Curses and True Forms: Reading Fruits Basket as a lesbian

By: Zoe London March 13, 20240 Comments
Color spread of Kyo and Tohru embracing against a pink, floral background

Content warning: discussion of homophobia, both societal and internalized; familial abuse

Spoilers for Fruits Basket (manga and 2019 anime)

Though its name is fruity by nature, the best-selling and beloved Fruits Basket isn’t necessarily the first title that comes to mind when I think “queer manga.”

The first time I read the series, this wasn’t exactly a surprise to me. Despite shoujo manga serving as the foundation for both early BL (boys’ love) and early yuri, collective memory of 90s/early 2000s shoujo manga tends to center zany, at times melodramatic, and above all very straight plotlines. Even when these stories are riddled with queer subtext, it’s most likely by accident or intentionally played for laughs. The main or “serious” aspects of these stories always stay within the safety of cisheteronormativity… or do they?

In the article “The Transient Queerness of Fruits Basket,” Garrick Shultz gave an excellent critique of the problematic handling of queerness within Fruits Basket. Her analysis is thought-provoking and solid, and I offer my perspective not in opposition, but as a reclamation of sorts.

As a lesbian, Fruits Basket was not written for me. Even so, the romance between Kyo and Tohru resonates deeply with my experience of queerness. 

Manga panel showing Tohru running into Kyo's back. A spiky speech bubble says "Eeeek!"

On paper, their dynamic of grumpy boy/sunshine girl is about as heteronormative as they come. Nevertheless, I found that it checked numerous boxes for me as a queer reader: themes of hiding a part of your identity, ostracization, and acceptance and love in the face of societal hatred. 

When you break down the story in this way, it appears ripe for queer allegory, and it’s no surprise why a straight romance like Kyo and Tohru’s has a history of appealing to queer fans. This is particularly evident from the fandom resurgence that occurred in 2019 when the reboot of the anime debuted. For starters, a quick search of the phrase “lesbian Kyoru” reveals a trend in fanart, fanfiction, and Tumblr posts of reimagining Kyo and Tohru as a sapphic couple. In their video essay “The Complicated Queercoding of Fruits Basket,” Ghostietea, a lesbian and longtime fan of the manga, not only dives into Fruits Basket through a queer lens but also shares testimonials from numerous fans on how the manga impacted them as queer people.

I read Fruits Basket as a vaguely-out adult, not a closeted teenager, but it still had a profound effect on how I understand and embrace my lesbian identity. Reading Fruits Basket during a time when I was, in my own way, still a baby queer not only provided me solace—it also unexpectedly jump-started my own lesbian love story.

Manga page showing three members of the Sohma family transformed into their animal versions: the dog, the rat, and the cat. Shigure, the dog, explains how the curse works while Tohru listens.

I’ll spare you a lengthy summary of Fruits Basket, as it’s usually a title that even casual manga fans have been exposed to, and its iconic shoujo status means its reputation precedes it. What you really need to know about the story is this: it revolves around Tohru, a teenage girl, and the Sohma clan, a family cursed to transform into the Chinese Zodiac animals anytime they’re hugged by the opposite sex. The zodiac curse is something shameful, something grotesque, something that is feared and misunderstood by outsiders. It transforms them into what is inhuman and abnormal. Their secret must be kept hidden at all costs to avoid ridicule and hatred from society, and, as Tohru discovers as the story progresses, each cursed clan member must also navigate ostracization, control, and abuse within the Sohma family because of their status as a cursed Zodiac member.

Sound familiar? For queer people, especially those living within social contexts that are hostile toward queerness, this idea of living a double life and harboring a taboo secret is nothing new. Likewise, the way the members of the Zodiac are marked as “other” within the structure of their own family—and, in some cases, even directly abused or abandoned by their parents because of the curse—also unfortunately echoes the real-world experience of many queer people.

I grew up in Evangelical Christian spaces, and I vividly remember the panic that gripped me the day I first realized my long-buried attraction to other girls. It was an innate quality that I could no longer evade by pretending it didn’t exist. Like the Zodiac curse, I feared that my queerness was a secret I needed to keep close to my chest, lest it change how I was perceived, both by the broader world and within my own community. 

Even though I had queer friends, I was slow to come out to anyone. Throughout my senior year of high school and into college, it was that initial acceptance and belonging within a queer community that provided me comfort. In Fruits Basket, we see a version of this through Tohru’s acceptance of the Sohma family—and particularly Kyo. 

Tohru does not reject the Sohmas for their “shameful” secret—in fact, she feels a kinship with the Zodiac members due to her own experiences of exclusion, shame, and isolation. She’s experienced this in many social contexts. Whether it’s being bullied at school or being treated as a shameful burden by her family, Tohru’s own identity and traumas allow her to connect deeply with the Zodiac members, leading her to discover a “found family” (a relationship structure and trope that often resonates with queer audiences) within the complicated Sohma clan.

Double page spread showing Tohru reaching for Kyo's back, but never touching him, autumn leaves swirling in between them

The touch barrier that the Sohma curse introduces is another plot element that’s ripe for queering, especially in the context of Kyo and Tohru’s romantic feelings for each other. Though the mechanics get a little muddy, Kyo’s transformation into a cat is triggered by chest to chest or back to chest contact. This means hugging and other types of embrace are off limits for the mutually pining couple. Again, on paper a curse triggered by touching the “opposite sex” is as cisheteronormative as it gets. However, a queer lens recontextualizes it as something that feels deeply resonant to me. 

The curse mirrors something that is, at times, inherent to queer experiences in a heteronormative world: a repression of attraction or an inability to act on it. Even once I was “out” as a lesbian, I was scared to even suggest hanging out with any of my crushes until I was positive they were also queer. I also agonized over whether I was too comfortable being touchy-feely with women. My worry wasn’t just being rejected romantically, but of creeping them out with my friendship at all.

Even now that I’m in a lesbian relationship, I still am hesitant to be affectionate with my fiancée in public. Much like the Zodiac members, I am aware of the potential consequences or danger that could come from openly expressing this part of my identity.

Though our motivations are different, I share with Kyo and Tohru an affection that is repressed and then expressed so sparingly. This commonality makes the implicit queerness of their relationship all too relatable for me.

While the Zodiac curse dips its toes into non-normativity, a more extreme version of the curse afflicts Kyo and takes the story’s deepest dive into queer allegory. As the Cat—the unrecognized and ostracized 13th animal of the Chinese Zodiac—Kyo is also cursed with his true form. It’s a hideous, monstrous variation on his cat form, and this transformation is triggered any time his red-and-white bracelet is removed. While the rest of the Zodiac members can live mostly normal albeit secretive lives, as the Cat, Kyo will be imprisoned in a cage once he graduates high school—a fate that rings true as eerily similar to the demonization and oppression of queer people everywhere.

The inclusion of Kyo’s true form, in fact, highlights how he is marginalized even within the already marginalized Zodiac members. While all queerness is societally rejected, there are still identities and sub-communities that face harsher disempowerment and violence than others. The structure of the Sohma clan creates a “better him than me” mentality, in which Kyo is designated as the scapegoat of the Zodiac and bears the worst brunt of the curse. Through marking Kyo as especially cursed, the rest of the cursed Sohmas are able to regain a sense of privilege over Kyo despite their marginalization. 

This provides an interesting nuance that mirrors the intricacies of queer community; othering occurs even within a community of “others.” Even more, then, this renders Tohru’s acceptance of Kyo—not just his harmless cat form, but his terrifying true form—as even more impactful for the queer reader.

Kyo embracing Tohru having just transformed back

In the first arc of the manga, Kyo’s true form is revealed against his will to Tohru in a way that mirrors being outed. He’s distraught after the fact and runs away, assuming that Tohru will be disgusted now that she knows the truth about him. However, instead of rejecting Kyo, Tohru chases after Kyo and reaffirms that she wants to stay by his side no matter what. 

The Beauty and the Beast romance arc is not exclusively queer; its origins go as far back as the Greek myth of Eros and Psyche. However, it doesn’t take an expert to point out the intertwined history of monsters and queer people in storytelling. 

As Michael Elias points out in his article “Queer Monsters,” “We use monsters to point at something which we do not perceive as ‘normal’.” That identity of being perceived as “other” is what connects queerness and monstrosity, and it’s what leads Kyo to read as distinctly queer.

I will never forget the first time I read this arc, which ends with Kyo changing back to his human form following Tohru’s acceptance. He expresses how he never wanted someone to love all of him. What proves most meaningful to him is Tohru’s desire to stay by his side, even after seeing all of him, even the “monstrous” parts that are shunned by society. As I flipped through this scene and lingered on the full-page spread of Kyo holding Tohru close, not caring that it would trigger his transformation, I felt like no story in the world had ever aligned so perfectly to my own experience of queerness. 

There was nothing explicitly queer happening, no one coming out as gay in the narrative. Yet to me, there is nothing more queer than this desire to be known intimately, to be seen for your insecurities and your shame—and to be accepted and loved anyway. I think this is why Kyo and Tohru’s relationship touched me so greatly.

Finding ourselves reflected in narratives that never sought to include us is an art queer readers are especially adept at, I find.

Manga panels showing Tohru sobbing into a bedsheet that's hung up between her and Kyo

Tohru, the manga’s protagonist, doesn’t transform into an animal or monster, yet her arc also hinges on concealing the “ugly” or impure parts of herself. She’s kind, self-effacing, and repressive of her own feelings for the sake of others. Despite the ways that I relate to Kyo’s queer monster narrative, it’s actually Tohru’s arc that provides the most catharsis for me as a lesbian.

In the true form arc, Tohru pushes through her fears of Kyo’s monster form and focuses on her desire to understand him, all of him, even the scary parts. Later on in the story, she ends up in a similar situation in revealing an imperfect part of herself: the resentment and hatred she feels toward her late father. 

She confesses these ugly feelings to Kyo through a bedsheet that hangs on the clothesline between them, hiding her face. But just as she did with his true form, Kyo listens to Tohru’s feelings and hugs her—accepting what she hates about herself, too. This vulnerability and mutual acceptance always resonated so queerly to me.

Growing up, I never felt like I had to overcome homophobia. I was a very enthusiastic ally, after all, and it wasn’t until much later that I realized how much I struggled with internalized homophobia and lesbophobia. I thought it was okay for other people to be queer, just not me. Later on, as I tried to further explore my sexuality, it was okay for me to be attracted to women, as long as I was also still attracted to men.

Even if the specifics aren’t the same, I saw so much of my younger self in Tohru’s confession of her imperfection. The way I read it, it’s a lot easier for her to accept Kyo’s secret, to accept someone else’s queerness, than it is for her to reveal a similar imperfection about herself.

Full page spread of Tohru and Kyo embracing in the garden

Though I didn’t realize it so much at the time, I now look back at who I was when I picked up Fruits Basket in early 2020. Pandemic quarantine aside, I felt completely isolated and stifled in my identity. 

While Fruits Basket didn’t offer any direct instructions for how to live as a queer person, it still paved the way for me to overcome so much of the fear I’d held. Kyo and Tohru’s story of queer monstrosity, vulnerability, and being seen finally gave me the confidence to start calling myself a lesbian. The manga also led me to get involved in fandom again, where—unsurprisingly—so many fans I met were also queer people drawn to what we’ve embraced as a very queer story.

In that same fandom, I even met my fiancée. For this reason alone, Kyo and Tohru’s romance will always feel so deeply intertwined with my experience of falling in love and my lesbianism.

There’s something to be said about how often “straight romances” can resonate so deeply with queer people. I do love explicitly queer narratives, and we do need more of them, but no amount of queer rep could impact my love of a romance like Fruits Basket. Its prevailing queer themes not only comfort me, but allow me to understand myself in unexpected ways.

Color splash page showing Kyo cupping Tohru's cheek and leaning in to kiss her

Ultimately, it’s fun to discover queerness where we’ve been told to not expect it, isn’t it? Queerness is something that impacts every day of my life, and I will always seek out reflections of my lesbian experience in the stories I love. 

And authorial intent be damned—Kyo and Tohru will always be a lesbian ship to me.

About the Author : Zoe London

Zoe London (she/her) is a Midwestern writer, editor, and animanga enthusiast. After spending the majority of her time in undergrad forcing her professors to read her ramblings about queer theory and manga characters, she recently graduated with her BFA in Creative Writing. Her fiction, poetry, and critical essays have been published in everything from literary journals to yaoi zines.

Read more articles from Zoe London

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