How to Build a Series: Fruits Basket

Fruits Basket is one of those things that looks like a delightful piece of fluff but is actually a masterclass in story construction when you look at it for the fourth time. Watch my hands … nothing up my sleeve:

Okay, first of all, I’m talking about the original series, since I have it on disc and can watch it whenever I want. I’ve seen most of the remake and it’s a lot better to look at but seems a little less charming. But maybe that’s just me.

Next of all, remember that conflict is the essence of drama.

It is, you know. Conflict creates tension, and tension creates emotional involvement. Then, when the conflict is resolved, BOOM! Emotional payoff. Ohhhh yeahhhh…. That feels so good.

So you looks at Fruits Basket and you see that cat/rat thing going on with Kyo and Yuki, or the way the school girls are jealous of Tohru because she gets to stay in the Soma house, and you say, “Yeah, there you go. Conflict.”

Tohru Honda. The spirit is willing but the self-confidence is weak.

No. I mean, it is, but it’s superficial. They’re just being goofy, which is a bit part of the fun.

Let’s look deeper into this. You know that the House of Soma, the whole extended family, is a house of pain, right?

Think about what their lives are really like. If they are stressed or touched by a member of the opposite sex, they turn into their Zodiac animal, right? AND THEY CAN’T HAVE THAT HAPPEN IN PUBLIC. If it happens, the secret is out.

So, no girlfriends, no lovers, not even opposite gender friends. Everyone has to be kept at arms length. In fact, we literally see Yuki doing exactly that, right? The Somas are all literally driven to look inwards, toward the tiny group that is their family, and shut everyone else away.

It gets worse, of course. Several of them are unusual in appearance, especially hair color, right? Kyo is one, and the little tiger girl Kisa, and the cow, Hatsuharo. All of them are or were teased and/or punished for standing out of the group, driving the Somas even further away from the rest of humanity.

Even worse, in many of their cases they are ultimately rejected by their own mothers, who often have to have their memories stripped away. We see this in Momiji, right? It turns out Tohru is working in the same building as his father, and the two of them meet Momiji’s parents. The smile stays on his happy face, but it is unutterably sad that his own mother does not recognize him.

And at the center of the house, like the decay at the center of a toothache, is Akito, who is the sacrificial lamb of the group, the boy who is doomed because someone has to be. His hate and rage suffuse outward through the family because they each know they are in his debt, that they owe their lives to the impending death that hangs over his head.

This is the pain that underpaints all the goofing around.

Then into this you drop Tohru Honda, who as a protagonist – and she IS the protagonist, the one who drives the plot to completion – of the story. She’s a damned screwy protagonist. She’s physically weak and clumsy, not very smart, and has the self-confidence of a paramecium. She ALWAYS apologizes for EVERYTHING; if you did a text analysis of her utterances (Yeah, that’s some professor talk for “counted her lines”) her most common statement BY FAR would be “I’m so sorry.”

Tohru is living in a world of hurt of her own, although she disguises it under knee-jerk optimism and good cheer. She’s a very recent orphan, an only child whose father died of illness when she was very little and whose mother was just killed in an accident. She has a grandfather who is a good man but in no position to support a teenager and cousins who are nasty pieces of trash. She has two really good friends, but even Arisa and Saki aren’t really Tohru’s friends; they’re fangirls of her mom’s.

Tohru’s actions are totally underlain by the fact that, with her mother gone, she is desperately lonely. YOU CAN SEE THIS. THEY SHOW IT RIGHT TO YOU. She smiles her lovely little smile and squinches up her eyes and tilts her head to the side, the very definition of “kawaii,” and she says, “You can erase my memory if you have to, but please promise you’ll still be my friend.”

“You can erase my memory if you have to, but please promise you’ll still be my friend.”

Having a friend is more important to her than any element of her life or personality. She is a girl who NEEDS more people in her life. NEEDS them horribly and painfully. Every time she talks about being a rice ball in a fruits basket she tells us just how much she needs other people.

All this underlying pain is what makes Fruits Basket work as a story, not just a TV show. Tohru needs the Somas because she needs a family. Not wants, needs. And in the Somas she finds them: in Kyo and Yuki two of the greatest, most protective brothers a girl could want, a father figure (which she’s never had) in Shigure, delightful little brothers and sisters like Momiji and Kisa and Hiro.

See it? The Somas heal the injury at the base of Tohru’s soul. They give her the family she needs so terribly, resolving the conflict that underlies her. To make the series complete she has to do the same for them, and she does, going to Akiba to heal his pain in return.

Most of the time most of this is hidden, waiting to jump out at just the right time to give us a little bite on the rump, like Momiji seeing his mom or Tohru talking to her mom’s picture as though she’s still alive (you will note that as her healing sets in, she stops doing that). Like the bracelet on Kyo’s wrist, it’s always there, and then at the end they LIAHO:

Let
It
ALL
Hang
Out.

Kyo’s alternative form nearly breaks Tohru, right? And then she goes to see Akito and he literally grinds her face into the floor. Grinds her FACE into the GROUND! Tohru Honda! They Let It All Hang Out, and because those scenes are built on the pain that’s been under there all along, they are horrible and powerful. They kick ass.

It’s those underlying pains, and the plot that leads to the resolution of those pains, that let Fruits Basket resonate with viewers in ways that something as superficially goofy as, say, Lucky Star can’t. The Lucky Star kids are fun but they aren’t really going anywhere; the Fruits Basket kids are fun and they are healing as well.

You know, sometimes even TV writers get it just right.

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

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