I understand that I am pushing my luck here. When I rip into Evangelion or Death Note, I am spared by the fact that those shows have a fair number of detractors. Mushoku Tensei is controversial, to say the least, so the ratio of comments agreeing with my points is about 1:1 with comments telling me to kill myself. Yikes, some people take anime too seriously.
Fruits Basket, though, is almost inconspicuously not controversial. In 2022, there are few anime I would say are universally beloved, especially because you’re always going to have those people on Twitter saying that it’s mid. Fruits Basket, ever since receiving the Brotherhood Treatment, has received near unanimous acclaim. The final season is the sixth most highly-rated anime of all time on MAL, beating out the likes of Hunter X Hunter, Monster, and Code freaking Geass. So yes, I’m aware that asking this question is playing with fire.
But it’s definitely odd to have received so much praise. Slice-of-life and rom coms have a fair number of greats, but people on My Anime List really love Gintama, and this show has beaten out like half of Gintama, so yes, I’m curious. I don’t necessarily doubt that Fruits Basket is great, but I certainly have to see for myself.
So, does Fruits Basket live up to all that hype, or is it just overrated?
Fruits Basket was created by Natsuki Takaya and published in the semi-monthly shojo magazine Hana to Yume, and received an anime adaptation by Studio Deen in 2001, which was less than ideal. The original has its fans, but Takaya ran into disagreements with the creative team overseeing the anime, and it diverged from its source material in many ways.
In 2019, though, the series was revived for another anime adaptation by TMS Entertainment, and goodness gracious, the shojo community has not let anybody forget about it since. I don’t want to be critical just of people getting excited, especially since shojo gets so few breakout hits, but the hype surrounding Fruits Basket raised my expectations considerably.
Tohru Honda is the kind of protagonist you read about in “Writing Shojo Manga for Dummies”, and that’s actually not a knock against her. The series works precisely because Tohru is what we expect of the genre. She’s flighty and tends to be airheaded, but she’s incredibly kind and empathetic, and compensates for her shortcomings in traditional intelligence and social graces with an impressive work ethic and her eager to please nature.
She’s down on her luck, though, since her mother passed, and while she’s supposed to be living with her grandfather, his house is under construction, and Tohru’s just too sweet to put anyone else out, so she’s living in a tent in the woods. I guess that’s one way to handle that issue, but her luck is about to change when she meets the Somas, an offshoot of a rich mysterious family.
There’s Shigure, an author perpetually dodging his deadlines, the handsome prince of her school, Yuki, and eventually Yuki’s hot-headed rival Kyo. Their family owns the land that Tohru was camping on, but seeing their dire need for a feminine touch in the home that smells like wet dog in more ways than one, and her need for a house that isn’t blown away in a mild storm, they come to new living arrangments.
That agreement is complicated once Tohru learns that the Somas have an animalistic side to them…literally. When any of the three are hugged by someone of the opposite sex, they transform into an animal of the Chinese Zodiac. They’re not alone, either; thirteen Somas are possessed by the spirits of the Zodiac, not counting Kyo, the cat, who is typically excluded from the count, and Akito, the head of the family. Tohru’s life in the Soma household is about to get a lot bigger as she meets each new member of the Zodiac, and learns the dark secrets that such a prestigious family sweeps under the rug.
It’s a tall task for any manga to manage a principal cast of more than a dozen characters; most stories would get sidetracked or fail to give many character sufficient development or screen time. Fruits Basket, though, has managed to work its way around having a cast of twenty-plus distinct characters by solving a problem that has dogged slice-of-life anime for decades.
Slice-of-life is defined by its absence of a story. Life doesn’t have grand narratives, usually, and any story that wants to talk about everyday life is bound to be uneventful. Many anime find workarounds to give their story structure: Hyouka has a mystery of the week, Oregairu has a different student pleading for the Service Club’s help, and so on. Fruits Basket just tells you about its characters for 62 episodes, and finds success in doing so.
There is basically no story, as it is acted out purely through the characters and their interactions, rather than plot beats. If I tried to describe the plot to you, most of it would be “he said, and then she said”. That doesn’t sound satisfying to watch, but it’s easy to grow attached to these characters and their emotional turmoil. Rather than hindering the series, giving all these characters a profound level of depth is the basic building block of the story.
Every character we meet is connected to another character, until we eventually come back to Tohru. We met Kazuma through Kyo, and we met Kyo through Yuki and Shigure. When the series feels like getting complex, it does something like introducing Kureno because Uotani was crushing on him, and then we find out he’s connected to Akito before he ever meets Tohru.
Everyone is tied into a spider web of social connections, with Tohru at its center, but when I write that down and think about it, it just sounds like how people meet in real life. Sure, you meet people by happenstance, but most people get friends by meeting people through friends they already have. It isn’t that Takaya is introducing new characters; each person has an organic reason for being in the story, which we can see in how their lives go on and change without necessarily involving Tohru.
Takaya does this by giving each character some screen time and saying, “go prove to the audience why you deserve to be here”. If I had to guess, I’d say she wrote most character profiles before anything else, connecting their backstories where possible, because it feels like that. Conflict and plot development aren’t contrived or created; it arises naturally from these characters and their clearly defined personalities.
Once a character is this developed, then the story gains momentum because of it. Now that we know this person, whenever they appear in another character’s story, we become more invested. I shook my head somewhere in the second season after they’d run out of new Zodiac characters; I wondered if the anime had any other way of keeping me engaged.
It turns out that somewhere along the way, I lost my interest in the supernatural aspect that initially piqued my interest. Once we knew every member of the Zodiac, I was just as engaged as before, and now for some reason they got me to care about the student council for some reason.
So while I did ask if Fruits Basket is overrated, my answer has changed somewhat. If you asked me earlier, maybe I’d have said yes; it’s good, but not unusually so. Now, though, I realized I was judging by the wrong metrics.
Truthfully, I hate calling something overrated. I could say Steins;Gate or Monogatari are overrated because they’re popular and I don’t like them, but I’ve failed to say anything meaningful about them. I’d rather explain why I don’t like a series or try to understand why it’s popular rather than say, “a lot of people like this and they’re wrong”.
Before I realized that Fruits Basket just isn’t written the same as every other rom com, I thought it was overrated. It was a middling romantic comedy with some funny jokes and likable characters, but it didn’t deserve the acclaim it received. Now, though, I know I was right in the first place; overrated is a silly concept. Some bad shows are popular, some good shows aren’t. You’re better off explaining why you think that way rather than complaining.
Fruits Basket has big emotional moments, lovable characters, and literally every time Ayame and Shigure are on screen, I am unashamed to say I chortled, but that’s not why it’s great. Its quality lies in its unorthodox style of storytelling, and how it makes full use of the time it has. Most slice-of-life don’t deserve 62 episodes; heck, most slice-of-life don’t deserve the runtime they get. Weaker series like Toradora or Maid-Sama don’t need 25 episodes, and would be a lot better with a shorter runtime, but I wouldn’t cut a second of Fruits Basket with a gun to my head.
Even in its slowest moments, the plot is constantly at work, and each new character has the potential to shake up the grander narrative. If I reduced Fruits Basket to the outline of its plot, you’d lose your mind trying to figure out how this got to be as long as it is. However, that rich character writing means that the rare plot point is made more meaningful and resonates with the audience.
My problem is that I tried to watch this like it was other great rom coms I know. Don’t walk into Fruits Basket thinking you’ll get the same treatment, because it really feels different. Maybe some of that is that it was published two decades before many of its competitors, but even by standards of the time, Fruits Basket isn’t run of the mill. Give it a closer look, because if you’re not looking at the hardware beneath the veneer of typical shojo manga, you might not find anything special.
Fruits Basket has given me a greater appreciation for slice-of-life as a genre, because I’ll admit, I was narrow-minded to think that the current trends somehow held the advantage. We get a lot of rom coms that follow the gag manga formula, which are punctuated by big emotional climaxes, ala Kaguya and Horimiya, but art isn’t so simple, and it refuses to be put in a box. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
So, Fruits Basket is not overrated, and I’d be okay if we put that term out to pasture. If this last season of Demon Slayer has taught me anything, it’s that “overrated” exists solely as a buzzword for people on Twitter to try and drum up their engagement. Next time you want to call something overrated, try picking apart why so many people like it, and see what you find.
So, whether you think Fruits Basket is a masterpiece or you’re still sputtering and raging that I called Toradora mid, let me know in the comments, or over on Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku. I appreciate comments that spark discussion, and I do not appreciate comments involving death threats or say that in Mushoku Tensei, “in their world they are not underage technically”. I have already forwarded your email to the FBI. Until next time, thanks for reading.