This review will contain spoilers for the manga and anime series. While the manga may vary slightly from all other forms of media, it may have similar story elements and could be considered spoilers.
Trigger Warning: There will be references to physical, verbal, and emotional abuse as it appears in the manga series of Fruits Basket.
This story revolves around our lovable, orphaned main character, Tohru Honda. Tohru's life is filled with hardship. Her father passed when she was a young girl, her mother died not long before the start of our story, she is forced to live in a tent in the woods due to her grandfather's home renovations and an unkind family living with him, and she works a cleaning job to pay her own way in the world while also attending school.
What Tohru doesn't know is that she has mistakenly started camping inside the land of the Sohma clan, a family of mysterious, attractive men and women who mostly keep to themselves. One of the main members is Yuki Sohma, who goes to school and is in the same class as Tohru, though they do not interact as Yuki is very distant at school. Tohru ends up accidentally stumbling across the house where Yuki is staying, thus encountering the second Sohma Shigure, an older and unreliable author who cares for Yuki as a guardian.
When Yuki and Shigure question how she found their house, they discover she is living in a tent. For her safety, they ask her to stay with them, at least until her grandfather's home renovations are complete. While Tohru is unwilling at first, as she fears being a burden on people, a landslide ends up crushing her tent, which forces her to accept the Sohma's offer.
During her first day with the Sohmas, she ends up meeting Kyo, another Sohma member who hates Yuki with a passion. He challenges Yuki to fight, which, of course, shocks Tohru, but Yuki and Shigure are not surprised in the least. While trying to stop him, Tohru ends up accidentally embracing him, and when she does, Kyo turns into a cat. It is then revealed that Kyo (the cat), Yuki (the rat), and Shigure (the dog) are all part of the Sohma curse, which causes 13 members of the family to turn into the 13 animals of the Chinese zodiac whenever a member of the opposite sex embraces them.
One of the best parts of this manga is the significance of the title itself. There is a game that Tohru played as a child called Fruits Basket. All of the children sit in a circle and are given the name of a fruit. When their fruit is called, they must go and find another seat. While playing, Tohru is given the name “Rice Ball” (per the Collector's Edition translation, though onigiri would be the Japanese name), which is not a fruit at all. Tohru, though, is happy to be the rice ball and spends most of the game thinking about how much she loves rice balls. However, she soon realizes she will never be called by the other children because a rice ball does not fit in a fruit basket, and as such, Tohru herself does not fit in with her classmates. It is a beautiful representation of something I think we all fear: not being accepted by our peers.
However, the fruit basket imagery does not stop there. Once Tohru meets and begins living with the Sohmas full time, we see the flashback again of Tohru being named rice ball, but this time, the children she plays with are the Sohmas, and they end up calling “rice ball,” thus accepting her into their family. It really is a beautiful scene, especially so because of its simplicity. I actually find myself thinking about it, and it instantly warms my heart.
That isn't the end of the wonderful fruit basket theme, either. We also see this same concept within the Sohma family itself through Kyo. Kyo is the cat, the excluded member of the Chinese zodiac, and as such, is excluded from many of the Sohma rituals. Tohru resonates with the cat, even before she met Kyo, as she too felt like an outsider and always felt bad that the cat could never attend the banquet with the other zodiac members. Because of this, Tohru immediately forms a deep connection with Kyo and goes out of her way to include him even when the other members fight with or ignore him.
Tohru, in general, is just a wonderful main character. She is syrupy and sweet, which makes her hard to dislike from the start, and she has so many quirky flaws that even they end up being positive traits in their own right. All of the characters are instantly drawn to her, and it's not hard to see why, as I was instantly drawn to her as a reader. She really embodies the emotions of the reader – we root for Kyo to be included, we mourn for all of the characters and the hardships they endure, and we want to explore the Sohma dynamic just like Tohru. She is extremely relatable despite her many troubles and hardships, and she really makes Fruits Basket a joy to read.
I can't talk about this manga without talking about the romance. There are two main love interests for Tohru between Kyo and Yuki, which is a great dynamic since Yuki is the rat and the reason that the cat was left out of the banquet with the rest of the zodiac. This creates a foundation of tension that carries their relationship throughout the manga and furthermore creates an interesting dynamic with Tohru as she loves them both despite their roles in the zodiac. It gives the romance element so much more depth than it would have had if they just hated each other because they both liked Tohru.
Finally, the characterization is amazing. There are a ton of characters in this manga, and oftentimes, in a manga with so many characters, there are inevitably characters who are left out or forgotten. That is not the case here. Each one has their own moment to shine, and they all have an important role to play in the story. It is an impressive feat when you consider the sheer amount of characters (Tohru, Yuki, and Kyo, all of the other zodiac members, Tohru's best friends, Tohru's enemies, flashback characters such as Tohru's mom, student council members, etc.) and how many of them get their own time in the shine, it just makes the manga so much more dynamic than it would have been otherwise.
The artwork – as I have said time and time again, I am pretty picky when it comes to manga art, and though Fruits Basket is now one of my favorite manga series of all time, it would be a lie to say that I liked the art. There are times when the artwork is acceptable and even pretty, but it is definitely old school. There are also moments where the quality dips, which is explained by the author in the Collector's Edition, as it turns out she was unable to use her main drawing hand for a time due to an injury. There was also a long hiatus between certain volumes, so the evolution of the art is a bit jarring between some volumes.
I also found the ending to be a bit rushed. We spent so long talking about the curse and how long the curse had plagued the Sohma family, only for it to all wrap up cleanly within a few chapters. I was hoping something a bit more substantial would have occurred before the end, but it didn't. It was pretty much Akito deciding it was time, and that was all it took. There really wasn't much explanation as to why a few of the members broke the curse without Akito's help, which I would have liked. I wish each member had emotional growth that naturally led to the curse-breaking rather than them having to rely on Akito for it to happen.
Is the art my favorite? No. Does the story completely overshadow any qualms I might have had with the artwork? Oh, yes. I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys manga, and I think I would even recommend this to people who are just now getting into manga. If you like shōjo manga, then you will love this as it is quintessential shōjo goodness – this coming from someone who doesn't go out of her way to read shōjo, just to note.
Have you read Fruits Basket? If so, what do you think? Do you agree with my assessment? Do you not? Let me know, and comment below!