DRAWN & QUARTERED
Beat the chill
Whether 2004 was a good or bad year for you, one truth is certain about it: It's pretty much over.
Now that the gift wrap's in the trash, the holiday music's been put away and Santa's kicking back and having a mai tai somewhere, it's time to start thinking about the new year and everything that entails.
But consider the plight of Tohru Honda, the earnest heroine of the "Fruits Basket" anime series. Every day of living with the Sohma family is a constant reminder of the new year for her, specifically the Chinese zodiac associated with it.
That's because the Sohmas have a rather unusual curse: Whenever anyone hugs them, they instantly transform from humans into various zodiac animals in a puff of smoke and a loud "poof!" How Tohru deals with that knowledge of the Sohmas' secret serves as the foundation of a rather charming and entertaining series.
Any discussion of this series' charm would have to start with Tohru herself. She's the type of person whom anyone would love to have as a friend -- she's cheerful, encouraging and supportive to everyone, and works hard at everything she does.
As the series opens, Tohru is going through a rather rough stretch in her life. Her mom recently died in a traffic accident, and while she was living with her grandfather, she had to find temporary housing while he renovated his house. Not wanting to burden the rest of her family and her friends even for a short while, she keeps her housing situation secret, opting to pitch a tent in the woods and live humbly for a bit, with a picture of her mom always by her side.
It just so happens, though, that these woods are on Sohma family property. Once the two Sohmas that live on said property -- her classmate Yuki and his older cousin Shigure -- stumble upon her secret one night and learn the full truth about her situation, they invite her to stay at their house as their housekeeper in exchange for a vow that she will preserve their secret.
Tohru soon learns that things often are not as they appear in the House of Sohma. Because of the aforementioned curse, family members often are forced to shun public displays of affection -- a problem for Yuki, who not only is considered to be the biggest hottie at Kaibara High School, but is also gradually falling for Tohru. Watching as Tohru's warmth slowly thaws the family's emotional chill is a delight to watch.
Also of particular concern for Yuki is the arrival of Kyo, who is eternally bent on proving he belongs in the Sohma family and believes his best shot is to beat Yuki in a fight. Since Yuki transforms into a rat and Kyo turns into a cat, it's only natural that they would consider themselves rivals. It's only through Tohru and her care for both of them that they reluctantly start to tolerate each other.
And yes, that's not a misprint: Kyo is aligned with the cat, which is not normally an animal associated with the Chinese zodiac. As the fable introduced near the beginning of the series explains, the cat was invited to the banquet that installed the various animals into the zodiac, but was tricked by the rat into not going.
What's remarkable about this series is that it maintains a tight focus on the core characters of Tohru, Yuki and Kyo and flavors the other characters based on their interactions with the three.
That isn't to say that the secondary characters are weakly developed -- many of them enhance the series' dramatic and comic feel. Standouts include Tohru's closest friends -- Arisa Uotani, a reformed gang member, and Saki Hanajima, a deeply spiritual girl who senses auras and the good and evil affinities of people everywhere she goes -- as well as older Sohma cousin Kagura, who has a rather violent affection for Kyo.
Funimation has done an exceptional job with its stateside release, with six or seven episodes packed onto each of the four DVD volumes. DVD extras are also plentiful, featuring Japanese cast interviews, behind-the-scenes documentaries and even an in-depth look at the artwork featured on the "eyecatches" leading into and out of commercials and flashing between scenes.