Today I thought I’d diverge from the usual patter about books, writing, tearing my own hair out, moving woes, and Taylor Swift in favor of a different sort of review. Yahtzee Croshaw of Zero Punctuation fame would call this a “Retro Review” because I’m going to talk about something that is so old it’s not even in print anymore.
You see, moving in to my new place has given me a chance to get all my books out of storage and put them on the bookshelf I bought. And once I filled up that shelf I had to run to Target to buy another one because honestly how did I think I was going to get away with having only one bookshelf? Anyway, I’m going to be reviewing a Manga. For those who don’t know, “Manga” is Japanese for “comic book.” Also for those who don’t know, admitting to reading Manga immediately causes other people to staple a very specific label to your face.
I know it’s cliche to say this, but I’m not into labels.
I took Japanese in college because I wanted to learn a non-Romance language, and I thought attempting to learn Mandarin would lead me to insulting someone’s mother, due to the fact that Mandarin is intonational. So I took Japanese. Later I found out that this made me a “Weeaboo” in other people’s estimation. A white person who desperately wants to be a character from an Anime, and who fulfills this fantasy by learning Japanese (the wrong way) by watching Anime, going to Comic Con dressed as a cat/human hybrid, buying posters of Sasuke from Naruto to murmur sweet nothings to, and writing abhorrent, self-insert Fan Fiction.
This is not me, I’m afraid. In fact, to date I’ve only read three Manga series. I liked two out of three, but I only love one of them enough to review it here, because the story was so engrossing. I have, admittedly, watched an Anime or two. When I was younger I watched Dragonball Z and Cardcaptors, and I’ll admit I’m still a fan. But that’s about it. Never even wrote a Fan Fic, although apparently that’s where the money is these days. (That was a dig at E. L. James. Yes, I am petty.)
So, the manga I like. The only manga I own. Fruits Basket.
It may be a weird title, but I will tell you that when you find out the reason for it, your heart will disintegrate. At least mine did. If you’re curious and don’t care about spoilers, I will write out the explanation below this post.
Fruits Basket follows Tohru Honda, a high school girl who just recently lost her mother in a freak accident and has nowhere to live. (Her father died when she was a toddler) Through a series of ridiculous events, which tend to typify the genre, Tohru ends up being invited to live with a schoolmate of hers who belongs to a powerful and mysterious family. Through another series of ridiculous events, she finds out that the family is cursed by the thirteen animals of the zodiac, and when they are hugged by a member of the opposite sex, they turn into those animals. Sounds ridiculous, right? It’s supposed to be at first. It’s funny and kooky and you find yourself thinking, “Ha. I see. This will be a funny and kooky story that will make me giggle and forget I am an adult for a while.”
Then the story sucker punches you, apologizes for that with some more fun kookiness, and then punches you again. That’s pretty much how reading the whole series goes. The author, Natsuki Takaya, somehow managed to seamlessly intertwine serious psychological pain, lighthearted ridiculousness, and real hard-hitting emotion. The cast is an ensemble which grows considerably as more members of the cursed family are introduced, but not one character feels incomplete or two dimensional. They are all completely fleshed out with their own personalities and their own demons.
For those who are aware of the zodiac, you will notice I said there were thirteen animals, not twelve. That is because the cat is also a member of this family, though there is no cat in the zodiac. The reason for this, the story will tell you, is due to the rat’s trickery. But there is still a member of this family who is cursed by the cat’s spirit – Kyo – and he is shunned by all others, treated like a freak and a pariah. Ironically, since they’d all be treated that way if other people found out about their condition.
Kyo’s personal growth is captivating, but the fact of the matter is that there are layers of pain and hurt underneath all the family members’ facades of indifference or, in the case of Momiji the rabbit, relentless perkiness.
It is hard for me to put these books down. They really grab you, and the ending, while satisfying, still left me in tears the first time. It is so well written, yet most people would not pick it up because of the stigma attached to reading Manga. The fact of the matter is that American or British literature wouldn’t be able to get away with a silly story about people who turn into animals when hugged. My argument is maybe they should give it a try. Ridiculous as the premise is, it’s also safe to say you’ve never read anything like it before. The market is inundated with vampire novels, romance stories that involve a plucky heroine and a mysterious hero, teenagers coming of age while surrounded by a miasma of angst and high school drama. There is a cry for true originality, yet if it comes in the form of a Japanese comic book, people want nothing to do with it.
All I’m saying is, give something new a chance, and don’t worry about the labels, man.
That’s all. Scroll down to see the story behind Fruits Basket.
Fruits Basket – After Tohru has been established as a character, you come to understand that she is the type of person who refuses to let life get her down. Even in the face of tragedy, she finds a way to smile. She has a strength of spirit to her that other people misconstrue as stupidity sometimes.
Then she tells a story of when she was in elementary school, back when her mother was still alive. The kids would all play a game called “Fruits Basket,” which is something like tag. Everyone sits in a circle and gets assigned a fruit – apple, banana, etc. – and when that fruit is named, they get to stand up and join the game. When Tohru played, she was labeled an onigiri – a Japanese snack that is made with rice and seaweed. She recounted the story of how she sat in her little chair and watched other kids join the game as apple, banana, and melon were called out. But she was never included, because “there is no onigiri in a fruits basket.” There is a picture of little Tohru simply sitting and waiting, watching the game unfold without ever being allowed to join in.
So yeah, Fruits Basket is a weird title, but I completely understand why it’s called that. Even though this scene, this memory, was so incidental, it encapsulates so much of the story.
Children can be so cruel.
Okay, that’s it for real. Thanks for reading!