Friday, July 1, 2016

FRUITS BASKET by Natsuki Takaya (Volumes 1-12) Part I


It was last year when I realized that I am so done with shoujo manga stories (especially in a school setting). It wasn't as if it was a constant presence in my life growing up or anything, but after a while I realized that its formulaic sweetness and often predictable climactic moments just doesn't appeal to me anymore. In fact, there are only three shoujo manga stories I was really into and two of them were adapted to anime which I preferred (Ouran Kouko Hostabu and Kimi ni Todoke), and one was a manga series I followed and read because I related to the heroine (Yamato Nadeshiko Shichi Henge). 

But last year I read a fairly recent and popular one alongside a josei manga (Sakamichi no Apollon, baby!). I even forgot its title and NO, I'm not even going to bother googling it. The fact on the matter is that I'm a twenty-six year old woman and, as much as my nerdy inclinations make it seem like I'm not an adult functioning in my fullest capacity, there are just some stories about teenage relationships that don't click with me at this point in my life. I'm a sucker for coming-of-age stories, true, but the ones that get to me were usually the ones I've come across back when I was also a teenager on the verge of self-discovery and sexuality. So reading a shoujo manga series now at my age presented problems.

That's never to say the shoujo romance genre isn't producing good stuff anymore. In fact, there are two series right now which I adore, but were more or less a parody of the genre (Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun), or a change in perspective where the male love interest is the protagonist (Ore Monogatari). Those two for me were exceptions. Others are the same formula of girl-meets-boy (girl is bland/clumsy/pure-hearted while boy is popular/bad-boy/pretty-boy/emotionally closed-off) and the entire volumes would stretch out their will-they-won't-they as they get into shenanigans with their oddball friends and the run-in-the-mill bully, etc. You know, that formula. Anyway, enough about me and let's talk about Fruits Basket.


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Much like any shoujo romance in a school setting, Fruits Basket has those same elements that adhere to its genre's conventions. If you've been reading manga long enough, you'd catch my drift. The reason I chose to read this series was because it was commercially successful and received rave reviews and praises for its story and characterizations of its ensemble cast. It ran for twenty-three volumes, though, and since I have other material to read and review for this month of July, I have to cut down to finishing only twelve of them. I'm probably going to pick up this series again...next year. I have plenty of things scheduled for 2016 and this wasn't that much of a priority. So please keep in mind that my official review for this series is based on the first 12 volumes and only those.

Let's keep it simple: I thoroughly recommend this series. If you're a teen looking for something sweet, earnest and heartbreaking, then Fruits Basket fits the criteria to the tee. If you're my age, and you could look past genre conventions or don't even have my personal bias, then this manga will tug at your heart-strings as well. Let me break it down for you:



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THE STORY


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Tohru Honda is your average nice girl whose mother just passed away so she had to live on her own. She became neighbors with a mysterious family who has a dark secret they keep under wraps. This family belonged to the Souma clan whose members were apparently cursed to transform into the 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac every time someone of the opposite sex hugs them. It's a pretty quirky premise that could be potentially wacky and entertainingly disastrous which was why you will never see coming the underlying poignancy and emotionally stirring revelations that Fruits Basket impressively tackles. 

The story is at its most heartfelt whenever it focuses on a character's struggle with self-love, pursuit of acceptance from his or her peers, and courage to stand up for themselves in the face of diversity. As much as there are moments in the volumes that annoy me because it still has those shoujo romance antics that I find grating by now, Fruits Basket can be an immense tear-jerker too. I find that it's when I underestimate the series that it finds a way to shine. Sure, a few volumes out of the twelves ones I read made me skim the pages a bit, but there were four or six of them that were solid in both content and substance. 

Those were the volumes that got high ratings either because they touched upon a delicate topic and handled with maturity, or they focused on a particularly favorite character and made them evolve as better people. This is definitely one shoujo manga series that may not be always interesting but when it drives home a point, that resonates with a reader, even with someone who can be a tad cynical about PG-13 romances. 

Hey, I told you I don't like this genre anymore, so the fact that I'm singing praises for a manga that is beholden to said grating genre should say something!




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THE CHARACTERS


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In the course of the series, Tohru Honda gets introduced to each new relative from the Souma clan, all the while there are three core male characters she interacts with on a daily basis after she moved in with them. They're the dog, mouse and cat signs of the zodiac: Shigure, Yuki and Kyo respectively. The last two were the ones she has a love triangle with. Tohru is also surrounded by two close female friends whose backstories will be revealed as the manga progresses. Meanwhile, each chapter would feature a new relative from the Souma clan who were also cursed, and their characters and conflicts will be then explored if not resolved just a little through their key interactions with the lead heroine Tohru. 

In a sense, there is definitely an established formula to how the stories is framed and patterned. It could get a little worn-out in some chapters; even Tohru with her bleeding heart and good intentions can be such a cliché (if not altogether bland), and the pacing and main conflict with the antagonist were both drawn out since that's just how the genre works.

However, they say that the strength of an ensemble cast can make or break the plot of a book or show, and Fruits Basket was able to accomplish the former because each secondary character introduced is well-developed with core weaknesses, issues and surprising warmth and humanity. These characters have been cursed to live with shameful secret of transforming into animals, and while the manga does play up on the cuteness factor of those transformations, the trauma and alienation that it entails with were still addressed and explored.

I believe what made Fruits Basket such an awesome series and why it got such an acclaimed reception is the way the mangaka lovingly crafted each character that instantly makes them personable, sympathetic and gosh-darn endearing. The manga series has 23 volumes, so it does take its time weaving plots and progressing through meaningful climactic moments, but the slow-burn quality of the journey has fantastic moments of character insights in between that more than makes up for whatever flaws its narrative has. This is still a slice-of-life manga after all. I can't count all the ways so many moments between or among characters have made me tear up, especially when the mangaka delivers emotionally resonant themes about family politic, friendships, self-acceptance and bereavement. 

Tohru's role as the protagonist does make it seem like she's often standing still, serving more as an anchor or as someone who merely reacts with a new character in a way that makes it accessible to readers. That being said, she eventually gets some depth and character development later on. Kyo and Yuuki, the lead males, also grow and evolve alongside her. I have a strong preference over the tortured and hot-headed Kyo as her love interest than Yuuki, mostly because I like getting to know Kyo better, and Yuuki just came off flat to me at times (but he's beginning to change too, and that's great).

This is my ship, yo!


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FAVORITE QUOTES


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In a nutshell, Fruits Basket is a splendid shoujo manga series that almost breaks the formula every now and then, starring a beautiful and relatable ensemble cast you will easily love, and tackles real-life issues in an earnest way that doesn't pander to the readers, or diminish said issues' seriousness by belittling their message.

RECOMMENDED: 8/10

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