Monday, January 19, 2004


A few days ago I watched The Station Agent, the well-reviewed "art" film that came out last year. I've also, over the past week, been re-watching Fruits Basket, a Japanese animated ("anime") TV series which has been released in the U.S. on DVD. Both mix comedy with drama, and even cover some of the same thematic ground, containing characters who are loners at the start, but have come to value friendship by the end. But here's the thing: even though Fruits Basket is aimed at adolescents, and is about a family whose members turn into animals when hugged by members of the opposite sex, I think Fruits Basket is better than The Station Agent. It's funnier, but it also has more depth.

The Station Agent is one of those films for which the word "quirky" could have been invented, but there's not much "there" there. Of the three main characters, Joe is purely comic relief, and Olivia's motivations remain opaque throughout. Even the characterization of Finn, the protagonist, is superficial. The only real reason to watch the film is Peter Dinklage's performance as Finn, and while it's a good performance, it's not enough.

Fruits Basket isn't perfect. Being for adolescents, it has a tendency to spell out its lessons; it's sentimental at times; and the main character is so self-effacing you find yourself rooting for her to grow a backbone. Also, the animation itself, while serving the story adequately, is nothing special. But if it's sometimes sentimental, it's often moving, and the advice it gives is good, and sometimes wise. And it manages to be optimistic without minimizing or trivializing the realities of suffering, something I've found to be rare, in or out of anime.

(Those who have only seen the first few episodes of Fruits Basket may be puzzled by my reference to "the realities of suffering." Anime series frequently start out light-heartedly and grow darker as they proceed, and this is true of Fruits Basket: although the overall tone is light, by the end of the series the viewer has witnessed an enormous amount of psychic pain.)

One problem with the series is that it faithfully adapts a Japanese comic-book (manga) series which had not finished by the time the anime was finished (in fact, as far as I know it's still going on). While the anime ending does a good job of provide a satisfying conclusion, it's still only telling a portion of these characters' stories. Fortunately Tokyopop has licensed the manga in the U.S., and I believe they will begin publishing it next month. (The production quality of Tokyopop's manga is inconsistent; hopefully they will do a good job with this one, or at least not botch it like they have with Kare Kano.)

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