I had just returned from my enforced stay at the cozy padded cell my family had kindly sent me to after I had watched and reviewed Hare and Guu for this site, when what did I see the nice folks at DVDTalk had sent me as a welcome home present? Another complete anime series based on a popular manga (serialized comic strip), this time the equally bizarre Fruits Basket, which, if it were not for the strangely placed plural, might adequately describe my permanent state of mind after having watched it. This particular series, evidently geared toward young girls, may not have the surreal elements of Hare and Guu (well, not all of them, anyway), but it certainly maintains the Japanese penchant for supposed children's entertainment that at the very least pushes the envelope of what American audiences are used to, and what some of them may find questionable for their younger children to watch.
Fruits Basket (the incorrect plural results from the peculiarities of transliterating English into Japanese) takes its name from a traditional Japanese game that schoolchildren play. Children all take the name of a different fruit and then sit in a circle; when their fruit's name is called, they must then find a different seat (kind of like musical chairs). In this particular instance, the manga's heroine, the young girl Tohru Honda, had been assigned the name "riceball," which is not, in case you hadn't noticed, a fruit. Therefore she would never be called on and could not really play the game. The title therefore serves as a metaphor for Honda's exclusion, and, more generally, as a comment on the outsider status of several of the series' characters. The series is subtitled "a fairytale for the rejected," and that's an apt summary.
The series starts with Honda living in a tent in the forest after her mother is killed in a car accident, and her only other relative, her grandfather, is unable to care for her due to his home remodeling (like I said, this is not your standard Disney fare, ladies and gentlemen). Honda is a sweet, conscientious and determined girl who works evenings as a janitor in order not to burden her grandfather with expenses. Walking through the forest one day, she happens upon a house, which it turns out belongs to the family of the reigning social "prince" of her school, Yuki Sohma. When Tohru's tent, and her last remaining vestiges of her life with her mother, are buried in a landslide, the Sohmas invite her to live with them, not just out of kindness, but also because they're filthy pigs and Honda makes for an efficient maid.
This then sets up the central plot twist of the series, which I will not reveal here. Suffice it to say the Sohmas are protecting a dark family secret, one that ties into Honda's fascination with the Japanese zodiac and the animals that inhabit its various yearly cycles, and one that also plays into the traditional anime trope of beings who can transform themselves. The fact that Honda soon realizes she may not be as "outside" as she had previously thought is at the emotional core of the series.
Fruits Basket has a sweetness of spirit and (like Hare and Guu) a subversive comedic element that set it apart from a lot of other anime projects. Tohru emerges as a very compelling heroine, one who must constantly overcome adversity, and who does so with an almost Pollyanna-ish optimism. That said, the series has an equally dark undercurrent running just beneath its seemingly placid surface, due not only to Tohru's loss of family, but the Sohmas' own hidden tribulations.
The visual style of the series is strangely monochromatic for an anime series, with little of the colorful flash that can decorate other Japanese animation. There's a muted quality to the design which may be an intentional reflection of the emotional turmoil the characters find themselves in, though Tohru Honda's huge, beautiful "Keane" eyes virtually fill the screen whenever they're on. The English voicework is uniformly excellent, full of the patently over the top line readings that permeate most animes. The series does feature some unusual, quick-cutting (and sometimes non-linear) editing that helps add punch to the overall feel of the piece.
The series, which lasted 26 episodes, suffers from a certain incomplete feeling due to its having ceased production before the manga tied up several story arcs. Therefore, don't expect happy endings all around by the final episode, or even very many satisfactory explanations for some of the vagaries of the plot.
Though most anime lovers are probably going to delight in Fruits Basket, its main audience will probably be young girls in the 8-12 age range. Younger children may find some of the story elements disturbing, and older kids will probably find the whole thing passé, though teens with a dark sense of humor may get a kick out of the "zingers" that dot each episode.
The full frame image is sharp and detailed, if (as described above) a little lackluster in the color department (not a transfer issue, but one of the actual animation).
The standard Dolby soundtrack sounds great. Voices tend to be front and center, with little attention paid to separation, but that's really of no consequence in a show like this.
A featurette chronicles the background of both the manga and the television series. Don't be confused by the first few minutes, which look like a "coming attractions" trailer (which indeed it is)--it's simply the way the featurette starts. There are also three "Fruits Basket Room" featurettes, live action interviews hosted by Yui Horie, the original Japanese voice of Tohru Honda, as well as a separate interview with Japanese anime master (and adaptor of this series) Akitaroh Daichi. Rounding out the extras are some galleries, character profiles, and the ability to watch the opening and closing credits (with their catchy theme songs) without text.
Fruits Basket is yet another completely unique anime project that will appeal to most fans of this genre. Full of fantasy elements and nice tie-ins to Japanese mythologies, it creates an alternate universe where any "outsider" will feel at home. I've just been told those nice men in white are here for me again; I need to go.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet