SPOILERS for the entire Fruits Basket manga.
Tohru Honda, the kind-hearted, slightly oblivious heroine of Natsuki Takaya’s Fruits Basket, is a fascinating study of a self-sacrificing female character. Selfless heroines are common in anime and manga, but Tohru is particularly noteworthy because her development throughout the series serves as an example of growing up, coming to terms with one’s feelings, and finding one’s voice. She navigates a very real, very familiar river, fraught with anxiety and self-doubt.
Over the course of Fruits Basket, Tohru learns to acknowledge and express her emotions without thinking of them as a burden, but as a facet of herself as a complete, multidimensional human being. She ultimately overcomes the chains that bind her to the trope of self-sacrificing kindness, touted as an ideal feminine trait, which has caused her to neglect herself to the point of misery. She learns that she must not only care for others, but for herself, before she can help the Sohmas break the Zodiac curse.
Tohru Honda is perhaps best characterized by her kindness. Her willingness to give with all her heart touches the people around her, particularly those closest to her. This includes her best friends, the former gangster Arisa “Uo” Uotani and the goth psychic Saki “Hana” Hanajima, as well as the cursed members of the Sohma family.
Tohru’s friendship and unhesitating, unconditional acceptance saved Uo and Hana, and so they stand by her and encourage her to look after herself. They both agree that Tohru is spacey and optimistic to a fault; because of this, they worry about her and feel driven to protect her, even as they admire her.
Her relationship with the Sohma family is more complex. Cursed to turn into animals from the Chinese zodiac when embraced by a member of the opposite sex, the Sohmas hold outsiders at literal and metaphorical arm’s length until Tohru comes along. After she joins one of the Sohma households, an unspoken and unbalanced trade exists between the family and Tohru.
Most of the other characters see something in her which can benefit them in some way. Shigure wants to use her to break the curse. Kisa seeks courage and a supportive older sister. Yuki realises that he craves maternal love from Tohru since his mother emotionally neglects him. He admits that “again and again, she accepted me…like a mother.”
This is quite a bit for one teenage girl to deal with. Not only does Tohru have to work hard to graduate from high school to fulfill a promise to her mother, but she also works part-time. Yet she finds herself in the role of savior or surrogate mother on more than one occasion, and even takes these roles upon herself.
She does all these things because it’s in her nature to be considerate, even to a fault, but this transforms as the story develops. Initially, she feels an obligation towards the Sohma for letting her into their lives. Eventually though, because she falls in love with Kyo Sohma and wants to be with him, she becomes willing to follow any path that will lead to the curse being lifted.
Her consideration for others often results in Tohru failing to care for herself. At the beginning of the story, she’s sixteen and living alone in a tent. After her mother’s death, she goes to live with her grandfather but, while his home undergoes renovation, Tohru must find another place to stay. She can’t bring herself to bother her friends with any of her problems, so she opts to tough it out in the wild until she can move back in.
This is Tohru’s first demonstration of her self-imposed muteness. Like many people, she struggles to ask for help; she doesn’t want to be a burden or take advantage of anyone’s charity. She is determined to be independent and pave her own path in life, but doesn’t realize that happiness should be part of the equation.
When her grandfather’s house is ready, rather than say she wants to stay with the Sohmas, she forces herself to leave and move back in with his judgmental family. Later, when she realizes she’ll be alone on her first New Year’s Eve since her mother’s death, she again stays silent instead of asking the others to stay or telling them she’s upset.
It’s as if she sees it as her duty to suffer. She doesn’t prioritise her own happiness because she doesn’t want to get in the way of anyone else’s. In fact, on more than one occasion, Tohru neglects her own health until she falls ill, but she’s more concerned about disappointing those around her.
It never occurs to her that her emotional and physical well-being should take precedence over fulfilling others’ expectations. She does not let herself benefit from the same dedicated care she shows others.
Momiji Sohma finds an apt comparison for Tohru’s character as he recounts the tale of the foolish traveler. The traveler’s selfless nature, though a source of comfort and happiness to him, leads to his demise. Tohru, like the foolish traveller, gives and gives of herself without thinking of her own well-being. Meanwhile, those around her see it both as something to exploit and something simultaneously admirable and tragic.
“You won’t break, being like that?” Isuzu “Rin” Sohma asks her. As another female character that has gone through considerable hardship, Rin can see what others may miss: that Tohru isn’t a super woman, and that she shouldn’t be expected to be one either.
In a world filled with expectations for how people, especially women, must live their lives, it’s a thin line between being considered materialistic and self-absorbed and being homely and complacent. The word “selfish” has negative connotations, but as many people have to learn (and as Kyo tells Tohru): “It would be okay to complain…be selfish…say what you want once in a while. It’s okay to let yourself be sad.”
Tohru can’t appreciate herself the way others can. She needs an outsider’s perspective to make her aware of her self-neglect and muteness. When the Sohmas take Tohru in, both Yuki and Shigure tell her she can feel free to be herself. This becomes more significant as the story progresses, because as Tohru comes to terms with herself as a young woman with her own desires in life, she has to find the courage to speak up.
Whilst Tohru has her protectors and encouragers, she also has her detractors. The main criticisms leveled at Tohru involve her kind and selfless nature, but they also focus on her femininity.
Tohru’s femininity is one of the major fulcrums that the story revolves around, allowing the Sohma to project certain things onto her, including their concept of purity. They hope that she can cleanse them of their sins, their pain, and consequently their curse.
When she decides to fight the curse and therefore the abusive “god” of the family, Akito, Tohru considers herself dirty. Akito accuses her: “You destroy other people’s worlds. But you still stay as this clean and beautiful existence. You’re the dirty one here!”
Tohru being a “cute” girl is also a point of contention, as Akito, raised as a man by the demands of her mother, hates women. Akito sees Tohru, Rin, and her mother’s femininity as something sinister. In her mind, they are scheming and hateful, and aim only to destroy her relationships with the mostly male members of her Zodiac. She regularly describes Tohru as ugly and reminds her to “Be a good girl… Otherwise, you’ll be punished.”
Akito isn’t the only one who takes issue with Tohru and her appearance. The “Prince Yuki Fan Club” brands her a witch and believes that she manipulates Yuki, just on the basis of them being friends. Additionally, Tohru was bullied by boys when she was younger. Takaya speculates that it may be because they liked her.
There’s this idea that Tohru is somehow stepping out of bounds simply by visibly existing, and that she should stay silent and invisible. As Kagura Sohma muses, “Men are lucky. They can trust other people with their dreams, and wishes, and things” whilst she, Tohru, and Rin bear their suffering silently. Tohru thinks she has to always be smiling and helpful, but exhausts herself in the process. She can’t be expected to take care of others without seeing to herself first.
When Tohru finally decides to pursue her wish of breaking the Sohma curse, it’s a groundbreaking moment for her character Even after Rin tells her she should stay out of it, she refuses: “I’m sorry but no! I won’t stay out of it…Just as you have things you can’t give up, Isuzu-san…so do I.”
Tohru’s feelings for Kyo force her to be more proactive. She expresses herself more, cries, gets angry, gets into conflicts, and even refuses to apologize. She sees her wish as selfish but, despite that, she decides to fight. By being “selfish,” she grows stronger.
Ultimately, Tohru’s willingness to extend a hand to anyone in need wins out. She has a confrontation with Akito that leads to her falling off a cliff and landing in the hospital. It’s Tohru’s final way of sacrificing herself to bring the happiness she believes everyone, Akito included, deserves. Thus, even Akito succumbs to Tohru’s kindness and, like Tohru, learns to let go and allow change to happen.
Tohru lived her life the way she believed she was expected to, with her mother always at the forefront of her mind, with other people’s happiness as her happiness, but she learns to live truthfully. She never discards her kindness—it is her nature, after all—but realizes that it’s okay to be sad, to get angry, to fall in love, to ask for help, to smile when others think you shouldn’t.
She learns to fight for what she believes in. This realization turns what seems like a weakness into a weapon, dealing the final blow to the Zodiac curse.
Yuki tells her in the last chapter, “Your existence is so warm. Everybody loves you.” But the most important thing is that Tohru learned to love herself enough to pursue what she wanted.
In the end, she leaves with Kyo to follow her own happiness. It’s less like an ending and more like the beginning of another story, but one with a stronger, more self-aware Tohru, ready to accept everyone, including herself. The desires and hopes she considered flaws lead to her greatest strength. By learning to listen to her own needs, she uncovers something valuable.