4 out of 5
Directed by: Yoshihide Ibata
covers season 1
Even without knowing all of the names for the various anime subgenres, once you’ve dipped your toes in the waters for a bit and gotten over the shock of how many shows there are, you’ll start to see some of the common groupings, and that those groupings extend to even those shows considered classics. So once you’ve taste-tested some mecha, some magical girl, isekai, etc., it makes it easier to zero in on stuff to your liking. Still, some outliers will linger; some “you’ve got to try this” examples that don’t seem quite in your ballpark. And for me, Fruits Basket fell into that, though admittedly more for the manga than the original anime. Even way back when I had no desire to get involve with anime or manga, I remember how popular the series seemed, and how it seemed to carry a respectable emotional context for people. The covers never quite drew me in, though, and so I let it pass by.
Come 2019, when I’m more actively reading / watching this stuff, and a new Fruits Basket anime starts, claimed to be more faithful to the source material than the former version. I didn’t have any expectations at this point – for better or worse – so it seemed to be a good time to give it a go.
Student Tohru Honda, perpetually positive – despite being orphaned, homeless, and working multiple jobs to scrape by – is taken in by the Soma family, or rather by three of its members, all male: Kyo, Yuki, and the elder Shigure. This could certainly spell romance (and started to clarify the reasons for what I considered to be a largely male following of the material), but we’re somewhat set off that course by an amusing wrinkle: the Soma family are possessed by spirits of The Zodiac, and turn into their (generally cute) animal counterparts when they’re stressed out, or, rather inconveniently, when they’re hugged by members of the opposite sex.
And, uh, that’s kinda it. Episode by episode, this would-be romcom gives us another member of the Soma family, or expands on the background of one of Tohru’s two school friends, Arisa and Saki, and then teaches them a life lesson thanks to Tohru hugging them. And… it’s excellent. I offer the background above to couch this in that none of this sounds like it would be appealing to me. The cutesiness; the tear-jerking drama; the day-in-the-life storytelling that has no real stakes or goal: not a bit of that makes my list of things I like to see in my anime. But so, so often – if not every episode – Fruits Basket uses its own disarming setup to dig that much deeper, and dance around what would normally be the focus of such things (flirting with boys! hugging little kitties and puppies!) to actually get pretty dark at moments, replacing a quest- or mystery-centric momentum with the richness of its characters, and respectfulness of its writing.
Frequently, the show starts going down a particular avenue that makes me wish we could get back to a character or storyline I preferred, only to manage to add that new focus to the list of things I want to watch. And there is romance in there, but it’s mature, and arrived at patiently, and not just because people giggle at one another and the boys look good without a shirt. But it also satisfies on a very basic level of entertainment because of how ace the timing is, and how fluid TMS/8PAN’s animation is, and how funny it is. All of that is rather tied together: TMS is obviously a powerhouse of popular shows, but Fruits Basket looks next level for them, lacking in the slight stiffness of many of their shows, and with excellently employed chibi and exaggerations to nail some of the slapstick or situational humor. To that latter point, writer Taku Kishimoto seemingly latched on to the key understanding that it’s best to juxtapose emotional highs and lows, such that a devastating moment can be back up with an honest laugh that cuts through the tears, or the hovering seriousness of a situation is offset by the bickering / interplay amongst the Soma family.
To achieve all of this, though, setting aside the fantasy element, Fruits Basket chooses to prop up Tohru as this wholly good character, and completely insecure – constantly apologizing – to a fault. Some characters call her out on it, but it’s more often that her 100% innocence is what helps everyone else grow; meanwhile, she never seems to change much herself. Without trying to spoil the series much for myself, browsing through future storylines suggests that this might change, and that the week-by-week episodic nature of the show might be stretching out this ‘phase’ of her personality, but there are definitely points where you want her to have shown she’s learned or evolved a bit from what’s gone on thus far.
However, when she hugs a cute bunny in the next scene and the writing gut punches you with another life lesson, then makes you laugh out loud a few moments later, you sort of love her – and Fruits Basket – all the same.