Fruits Basket (2001)
Directed by Akitaro Daichi

Artistic Value: * * * ½
Entertainment Value: * * * *

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After her mother is killed in an accident, Honda Toru, a sixteen year old high school student, is reduced to living in a tent in the middle of a forest, until she is discovered by two members of the Soma family, Yuki and Shigure, who invite her to stay in their home. Toru soon learns that certain members of this family are cursed and that each such person will transform into a particular animal of the Chinese zodiac when embraced by an individual of the opposite sex. Yuki, for example, becomes a rat and Shigure becomes a dog. While living with Yuki, Shigure, and Yuki's cousin Kyo, who also moves into the house, Toru meets other members of the extensive Soma clan and exerts a powerful influence on their lives.

Akitaro Daichi's twenty-six part animated television series Fruits Basket tells a loosely structured but sweetly charming, invariably engaging, and genuinely affecting story. The program's makers have crafted an odd assortment of characters who, though often little more than caricatures, are, nevertheless, so appealing that the viewer is quickly fascinated with them and made to experience their various emotions.

Toru, in particular, is a real delight. She must certainly be the sweetest, most optimistic character I have encountered in any work of fiction. Despite the deaths of her parents, her mistreatment by her nasty relatives, and her need to work both as a maid for the Somas and as a janitor in an office building, she neither abandons hope nor even sees herself as being unlucky. What is more, while such a perky attitude could have grown tiresome, it does not. The program never lets the viewer give in to some pointless, irritable cynicism, but instead arouses in him a genuine, innocent optimism. Consequently, rather than being aggravated by Toru's consistently sweet nature, the viewer is likely to find himself charmed and moved by her. Although Toru is not the most complex or imaginatively realized character of fiction, she is so genuinely likeable that the viewer will almost inevitably find himself emotionally involved in her life.

In addition to its charming characters and peculiar conceits, the series includes a number of other intriguing elements which help to keep the viewer's attention. One of the most interesting threads running through Fruits Basket is its ambiguous presentation of gender. The series includes a number of characters who do not conform with common expectations about persons of a given sex. Yuki, for example, although he is always presented as being the object of his female classmates' romantic fantasies and obsessions, is noticeably feminine. In fact, his voice in the Japanese version of the series is obviously that of a woman. Yuki is not, however, the program's most surprising character, by any means. Eventually, Toru becomes acquainted with a fifteen year old boy who prefers dressing in women's clothing, and who even attends school wearing a girl's uniform. Later in the series, she also meets an adult male member of the Soma family who likewise wears women's clothing and who has, furthermore, adopted behavior and speech patterns generally associated with women.

The inclusion of such characters, the various eccentric members of the Soma family, and Toru's two best friends, one of whom believes she has some strange connection with electricity and the other of whom is a former gang member, gives the whole series a feeling of openness and acceptance. Deviance from social norms is never condemned. If anything, the program celebrates individual peculiarities. By doing so, Fruits Basket is imbued with a gentle warmth that greatly adds to its appeal and lends it a pleasant, accepting charm.

The quality of the animation is never stunning, but it is generally appealing. It certainly contributes positively to the feelings of kindness and melancholy which run through most of the series. The designs used for both the young female and the young male characters conform with the conventions according to which such persons are drawn in anime today, and both are appealing. A few of the characters are a little too saccharine, especially some of the small children featured in the show, but, somehow, even they are able to engage the viewer.

While Fruits Basket is obviously aimed at an audience of young women, it is entertaining enough to be enjoyed by any person able to involve himself in a simple, sweet, and touching story. The program is always enjoyable to watch and can be genuinely moving.

Review by Keith Allen

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