Zenko here! I’m Akko’s other half. Before I launch into my review of the Fruits Basket manga, please allow me to give a little introduction to my relationship with manga:
I would like to begin by saying that, while I have seen around 200 anime series, I can count on one full hand the number of manga series I have read. All but one of these did I watch the anime first, hungering for more, then read the manga to go beyond the portion of the tale told in the show. Fruits Basket is that one exception, though it ended up being a bit of a combination. By recommendation from two friends, I endeavored to read a manga before seeing the anime. I started and got a good several chapters in—enjoying it, but not really getting as enthusiastic about it as my friends had clearly done. Even a scene that had been touted as a favorite by one of these comrades, well…it just didn’t have the zing I had hoped for. On a whim (and a sick-day), I attempted the first few episodes of the anime, hoping to give myself a little boost. If you are a die-hard manga fan, you may find me to be something of a wuss for this, but I must admit that it did the trick. I think part of it for me was being able to listen to the Japanese (of which I can understand some), get the feel of the sounds and emotions, nod in appreciation of the voices that I thought were spot-on, and laugh at the poof! that always accompanies the change from human to zodiac animal. I got to see the scene that my friend had enjoyed so much and really found that the anime made it into that great moment that I had envisioned (for those who are curious: Hatsuharu’s introductory scene). Ah, then I began to see the differences between the show and the manga, seeing where they added filler, extended scenes, shortened storylines, and spliced a backstory into an earlier episode, while it doesn’t show up until much, much later in the manga. Perfect. Now I had placed the manga on a higher pedestal and could read without itching for animation first. I then proceeded to finish the entire manga within days. Here are my thoughts, a la Akko Anime rating style….
Purpose: Very Good. It could be quite easy to be fooled by the silliness and rather cute antics involved in the first portion: people of the Souma clan poofing into their zodiac animal form when being hugged (even barely) by someone of the opposite sex. How cute! How funny! Oh, but there is so much more to be revealed. The tone gradually becomes darker, more sinister, downright tragic, yet utterly sweet to the end. It flip-flops between high school slice-of-life and intense family drama. Some of these shifts and switches are a little jarring or awkward, but overall it creates a well-rounded story that takes place over about three years. What begins as a tale of living with boys that turn into animals if you get too close, eventually becomes a character-based story that branches out as many times as it needs to in order to follow each of the characters as they grow, mature, and learn about themselves: accepting their flaws, recognizing their own weaknesses, and finding what difficult steps forward they can take, whether it be boldness or forgiveness. There are truly some excellent moments in here, and quite a lot of ground covered, even though it does get just a little too spread out at times.
Characters: Very Good. As with many stories, not all characters have to have the level of depth (not to mention face-time) as we all want our heroes to have. Certainly this was the case here. Even members of the zodiac do not all receive the same amount of attention and backstory, which allows the reader to focus on the most important players in the tale. The initial introductions are to all fairly recognizable character types (plus animal versions for some), and this gives some quick-access as the story opens and plays around in its initial stages of the hunky-dory sort. The next layer begins to give the characters depth, but some of these start to lean towards the cheap-depth route of “tragic backstory.” Where it goes from there, however, shows the true depth of the characters as one learns how the tragedy formed them then, affects them now, and what they do to combat it and take a hold of their own lives once more. These decisions are what make these characters interesting, endearing…or even horrifying.
The perfectly angelic heroine does not rush to the monster’s side without hesitation…no, she is absolutely terrified and throws up! She must gather her courage and shift her thinking, seeing past the fearsome and grotesque to see the being she loves behind it. That is character depth. That is a hard-made decision to admire. What about the villain? Cruel, sadistic, mentally and physically abusive—this character manipulates others and pits them against each other, jealously beats even children, throws tantrums and screams and permanently maims without hesitation. And yet…change one single fact about this individual and what happens? Grudgingly, a touch of sympathy begins to creep in. How could this happen? This is a deep character. This is a villain worth learning about.
World: Very Good. There is not much to say about the “normal” portion of the world (except for perhaps its surprisingly high rate of tragic events), but the fantastical element of the world was wonderfully deep, meaningful, and pleasantly simple. It does not take long to explain that the 12 animals of the zodiac (plus a cat) possess members of the Souma clan and entwine their fates. Perfect. One is ready to read the entire story knowing hardly more than that. Yet there is a subtle shift in understanding how this all works and what it all means as little things are revealed, and the spiritual side of the world takes on a fascinatingly emotional role, while remaining refreshingly simple. There is nothing of the complicated twists and turns and convoluted connections and reasons for how things have turned out and how our heroes can thwart bad stuff. (Don’t get me wrong—I love convoluted!) But this story doesn’t need that. This is a simple tale of broken hearts being healed. The world reflects this simplicity and gravity all at the same time, balancing it well.
Plot: Good. The plot of this manga took quite a different turn from what I had first anticipated. In essence, it becomes less about poofing into an animal, and more about what it means to be possessed. Well, on the practical side, that is. On the emotional side, as I mentioned before, it is about healing broken hearts, which is a complicated trail to follow for each of these characters. The plot jumps back and forth quite a bit as the reader follows the various paths that the characters take, and it does sometimes veer off into some plot point intersections that seemed a bit of a stretch to me, but overall it does its job handsomely. I think that the growth of the characters as they mature through these three years is something rather convincingly done. I could see their progression and how their changing decisions shaped the story as it moved forward, and I think this was the strongest point to the plot.
Storytelling: Excellent. This is something that the author really grew in as the series went on.
Let us begin with words. From fighting words to sweet ones, internal thoughts to long narratives, the way she put these out on the page and drew you along through her almost zig-zag style, it really involves the reader deeply in the story, more than mere blocks of text could do. As I followed them over the pages, I felt as if I was taken by the hand, being led into the hearts of the characters, being drawn deeper and deeper into understanding. There are hints, teasers, little bits of back-and-forth as a character thinks back to another time or begins to walk into the next scene as the words spoken previously still echo in the ears. I felt so many times as if I could truly hear these words and the emotion behind them (even when the translations I was reading got a little sloppy…boy it helps to be familiar with Japanese and understanding what sorts of phrases and sentence structure are behind the sometimes too-literally translated and awkward-sounding lines that show up).
Next…backstories and flashbacks. Probably the strongest element here was that the author involved the reader so deeply into the tale of years before that one begins to forget the tragic ending it must have in order to bring us to the events of today. The emotion is able to hit hard because of it, and a deeper understanding of our main characters comes naturally from this experience. It is so much stronger this way than blatantly telling the audience that something happened and it was sad.
Finally…drawings. Now, I must say that the overall drawings of Fruits Basket are not the strongest and often look a little awkward. That’s ok. What I found to be a wonderful use of storytelling through them, though, was the style change for different circumstances. If you have read some of my previous posts (or influences on Akko’s posts) on here, you may know that I love animation change. This is the same as the style change used here: the switch to chibi or great detail, depending on and dictating the mood of a scene. Again, this got stronger as the series went on. Little dialogues and interactions could be drawn in almost stick-figure style, and yet be incredibly expressive—especially when Kyou’s cat ears and tail show up. Three little panels says so much with this technique, and so much emotion can be conveyed. I love it. Gets me every time.
Even better? The other direction: beautifully-drawn detail. In a world where our characters cannot hug without poofing into their zodiac spirit animal, there will still come times when a hug is emotionally required in order to say all the things that cannot fully be expressed in words. But what will happen a mere second later? Poof! If that warm embrace is so needed, what will the characters cherish and remember? What will be the lasting impression of that interaction? That one second of a hug. In the moments most important, the drawing style is kicked up several notches. Hands that are usually simple and awkward at best, suddenly become shapely, strong, and natural as it clutches close the sweet head of one most dear. Quick pencil lines that form the essence of hair now curve and flow as the strands spill beautifully between the fingers on that hand. It is a truly memorable image for the reader, just as it is a truly memorable moment for the characters. Every detail of that brief interaction is important to them, and so the author gives the reader every detail to be just as emotional and memorable. (Personally, I almost felt guilty studying the details for as long as I did since the characters only got to have a mere second of it to enjoy. Aw.)
Pace: Good. There were times that this manga felt slow as the trails split off to follow different characters and it took a bit to warm up to these new plots. The conclusion also took a while to really resolve (but of course I was also scared of it ending and having to face the fact that it was over), and yet this is not to say that the various scenes and elements of the conclusion were too much. The sense of time that it gave was well done as it spanned the three years, and getting to know new characters may feel a little slow after having been in the swing of things with the main cast for a while, but there was a lot of necessary building that took place here, so I think overall that the pace did a good job.