I make this post with some trepidation, because I think there are at least a couple of people waiting anxiously to hear what I think of this series, and it seems completely wrong that the first thing I’m writing since I’ve finished it may appear a bit negative. So first of all, I want to be perfectly clear about one thing: I love Fruits Basket. I really love it. The characters in Fruits Basket have been permanently affixed to my heart, and I am thrilled about that. Oh what characters! I love every single one of them. (Note to Ysabet: Wow do I understand why you love who you love best now.) The series has so much charm and is filled with such wonder and sweet, sweet humanity. Really, I am very happily in love with it. There is exactly one thing that bothered me at all while reading the series (and really, “bothered” is a pretty strong word), but for whatever reason, that’s what I feel most moved to speak about right now. So here goes.
I mentioned Sarah Rees Brennan’s post lamenting the lack of good female characters in fiction (and discussing why she loves them when they are there), but really, I could not complain at all about this series in that sense. The primary female characters in Fruits Basket are uniformly awesome. They are complex and interesting, and each of them is richly drawn. If someone asked me to recommend a manga series for girls with strong female characters, it would be near the top of my list. The one caveat I’d have, and I’d probably mention it at the outset, is that I think the series promotes the concept that what girls want most and what they need to be happy is marriage. Tohru mentions this in the very first volume (that marriage is every girl’s dream), and this idea persists to the end.
Obviously this is a romance manga, so it’s not that I expect it to focus on something other than male/female romance. Neither am I suggesting that there is anything wrong with Tohru’s desire to be a wife and mother. What I’m perhaps most saddened by is the fact that the manga presents so much opportunity for real exploration of gender roles in modern society, but fails to follow through. To show you want I mean, I’ll look at three characters in particular (spoilers start here):
Ritsu Sohma: Ritsu, who is male, frequently wears women’s clothing, because it makes him feel more calm. What bothers me a little is how clear it is made that everyone (including him) is certain that this is shameful (or at least inappropriate), and that the text suggests that it is his low self-esteem and emotional problems that are the cause for his preference. Even Tohru, who compliments him on how wonderful he looks in women’s clothing, seems to realize that this is not something she should actually encourage. This saddens me.
Ayame Sohma: Ayame seems at first to be written as a gay character, almost stereotypically so. He is loud and flamboyant, designs women’s costumes for a living, has an ongoing joke with Shigure where they pretend to be lovers, and once invited the boys in his school to turn their lustful feelings toward him as a, uh, service. Still, by the end of the manga, when the curse of the zodiac is finally lifted, he professes his love to his female assistant, presumably to head to the alter along with everyone else.
Akito Sohma: Akito is really the most interesting here, and provides the most potential for discussion. A woman who was raised as a man, she displays an intense hatred for other women, or at least for women who she sees as a threat to her control over the Sohma men. It is made pretty obvious that she hates women, but there isn’t a lot of discussion over why, and I think that could have been very interesting. Does she despise herself for being female? Certainly her mother’s intense jealousy and insistence that she be raised as male must have damaged her horribly. It seems, too, that a person being raised (unwillingly) as the wrong gender must be very much like being born the wrong gender, which could lead to an interesting exploration of being transgender. Yet at the end of the series, when her bond with the members of the zodiac is broken, Akito puts on a kimono and that’s that. It feels too simple, somehow.
These are just a few examples, but I do feel that overall, the author wrote in all these great opportunities to challenge traditional gender roles, and then took the easy way out each time. It’s still a great story, but it could have been even greater.
Again, I want to stress that I love Fruits Basket. As big as this issue seems when I dedicate an entire entry to it, it honestly did not detract from my enjoyment of the series in the slightest. It’s a series I love very much, and that I will read again and again. But over the course of the past few days, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about these characters, and if I could wish for anything more, it would be that the author had been (or been allowed to be) just a little bit braver. It feels to me like she wanted to be.