Fruits Basket for the first time or returning to it after many years, Yen Press’s new edition is a much better format than the original. The volumes are oversized, each one containing two of the original volumes with a larger trim size than the first translated version. This allows the art to breathe a bit, which is all to the good with a moody, and often detailed, story such as this one. The covers have been redesigned (the original pale turquoise was a bit off-putting) and use matte stock with French flaps, which gives the series a more grown-up feel. Each volume opens with some color pages of scenes of Tohru and her friends. The original edition had chatty little author’s notes in the margins, which were often kind of irritating; they have been eliminated in this edition and replaced with some rather generic art.