Content Warning: Discussion of mental health, abuse, toxic gender norms. Some sources that are linked to discuss mental health, such as PTSD and anxiety disorders, may contain triggering material.
Spoilers: Full-series manga spoilers for Fruits Basket
There are plenty of reasons that fans like Fruits Basket: the complex characters, the unwinding mystery behind the Sohma clan, the developing romances, and many more. As a trauma studies scholar who examines depictions of trauma in literature and media and as someone with generalized anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I respect Fruits Basket for its realistic, nuanced portrayal of what my field calls “post-traumatic growth,” and for its subtle critique of toxic masculinity in connection with mental health.
As the name implies, post-traumatic growth is essentially how one handles the trauma after the traumatic event and is an important part of the healing process. Meanwhile, toxic masculinity, which I’ll define in more detail later, is deconstructed and even fought against by the characters in-series.
Fruits Basket is the story of an orphaned high schooler, Honda Tohru, and the cursed Sohma family who quickly become a part of her life. This manga is a radical work regarding its treatment of mental health because it actively works to destigmatize mental illness, critiquing and dismantling ideas about toxic masculinity through its portrayal of mental health.
Now, there is one caveat I’d like to mention: it’s worth establishing early on in this piece that some of the ideas of gender within Fruits Basket are… dated. Primarily, this is because the manga ran from the late ‘90s to the early ‘00s. Still, having a traditionally feminine protagonist be such a force for change in a family mired by toxic masculine ideals such as the Sohmas is actually quite refreshing… Even if I really wish the boys of the Sohma house would pick up some of that slack for Tohru’s chores. But, I digress.
The way that Tohru’s nurturing and non-judgemental personality allows many of the characters—especially the male characters—to express their feelings is an explicit challenge to toxic masculinity. As defined by The New York Times in their 2019 article “What Is Toxic Masculinity?, toxic masculinity is “a set of behaviors and beliefs that include the following:
- Suppressing emotions or masking distress
- Maintaining an appearance of hardness
- Violence as an indicator of power (think: “tough-guy” behavior)
In other words: Toxic masculinity is what can come of teaching boys (or anyone, really) that they can’t express emotion openly, that they have to be “tough all the time,” and that anything other than that makes them “girly” or weak.
Fruits Basket, like other emotionally driven works, such as Natsume’s Book of Friends, or gender-bending works like The Rose of Versailles, pushes against the idea that “feminine” automatically means “weak” and that “masculine” automatically means “strong.” We see this in spades in Fruits Basket, beginning with the emotional core of the series, Tohru.
She’s a protagonist with lots of heart, who is optimistic, kind, and displays many symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder. She worries about how others think of her just because they aren’t telling her constantly how they’re feeling, has intrusive thoughts about not being good enough or being a burden, assumes everyone hates her, stresses herself sick over day-to-day chores, and so on.
Tohru’s internal monologue throughout the series is an accurate case study of generalized anxiety. Still, with that anxiety in mind, Tohru is remarkable. Even though she is an anxious mess of a human being who is trying her best, she is ultimately her own hero, and the heroic force that helps the other characters heal. As seen at the end of the manga, her influence is what allows the various Zodiac members to break their curses.
Even before that, right from the start, Fruits Basket sets up Tohru as a non-judgemental outlet for the other characters’ feelings, with empathy being her defining trait. Not only that, but in the case of Yuki and Kyo especially, she gives them someone to talk to who will not invalidate them or make them feel less “manly” for having problems they want to discuss.
It’s not just a one-way street, however; Tohru’s relationships with Yuki and Kyo are based on mutual support. The two of them look out for her as well, and even if they’re not as skilled at dealing with emotions as Tohru, they really do try their best.
Over time, her relationship with them helps her realize that denial is not an effective coping mechanism, and ultimately allows her to heal from her past. They comfort and reassure her, telling her things like, “It’s okay to be a bit selfish sometimes,” showing a mutuality to the healing process.
While Tohru does fit into a lot of feminine gendered expectations, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But also, unlike more traditional gender standards, Tohru is anything but passive. She is active in how she tries to help others, oftentimes taking charge when the situation demands it. Tohru’s kindness and sweetness do not come from the fact that she is a woman; they come from the fact that she is a good person to begin with.
Author Natsuki Takaya also has gone on record to say that she created Tohru with the intent of “balancing out” masculine and feminine traits, most obviously found in Tohru’s masculine name. As Takaya mentions as well when discussing creating the character, Tohru has “a slightly unusual way of looking at things so that she wouldn’t be crushed by having so much empathy.”
This is most clear with Sohma Kyo, who has a chip on his shoulder due to being cursed with the cat spirit and thus ostracized from the Sohma family. Between him and Yuki, he’s the more masculine of the two, and that, combined with his ongoing social anxiety and trauma, makes him quite emotionally repressed. Over the course of the series, he works bit by bit on unlearning his most toxic behaviors, such as his anger management skills and the need to be “tough.” While bashful and socially anxious, he slowly learns to express himself with the help of his karate teacher and foster father, Kazuma Sohma, and Tohru.
Kazuma teaches Kyo how to process his feelings in a more productive manner than bottling up the anger and pain he feels in order to “be a man”: Martial arts. As a teacher to Kyo, Kazuma is a great example of positive masculinity. Not only does he urge Kyo to be in touch with his emotions—to the point where he is the catalyst for the section where Kyo faces his curse—but he also shows him an alternative masculinity. While not perfect, it’s nowhere near as toxic as the ideals put upon Kyo by the rest of the Sohmas.
Like any familial bond, Kazuma and Kyo do have a bit of a spat. However, because of Tohru’s influence and her reassuring Kyo throughout the series, Kyo begins to internalize what she’s told him, and not bottling up emotions is key. This is most explicit when she urges Kyo to talk to Kazuma at the end of the first season of the anime, after Kazuma forced Kyo to reveal his cursed form. Because of Tohru’s intervention, the two of them are able to put aside their anger and finally communicate, without the Sohma family’s baggage to hold them back.
Because of this, it feels like Kyo’s using Tohru as a surrogate mother, of sorts… At least, at first. As their relationship grows throughout the series, he ends up seeing her not as a surrogate mom, but as her own incredible person.
This becomes evident when Kazuma removes Kyo’s bracelet, revealing his hideous cursed form. Kyo flees and Tohru follows, despite her own fear and disgust. Yet, no matter how scared she is, as soon as he begins berating himself, Tohru musters up all of her courage and willpower to not only fight back, but to comfort Kyo as he lashes out.
In that vein, Tohru is a reminder that feminine does not equal passive. She is the polar opposite of the toxic masculine ideals drummed into Kyo his entire life by the Sohmas, which he has been trying to combat with anger. Tohru shows Kyo that he is more than his curse, and that anger is not always an effective tool for solving problems.
Meanwhile, Sohma Yuki, the rat of the Zodiac, has a beautiful, effeminate appearance but is also a skilled martial artist. Like Kyo, Yuki suffers from social anxiety and PTSD, but handles it differently. He is more in touch with his feelings than Kyo, and Tohru helps him not only express those feelings, but work through them. This is important, especially since at the beginning of the series after he had just left his long-time abuser, the God of the Zodiac, Akito.
Tohru is the “positive” female figure in Yuki’s life, offering alternative forms of masculinity in how she helps Yuki get over some of his own ingrained biases. When their classmates force him into a dress for the school’s cultural festival, accentuating his androgyny, Tohru notices how beautiful he looks. Yuki feels emasculated by being forced to cross-dress. He tries to change his clothing, but Tohru convinces him that being cute is not a bad thing for boys. As her mother used to say, “It [means] ‘I love you’.”
This idea of a maternal connection persists between Yuki and Tohru as the series unfolds. Far later down the road, Yuki reveals that not only is Tohru “the first person to treat [him] like [he] was a human being,” but also functions as an adopted mother to him. Their platonic, familial bond further challenges toxic masculine ideals that all relationships between men and women are fundamentally driven by sex.
The two of them really lean on each other in their healing—Yuki for his PTSD and social anxiety, and Tohru for her generalized anxiety. He notices Tohru’s psychological scarring as early as the first episode, and he is there to remind her, in a more gentle manner than Kyo does, that she matters and that she is loved.
In the 2019 anime adaptation’s first season, the culmination of Yuki’s growth comes when he comforts and consoles Kisa. Kisa has gone mute after being abused by Akito and bullied by her classmates. Yuki went through something similar when he was her age. The emotional work that he did with Tohru enables him to help someone else, using empathy to reassure Kisa that she’s not alone.
Meanwhile, in the season 1 finale, he’s finally able to recognize that he’s been bottling up his feelings and trauma, but he is also mature enough to know that healing is a slow process. As he reassures Tohru, he isn’t necessarily ready to tackle some of the feelings and trauma he’s dealing with now.
This is very realistic to how healing occurs in real life. Post-traumatic growth is a step-by-step process with plenty of bumps along the way. But, the fact is, even if he is not ready to take it all on yet, it is because of Tohru’s influence and the work that he did to improve that he is able to take control of his healing.
Fruits Basket, while dated in some respects, pushes for a radical sense of tolerance, empathy, kindness, and de-stigmatization of mental health, while all the while critiquing toxic masculinity. Through the narrative journeys of Kyo, Yuki, and Tohru, the series pushes back against and subtly dismantles toxic masculinity in connection to mental health. That’s as powerful and important a message today as it was when the manga premiered over 20 years ago.