As mentioned in my last post, I'm admittedly not the biggest fan of Shonen manga.
I am (and always will be), however, one of the biggest connoisseurs of Shoujo and Josei manga.
While Shoujo Manga or "Girls' Comics" are aimed at a younger demographic of femme and women readers in their early to teens, Josei Manga's targeted demographic are women in their late-teens through their forties and onward. While Shoujo Manga typically houses the "Magical Girl" trope and have more idealized depictions of love and romance (Example: Sailor Moon, Cardcaptor Sakura, etc), Josei Manga deals with more down-to-earth and realistic portrayals of life and relationships, and tend to be more sexually graphic.
What I find totally laughable, however, are the widely-accepted notions of Shoujo and Josei comics being...well..."too cute", and therefor lacking any real kind of depth or realism.
Now. #LetMeTellYouWhyThatsBullshit by way of expounding upon the first of six of my favorite Shoujo and Josei titles. Such as...
Fruits Basket (Natsuki Takaya)
On The Surface:
Omg!!! An adorable and sweet Shoujo series about a positively cheery and optimistic orphaned sixteen-year-old girl who is taken in by a mysterious family with a curse upon them that makes them transform into their correlating animal of the Chinese Zodiac when they're hugged by a member of the opposite sex! Adorbs af!
What Lies Beneath:
That is... if your definition of "Adorbs af" is "a plot centered around severe child/adult abuse and neglect, suicide, death, parental abandonment, self-hatred, teenage pregnancy, abusive relationships and a whole lotta other soul-scarring emotional trauma”.
Fruits Basket is the type of ‘harmless’ looking series that starts off cute, innocent, and funny, but quickly takes a sharp left turn into heavier topics you would have never imagined just by glancing at crew above.
The series protagonist is the ever-bubbly and optimistic Tohru Honda; a sixteen-year-old girl who, after being orphaned due to her parents’ death, takes to living with her late father’s relatives who absolutely hate her for no goddamned reason outside of their petty hatred for her mother, Kyoko.
Tohru’s mother, Kyoko, was a notorious gang-member and juvenile delinquent who ran the streets with an all-girl gang that violently terrorized and tormented anyone and everyone. She was skipping school, fighting, mercilessly beating the shit out of people who begged for mercy, shoplifting…she was to the point of being beyond redemption. She earned her moniker “The Red Butterfly” from the way the taillights of her beloved motorcycle would glow as she raced through the night—
Did I mention she was thirteen years old when all of this occurred?
Suffice to say, Kyoko herself didn’t come from the best of homes: her family life was cold—her father was a bastard who only thought of himself, and her mother only cared about her husband, image, and keeping up appearances. And they were exactly the type of parents who blamed Kyoko for turning out the way she did when it was entirely their fault.
Enter Kyoko’s future husband, and Tohru’s father—Katsuya Honda; a man eight years her senior, of whom she met, "miraculously" in Kyoko's own words, at the same middle school she constantly skipping, while he was interning in reluctant preparation to become a teacher (and who looks suspiciously like an older version of his future son-in-law, Kyo Sohma (pictured above)).
When Katsuya and Kyoko met, he was twenty-one, and she was thirteen.
After being violently confronted by her teachers for not adhering to the school’s strict dress code (along with her violating every other school rule in the book), Kyoko snaps entirely and gets to swinging chairs at people. All of teachers except for Katsuya leave the room, and he coolly asks her why she’s so angry. She hurls all thirteen years of fury at him; insulting him, calling him an annoying prick, and all the while balling her fist so tightly that she cut into the palms of her hand with her nails enough for them bleed and stained the tips of her nails.
Kyoko eventually breaks down in a heartwrenching fit of despair and screams out how lonely she is, and how she hates the type of person she is now—that she’d never been loved in her entire life and she just wanted someone to care for her. Katsuya, endeared by her so freely crying and admitting to her loneliness—something he laments that he himself wishes he could do—decides then and there to leave school for the rest of the day and takes a shocked Kyoko to get some ramen. Kyoko stays questioning his motives as the relationship between them quickly turns Kyoko into a comical tsundere character who decides she wants to turn her life around.
Unfortunately, the mistakes of her past catch up with her in the form of a severe beatdown from all of the girls in her gang when Kyoko quits for good, thus causing her to miss the exams which subsequently leads her to be expelled from her middle school. On top of that, the same day she is released from the hospital is the same day her parents disown and disinherit her her as they kick her out, and break her down verbally, as Kyoko bitterly laments over how its time to finally reap what she’s sown.
Katsuya appears at that very moment, casually calls her parents out on their bullshit, and casually announces his intention to marry her—much to Kyoko’s shock, as she thinks he’s only doing it to be nice. He asks her father if he minds, to which he doesn't since he's disowned her. Kyoko, in something of a panic, tells Katsuya there's no need to go so far just because he feels sorry for her.
Katsuya adamantly lets her know he’s in love with her, and she agrees to marry him. They settle in for a life of wedded bliss—very much against the wishes of his family, and the ill-wishes of Kyoko's parents.
Out of all of the chapters in the Fruits Basket, the ones that tell the story of Kyoko and Katsuya’s love are my favorite ones; and Kyoko quickly became my favorite character in the entire series. Why?
Because we both became self-destructive people as a result of childhood negligence and abuse; hated what we had become, and eventually resolved try harder. And there's one more thing:
Kyoko and I share the same paralyzing fear of having children, stemmed from the same reason; growing up in an abusive household, and as children of neglect, we both feared becoming the type of people that raised us into what we are today.
For Kyoko’s part, it’s how honestly and openly she explains this to Katsuya in a emotional derecho of painful tears and despair upon finding out she’s pregnant that endears her to me so much. She tells Katsuya her biggest fear is that her child will hate her—and how nothing would destroy her more to have her own child tell Kyoko the same thing Kyoko said to her mother: “Who the hell asked you to have me? I never asked to be born!”
Katsuya calmly reminds her that because she is aware of the mistakes her parents made—and that she understands her child is a human being that deserves love—she won’t become the same type of mother hers was. They happily agree to have the baby, and at the age of fourteen, Kyoko gives birth to their daughter, of whom they name “Tohru” (a traditionally 'boyish' name in Japan).
The three of them live a peaceful and happy life until Katsuya dies from pneumonia while on a business trip at the age of twenty-five, when Kyoko is just seventeen, and Tohru is three—and mere hours after excitedly discussing the idea of having another child.
Now having to cope with losing the only man who ever loved her, along being a seventeen-year-old widowed, jobless single mother and middle school dropout (plus Katsuya’s and her family emotionally beating her down), Kyoko falls headlong into a very severe bout of depression that leads her to neglect Tohru to the point of not speaking to her or holding her for weeks on end, and being unable to recall the last time Tohru ate.
She ‘snaps’ out of it only after coming dangerously close to committing suicide-by-drowning to follow her beloved, when she remembers she has a daughter to care for. She returns home in tears and apologizes to Tohru, swearing to be a better mother. For Tohru’s part, she begins of her own free will to act and sound just like father, right down to mimicking his speech patterns, as a way to ease her mother’s pain.
For the next several years, Kyoko and Tohru live as the center of each other’s world, enjoying a beautiful relationship right up until Kyoko dies tragically in a car accident when Tohru is sixteen, which leads to Tohru living with her paternal grandfather, a kindly old man who lives with Tohru’s shitty aunt, uncle, and cousin who treat Tohru like garbage, despite her always trying to smile and be optimistic about the entire situation.
When the house needs renovations, Tohru, knowing her grandfather is deeply concerned, lies to him about having a place to stay until the renovations are complete, and sets up a little tent in the woods with little more than her schoolbooks, uniform, and her cherished framed picture of her late mother—all while juggling school, a part-time job that runs late into the night, and having little time to mourn her mother’s death.
One morning, as she’s walking through the forest on her way to school, she spots a house she’s never noticed before and finds herself looking at a painted set of the Twelve Animals of the Chinese Zodiac, left out on the veranda to dry. She meets the owner of the house, twenty-six year old Shigure Sohma, who finds it interesting when Tohru kindly points out the fact he’s missing the thirteenth member of the Zodiac: the Cat, who as the old folktale goes, was shunned by the other twelve animals of the zodiac. Upon hearing this story from her mother at an early age, Tohru comically casts away her natural Zodiac sign (The Year of the Dog) and declares she’ll be the Year of the Cat.
Just as Shigure (also The Year of the Dog) starts to hit on her, he’s checked by his sixteen-year-old cousin —and the “prince” of Tohru’s high school— Yuki Sohma. Tohru is completely shocked, given Yuki is the school’s idol, what with his soft and polite princely charm, his intelligence, and his aloofness. Both Shigure and Yuki find it odd when they ask what Tohru is doing in (literally) their neck of the woods, and she nervously replies she ‘lives nearby’, not wanting to divulge her desperate living situation, and completely unaware that the entire land belongs to the Sohma family.
Later on that night, as Yuki and Shigure are returning home from eating out, they spot Tohru returning to her tent, weary from work. As Tohru is re-exiting the tent to wash up in the river, she finds herself looking up and into the confused faces of Yuki and Shigure—
Which, in turn, sends Shigure into a fit of hysterical laughter that lasts two entire scenes because Shigure is the series’ token dickhead:
Only after a landslide buries Tohru’s tent and Tohru comes down with a fever from overworking, is she invited to rest at Shigure and Yuki’s home, where she talks about her sad living situation—all the while stressing that in spite of everything, she isn’t suffering (and even says her struggles aren’t nearly as difficult as the suffering of other people), and how she must complete her and her mother’s dream of graduating high school. She even admits she feels responsible for her mother dying because she always told her mother "be safe" upon leaving the house, but the night before the accident, Tohru had stayed up late studying and was asleep when her mother left for work the following morning.
The next day, Shigure invites Tohru to live rent-free at the house as their housekeeper in exchange for being responsible for cooking, cleaning, and other household duties—
Namely because Yuki and Shigure are total slobs who can 't even cook for themselves, much less keep a clean house:
The following day, as Yuki is showing Tohru her new room, the roof caves in bringing it with the wildly destructive and violent Kyo Sohma who has returned to fight Yuki one-on-one and doesn’t even notice Tohru until she jumps out to hold back Kyo in an effort to stop him, only to slip on a piece of broken wood from Kyo's elegant entrance.
And that's when things get a liiiiittle weird:
Tohru eventually calms down long enough for Shigure to explain the situation, only it doesn't exactly go smoothly, and catapults Tohru right back into hysteria:
And its only after Tohru learns about the Sohma family curse (and promises to keep it a secret for obvious reasons) does the story begin to gradually take darker turns as the series progresses:
Along with being introduced to the ten other cursed members of the Sohma family, Tohru meets the violent and dangerous head of the family, Akito, who is looked upon with great fear and reverence as “God” due to the sadistic and cruel way Akito treats the thirteen cursed Sohmas:
Who is believed to be a male by just about the entire Sohma family, which in turns leads to one of the most shocking plots twist for both the family and Fruits Basket fans worldwide, upon later discovering Akito was actually a woman (having been forced to be raised as a man in due part to Akito's godawful and hateful mother), Ren.
It's also worth mentioning that because the anime adaption of Fruits Basket only spanned twenty-six or so episodes, and waaaaay before the big reveal in the manga years later, Akito is originally male in the anime. Also worth mentioning that as the Year Of The Dog, Shigure is the closest one to Akito in both the anime and manga (in more ways than one), having been in love with Akito since she was a child.
(Also: everyone in the immediate Sohma family are cousins; there is a lot of Kissing/Marrying/Procreating Cousin-cest in this series. A. Lot.)
There's a six or seven year age difference in between them, with Akito being eighteen or nineteen at the beginning of the series (twenty at the end), whereas Shigure is twenty-six at the beginning of the series and around twenty-eight at the end).
Consequently, because Shigure decided to fool around with Akito's mother, Ren, (for no reason outside to make Akito jealous), Akito in turn sleeps with Kureno Sohma (the Year of The Rooster, but in Fruits Basket his transformation is a sparrow) and is her main source of physical and emotional comfort for much of the series:
Kureno, at the end of the series, winds up being freed from Akito, and goes on to marry one of Tohru's two high-school aged two best friends, Arisa Uotani, who was also a former juvenile delinquent that worshipped the legend of Kyoko Honda some ten years ago. Kyoko, now in her late twenties and a mother, would later save Arisa's life by intervening in Arisa's gang-beatdown after Arisa decides she wanted out of the ganglife to become a better friend to Tohru.
Moving on: we learn and see the emotional and psychological tolls the curse has on each member of the family.
One of the earlier characters we meet is the young, sweet, and always energetic, half-German, Momiji Sohma:
Who is The Year of the Rabbit:
Momiji’s mother had a full-blown mental breakdown within seconds of his birth when he transformed into a rabbit as she held him for the first time, and to save her the torment, she had her memory erased, forgetting she ever had a son.
We also meet the man responsible for erasing her memory (and the memory of anyone outside of the Sohma family that discovers their secret); the cold and aloof familial doctor, Hatori Sohma:
Who is the Year of The Dragon, but transforms into an adorable baby seahorse as they're believed in Japanese mythology to grow into dragons upon adulthood (just ask anyone who plays Pokemon and raised a Horsey or Seadra)--
Hatori is blinded in one eye by Akito in a fit of pure rage upon Hatori announcing his intention to marry a woman by the name of Kana. Kana too, has a breakdown, fueled by Akito convincing her that it’s entirely her fault that Hatori is now blinded in one eye—which leaves Hatori no other choice but to erase her memory of him and their love so that she may live happily and peacefully.
The one who suffers the most out of everyone in the series is The Year of The Cat—Kyo. He, unlike the rest of cursed members of the zodiac, has a second, hideous and monstrous form, the likes of which produces the sickening smell of rotting flesh:
And its more than just his grotesque form, cruel treatment by the other members of the zodiac, or even him facing the same fate that befell all Year of The Cats that came before him, and being confined permanently to a small prison for the rest of his life:
When Kyo was just a child, his mother was driven to a violent suicide when she threw herself in front of a moving train---and the one who drove her to that point was Kyo's cruel and hateful biological father, who then turned around and repeatedly blamed Kyo for why it happened.
And it doesn't end there, folks: Long after Tohru saw and accepted Kyo's true form, it's revealed that Kyo is harboring the darkest secret of the entire series; one that keeps him believing that he he deserve the right to love Tohru, nor be loved by her:
As a child, Kyo met and became close with Tohru's mother, Kyoko, who would talk endlessly about Tohru, and told him the story of how she met Katsuya. Years later, as Kyo was in route to finally meet Tohru for the very first time, he witnessed Kyoko's accident with his own eyes...and though he could have saved Kyoko as she lay dying right in front of him, saving her meant he would have to hold her and then his curse would be exposed.
In her final moments, Kyoko's last words to Kyo were: "...I'll never forgive you", damning Kyo to a lifetime of further sorrow and guilt as he runs away from the horrifying scene in shame.
Towards the end of the manga, it's revealed that during one of the times Kyo went to meet up with Kyoko as a child, Tohru somehow got lost which, understandably, pitched Kyoko into a massive fit of parental hysteria. Kyo approached her and promised to find her and protect her. In that same chapter, another plot-twist was revealed: Yuki, having run away from home and away from Akito's abuse, had been the one to find Tohru, meaning both Kyo and Yuki had some kind of interaction with Tohru and her mother almost a decade before the events of Fruits Basket.
Embarrassed and angry that the member of the zodiac that had caused him the most grief had been the one to find Tohru, Kyo takes of running after Kyoko and Tohru are reunited. Kyoko shouts after him with a smile: "Don't forget your promise!", knowing Kyo will one day honor his promise to be the one that protects her daughter in the future.
And as Kyoko lay dying years later, it's revealed that her final words to Kyo were but a part of what she truly meant:
"If you don't keep your promise...I'll never forgive you."
You wouldn't think this story has a happy ending, but it does:
There was only one way to break the Sohma family curse: by someone loving and accepting The Cat unconditionally; a feat never achieved, until Kyo admitted he loved Tohru, who returned his feelings.
What's more is that Akito (after Tohru had shown her the same love and compassion just as she had all the members of the zodiac, despite Akito attempting to kill Tohru at one point), the head of the family and possessed by the spirit of the same possessive God who initially brought the original Zodiac Animals together to live with him for eternity, had to learn to let the animals of the zodiac go free, thus finally bringing to an end a curse that had lasted for well over hundreds of years.
With the curse broken, the freed members of the Sohma family go on to begin their lives. Kyo and Tohru marry, and later welcome their first and only child, a son they name "Hajime", meaning "Beginning", symbolizing him being that he is the first child of the Sohma family to be born without the weight of the tragic curse of the Cat.
The final pages of the manga show an elderly Kyo and Tohru contently walking hand-in-hand among a garden of flowers and relishing in the beauty of the world around them.
...Aaand now I'm crying.
(Tomorrow: "A Good Girl Can Change A Bad Boy Forever": A Look A Fuyumi Soryu's Award Winning Shoujo: 'Mars')