The Comics Classroom: Learning to Listen with FRUITS BASKET

I have written in the past on topics concerning Japanese intellectual properties that engage with Japanese culture through both high and low forms of art. It is no secret that I love anime and manga, but I have (mostly) targeted some rather ‘safe’ genres such as samurai, giant robots, and transforming female heroines. Heck, I am editing something right now about Sailor Moon that I am very excited about.

Having said all that, I really want to address an older manga which was released in Japan between 1998 and 2006.

Fruits Basket (sometimes simply called FruBa) is a fantastical and romantic shojo manga, a comic series whose market is dominantly younger girls, although this does not mean that it won’t be accessible to older girls or even men and boys. FruBa is an extremely melodramatic plot in all the right ways.

The main character, Tohru Honda, is a young girl who finds herself in the precarious situation of being temporarily homeless and is reduced to living in a tent while trying to attend school. Tohru’s problems are solved when she finds she has been camping on the property of a classmate. The classmate in question, Yuki, is from a mysterious family called the Sohmas. Certain member of this wealthy but isolated family are afflicted with a curse: certain levels of contact (mainly called ‘hugging,’ but this can be inferred to be other things) with non-Sohma people cause them to transform into the twelve animals from the Chinese Zodiac.

Obviously, Tohru stumbles (literally) into the Sohma family secret, yet for reasons that do not get disclosed to her, she is allowed to remain living with her classmate, Yuki, and his older cousin, Shigure, on their property. Throw into this already strange mixture a wild young man who is seemingly possessed by the 13th animal of the zodiac which was kept secret, the Cat, and you’ve got what became a dynamite series across Japan and even the United States. In fact, Fruits Basket’s anime, which ran in 2001, was re-released this April through Funimation and is available to watch sans dub through a variety of outlets.

Needless to say, the story remains immensely popular. Tohru meeting new Sohma family members and learning about them, as well as figuring out her own place in life, is an enduring and touching story.

It is, however, impossible to really talk about FruBa without talking about abuse. It is not surprising to know that Shojo manga can deal with dark subjects (Sailor Moon, for example, touches on suicide), but it is strange to consider how such a wildly popular manga, one which has remained in good standing in the United States among boys and girls alike, deals so explicitly with the subject in such a prolonged and considerate manner. There are manga titles that deal with abuse, that isn’t what I am saying is novel about series.

The important word, to me, is that author Natsuki Takaya deals with abuse in a “considerate” manner. What I mean specifically is that, while Tohru and Sohma family are part of a romantic and obviously fantastic story, the more serious content is never fantasized or treated as ‘part’ of the romance. There may well be fans who (wrongly) tie abuse to romance, but the story itself that the manga-ka creates explicitly takes a firm stance on how abuse is to be handled: You listen.

It may not seem explicitly revolutionary, but what makes Tohru a meaningful and compassionate character is her uncompromising compassion and her ability to listen to abuse victims. The nature of the Sohma curse is that they’re limited in who they can talk with and communicate with due to the head of their family (one of the most complex characters I have ever come across in any comic medium) demanding that the secret of the Sohmas be kept quiet at any cost.

Unfortunately, this also means that the Sohmas afflicted with the curse cannot rely on anyone who doesn’t already know about the curse. To make an already tense situation worse, the nature of the curse does not impact every Sohma, just a few. So, what happens for example if you, a non-cursed Sohma member, give birth to a baby who is actually an animal, something that … ya know … just happens when you’re afflicted with a curse like this.

The story establishes that there are two reactions.

The first is overwhelming compassion to point of becoming smothering. If your child is cursed, you’ll want to love and protect your child, but in the process,  you risk becoming an emotional burden to the child as they grow.

The other reaction the story establishes is an almost complete emotional disconnection. One character who I always particularly felt strongly for, Momiji Sohma, has a mother who, via plot contrivances, literally forgets he even exists. Tack onto this the fact that Momiji is a sensitive boy who wears effeminate clothes and you might understand how this very romantic and fantastic story touches on a wide variety of issues concerning alienation and isolation.

Unfortunately, the torment for some Sohmas does not stop there as many members of the family turn to physically abusing other members of their family because of the emotional stress they live under.

It is very easy to consider just the things I have mentioned as perhaps being too much for one comic, or even good taste, but Tohru and her ability to listen is what makes the story function. Tohru isn’t a savior character who ‘breaks’ the Sohma curse on her own so much as she is the first of many characters who gives the Sohma family what they need: a listening ear and an open heart. I mentioned how much I wound up connecting with Momiji (who remains tied with another character for ‘saddest story in the universe’ award) because of how he had to deal with one parent who loved him and another around whom he had to behave differently.

While my own relationship with my verbally abusive father was not a 1-to-1 parallel with Momiji, the separation of parents and the split about how to be who I want to be around my whole family, and not having that, clicked for me. I was fortunate to have had friends in high school, when I discovered this manga, who were there for me. Unfortunately, many communities of people remain in isolation, either because of concern for their safety or because of threats.

Those who identify as bisexual, pansexual, who are trans or who dress outside of conventional gender-binary ‘norms’ suffer continually at the hands of those who are not listening. I don’t mean that just suffer from those who attack them (they suffer from that too, in tragically high numbers), I mean that they are not listened to by those claiming to be their own allies. Tohru Honda is not a revolutionary character, but she is unique in that she manages to express one of the most critical skills those who are in emotional danger need so well throughout the FruBa narrative.

I find the FruBa manga compelling because it is perhaps now more timely than ever. The United States dub community, i.e.: the community made up of industry professionals and voice-actors who translate manga and dub anime into English, has recently been shaken deeply because of issues concerning sexual abuse. The notion of ‘what’ FruBa communicates is that, even if you cannot do anything, there should be ears open to listening when those who are abused speak out.

In terms of things which tend to drastically impact one’s life in a negative manner, voicing issues related to abuse in almost any manner (verbal or sexual) tends to yield negative results. Those who speak out at any point will be accused of having an ulterior motive if said abuse was not immediately brought to the police, yet these very same victims may well be ignored by their superiors, fired, or retaliated against.

It is often a lose-lose scenario for abuse victims, and this is something FruBa actually tries to communicate. Not all the Sohma family members like Tohru and her compassionate nature. Some members detest her openly, or even try and hurt her. Being somebody who is willing to make one’s self open to being available to hear the stories of abuse victims often have to understand that these people don’t owe you their admiration. It is very difficult to confront abuse, and to talk about it, and often times those trying to receptive find themselves being attacked emotionally.

Again, I find the lessons of FruBa to be worthwhile in that Tohru keeps trying to listen, when and where she can. She doesn’t give up and either should anyone else. Compassion for the abused in our fandoms and in our communities should never stop once it gets hard, or even once we find we may actually represent the ‘face’ or ‘culture’ of the oppressor. The Black Lives Matter movement has been very difficult for many white people to embrace because it means addressing the systemic racism that they themselves benefit from.

In the anime community, a community which loves and embraces the compassion of Tohru Honda, perhaps we should see more people emulate her and just listen to those who are abused, who speak out, and even those who lash out. Listening requires nothing more than an open heart, which is the greatest lesson of the FruBa manga. #WhatWouldTohruDo #BeLikeTohru

I should also address here, at the close, that there are still problems with FruBa, like any comic, since it is not perfect. While the story certainly leaves some ambiguities in fashion and gender norms open, it is still very cis-centric. Virtually all of the Sohmas (with two possible exceptions whose actual leanings, to my knowledge, are undeclared as actually being homosexual in the manga overtly) have emotional counterparts of the opposite gender if/when they do pursue romantic attachments.

However, what I have long loved about the FruBa community, like many fan communities, is the openness of those who adapt their canons of the characters via their own art and fiction. Are certain characters actually gay, or ace, or pan despite some ambiguities? In canon, no, however the style of the story and the emotional ties of the characters means somebody will inevitably attach to somebody in the narrative who is going through what they’re going through.

Unlike some western comics, where plots tend to be resolved through combat, FruBa focuses on presenting a huge array of characters who deal with all kinds of things on emotional and physical levels. This has always made the FruBa manga a lightning rod for all kinds of readers, from those who want and need a cathartic story where somebody going through their own pain is listened to, to those who want a very complex story with romance and mystery and cute animals.

When a comic like FruBa is so accessible to what readers want to experience, it’s only natural then that they carry the story forward in other spaces and make adjustments according to what helps them connect to the story even more. While there are virtually no canon characters in the FruBa story who are gay, I knew of few manga more adapted to suit X-canon character being re-written as gay (or, ace, or bi, etc…). I attest that this is, as I mentioned earlier, because there are so many kinds of characters and styles for fans to gravitate towards. I wish more western comics were open about ambiguities in their own popular IP characters so that there could be a more welcoming space for fans to ‘play’ with canon, but this is not a foreign issue in Japan either.

Not every manga-ka is going to want to push some boundaries in a country where non-cis issues, outside of the works of specific manga and game artists, are still heavily censored, ignored or even rejected. FruBa is not perfect, but it does some things so well that it has found an extensive fandom in both Japan and in the United States for almost eighteen years. That is a very positive thing, and while I may wish FruBa did some things better, what it does right is still valuable and needs to be re-examined by many communities with combative fans.


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