Book Reviews · Displays · Manga

Book Review: Fruits Basket by Natsuki Takaya

 

After her mother dies in a car accident, high school student Tohru moves in with her grandfather. The arrangement doesn’t suit either of them- though Tohru takes a job as a janitor to relieve some of her burden, she eventually chooses to leave and live in a tent on the school grounds. She comes to the attention of teen idol Yuki Sohma, who offers to hire her as his housekeeper in exchange for room and board. Yuki lives on a huge compound with his manipulative cousin Shigure and violent Kyo, who attacks Tohru on her first night in the house. Yuki leaps to her defence, but Tohru is caught in the fray and grabs Kyo… who transforms into a cat. The Sohma family secret is uncovered: each member is possessed by one of the 12 spirits of the Chinese zodiac. Kyo, the cat, is unlucky number 13, tricked into giving up his rightful place by the rat spirit, who lives in Yuki. The cousins hate each other, and their rivalry is fuelled by Akito, the head of the Sohma household who embodies the spirit of the Jade Emperor, or God of the zodiac. Akito is irresistible to the members of the zodiac, but resorts to abuse and imprisonment in order to control them. He loathes outsiders, and Tohru’s presence in the family home begins to weaken the zodiac curse.

fruits basket1

Fruits Basket was one of the first Shoujo (or “Girls”) series that helped to publicise manga outside of Japan. This poster was found in Paris.

Besides Yuki, Kyo and Shigure, Tohru meets the other members of the Sohma family, who each have traits relating to their spirit animal. Momoji, the rabbit spirit, appears much younger than his real age and is cute but utterly helpless. Ayame, the snake, is a born performer susceptible to cold. The curse is activated by a touch, but its strength is determined by the depth of each connection to Akito. Hatori, the family doctor, technically possesses the dragon spirit, but can only turn into a seahorse (and is very sensitive about it!) Most of the Sohma children are despised by their parents, who feel repulsed at having given birth to a transforming animal. Many form relationships with their cousins- two of the male Sohmas (the monkey and the rabbit) can be described as androgynous or genderfluid, dressing in clothes traditionally worn by women. As long as they stay in the compound, the Sohmas are allowed to pursue their creative talents, including fashion design and novel writing. Tohru’s school friends complete the large cast- Arisa, an ex-member of a 50’s-style girl gang, ends up falling for Kureno Sohma (the Rooster) and Saki, a goth-lolita with latent psychic abilities, finds a friend in Kazuma, the Master of the Sohma family dojo.

The 12 animals thafruits basket3t make up the Chinese zodiac feature in this graffiti in San Francisco;  Renowned Chinese sculptor Ai Weiwei recreated the 12 heads of the zodiac that were looted from a palace in Beijing by British troops.

fruits basket4

So why “Fruits Basket”, with an extra -S? There is no “tu” sound in Japanese, so the word “fruit” in the title (which is transcribed from English) becomes “Furūtsu”. “Furutsu Basuketto” is a game where children are given the name of a fruit, and have to cross a circle when their name is called- you probably remember playing similar games in primary school. As a child, Tohru had the misfortune to be picked last during the game, when the teacher had already assigned names to everybody. As there were no more fruits, she had to be an “onigiri”- a rice ball stuffed with pickled plums and wrapped in seaweed- and since you never find an onigiri in a fruit basket, none of the other children called her name. It’s easy to spot the similarities between Tohru and Kyo’s stories- Tohru repeatedly draws on her experiences as a human girl to help the Sohmas deal with their supernatural issues.

fruits basket2

Onigiri are balls of sticky rice that can be wrapped in seaweed or stuffed with meat, fish or umeboshi, a very sour plum. Tohru sometimes appears as an onigiri in Fruits Basket!

It helps to know a little about “shoujo”, or “girl’s” manga before you pick up Fruits Basket- for example, violent nosebleeds signify a girl is overcome by her crush!  You don’t to know any Japanese- the American publishers (Tokyopop, now sadly out of business) have provided useful descriptions for all the “untranslatable” phrases and foreign traditions. The “Girl’s” label shouldn’t put you off either. Many of the characters are concerned with romance, but the psychological element adds a lot of depth and a little darkness. If you liked the paranormal aspect of Fruits Basket, we recommend Vampire Knight, which you can find in manga form in our QUICK READS section and on DVD in the BOOK ZONE 741.5952. Students at the prestigious Cross Academy are divided into two groups: those who go to lessons in the daytime, and those who only come out at night…. It seems Japan has a fascination with tragic romance (“We can’t be together- you’re a cat/schoolgirl and I’m a schoolgirl/vampire!”) that rivals the West. In The Cat Returns by Studio Ghibli (DVD LOBBY 791.433) schoolgirl Haru saves a cat from an oncoming truck. In return she is promised the hand of the cat Prince, and develops cat-like characteristics to prepare her for her upcoming wedding! As she tries to escape the cat kingdom, Haru uncovers a plot by notorious criminal Muta, who endangered the kingdom by eating a whole lake of fish. It’s silly stuff, but the staff at Studio Ghibli have worked their usual magic- you’ll struggle to find a female protagonist with more heart.

Our graphic novel collection will be on display in the Information Store until Monday 23rd November. Speak to staff if you’d like to find out more!

References

Stevenson, Anna M Fruits basket ad accessed at https://flic.kr/p/491t99 on 10/11/2015

Bouchard, H Kyo: Teddy bears picnic accessed at https://flic.kr/p/d7wBZ on 10/11/2015

Goehring, D SF Zodiacs by MÜSE (Misaki Kido) accessed at https://flic.kr/p/nzxoju on 10/11/2015

Gobetz, W NYC – Grand Army Plaza: Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads accessed at https://flic.kr/p/9ZoqTA on 10/11/2015

Rosollo Gene, A Fantasy onigiri accessed at https://flic.kr/p/8N4UgE on 10/11/2015

 

 

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