Friday, July 29, 2011


Among other things, Fruits Basket is a relentless catalogue of the ways parents can damage their children. From major characters like Kyo, Yuki and Akito, through secondary characters like Rin and Momiji, to minor characters like Machi, character after character suffers the scars of their parents' indifference or active dislike. But there's one shining counter-example: Tohru's mother Kyoko. Far from messing Tohru up, she made her into the good, loving person she is. In fact, Kyoko is a model parent. At least, she appears to be one during most of the series.

There's one discordant element from the start, though: Tohru's constant self-denigration. Even as she's unselfishly helping everyone, she feels guilty for not being unselfish enough. My favorite example is the time when, after visiting Rin (who doesn't even like her) in the hospital, she condemns herself for having forgotten for a moment about her goal of lifting the curse. If Kyoko was so wonderful, why was Tohru so bent on punishing herself?

The first hint that Kyoko was not as perfect as Tohru and Arisa's recollections made her out to be is Kyo's flashback of Kyoko completely freaking out when Tohru had gotten lost. But it's not until volume sixteen that we get a more complete picture of Kyoko and Tohru's relationship. In another flashback, Kyoko tells Kyo that after Tohru's father Katsuya had died, she (Kyoko) had been plunged into despair, and was on the verge of killing herself so that she could be with Katsuya again. At the last moment, she heard a kid yelling "Mom!" and was reminded of Tohru (then a very young child) and realized that she had been neglecting her. She rushed home, apologized in tears to Tohru and embraced her. After telling this to Kyo, Kyoko says: "Maybe the world doesn't need me. But there's still one person who's kind enough to need me. I only need that to live."

A heartwarming story with an affirmative moral, at least on the surface. But when you look more closely, there's a darker side. Whether she realizes it or not, Kyoko is in effect imposing upon Tohru the responsibility of keeping her alive, which is a terrible burden for a parent to place upon her young child.

Am I reading too much into this scene? Am I being overly cynical? I might have thought so if not for volume nineteen, where we see this dynamic from Tohru's side. At Kyoko's grave, Kyo meets Tohru's grandfather, who in the course of conversation asks him if he knows why Tohru speaks in such a polite manner. When Kyo says no, Tohru's grandfather tells him that she's imitating her father. At Katsuya's funeral, she heard some relatives saying that because she didn't look like Katsuya, she would be "no consolation" to Kyoko. When Kyoko fell into depression, Tohru asked her grandfather: "Daddy went somewhere far away, didn't he? Will Mommy go there too? Is Dad calling her? She's been sad for a long time. She won't talk to me. Is she sad because I don't look like Dad? What can I do to be like him? Will Mom get better if I'm just like him? Will she stay here?"** Since Kyoko's return, Tohru has been talking like her father.

Pondering this conversation, Kyo asks Tohru herself if her father looked like her. Nervously and with a forced smile, she tells him that they didn't look too much alike, but everybody said that they talked alike, even her mother. Then, in one of the most heartbreaking moments in a series full of heartbreaking moments, Tohru says "That's a lie.... I'm just mimicking the way he talked."*** She had been afraid that her father would take her mother away. and to try to hold on to her, she had imitated her father.

When I read this, everything about Tohru's character fell into place. Ever since her father died, she had been afraid that her mother would go away -- i.e., kill herself. And she had been continuously making an effort to keep her with her. She was always cheerful on the outside so that Kyoko would want to stay. She was unselfish to the point of abnegation because any demands of her own might drive Kyoko away. And she constantly felt guilty because the real Tohru wouldn't be able to keep Kyoko from going away, as she wasn't after Katsuya died. Even after Kyoko died (which she blamed herself for) the patterns of behavior she had learned continued. Without meaning to, Kyoko profoundly damaged her, even though she loved her.

Once I realized this, I saw some of the earlier scenes in a new light. For instance, it was now clear to me that for a schoolgirl to live alone in a tent when she has friends who would gladly put her up, so as not to bother them, isn't an endearing quirk but a sign of serious psychological problems (something I should have realized before).

Of course, Tohru is genuinely kind and good, and Kyoko is responsible for that too. Kyoko isn't a bad person, but in Fruits Basket even good people keep hurting each other without meaning to. Though Takaya gives her characters happy endings, her vision in Fruits Basket is hardly a cheerful one.

*This post may come off as a rebuttal to Kristin Bomba's contribution to the Manga Moveable Feast. I do have some disagreements with what Kistin writes about Tohru and Kyoko, but I've had these ideas for a long time, and I had decided to write them up for the MMF before I read Kristin's post.

**In the Tokyopop edition, there are quotation marks around each of these sentences, but not in the Japanese edition.

***I've used my own translation here. The Japanese, for those who want to check, is "Uso ... desu ... kuchimane o shite iru dake desu" (first ellipsis Takaya's).

This is a great post! I'm not having much luck putting more detailed thoughts into words (I've just typed and deleted an awful lot of things), but I think Takaya did a very balanced job of showing Kyoko as a good, loving mother and of making it clear that that doesn't mean she wasn't human and fallible in her own right.

I'm glad you contributed to the MMF! I was hoping you would. ^_^
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