Editor’s Note: Akito’s gender non-conformity is presented as a symptom of a fractured identity, and her happiness at the end of the series is tied up with heterosexuality and conventional gender presentation. Fully exploring the implications of this are beyond the scope of this article, but it is deeply harmful and cisnormative, and shouldn’t be overlooked.
Experiencing abuse from a young age, lacking a healthy vision of how to love and be loved, can resonate through a victim’s life for years, even decades. This is explored thoughtfully and compassionately in the classic shoujo manga Fruits Basket.
The series tells the story of the Sohmas, a family cursed to transform into animals of the Chinese zodiac when embraced by a member of the other sex. Not only does it grapple with a legacy of abuse, but it also raises profound questions about the nature of love and power and explores the role sex plays in both. These themes come through particularly clearly in the head of the family and “God” of the Zodiac, Akito.
Akito is a consistently antagonistic presence throughout the narrative, representing the threat of confined, controlled lives for all the members of the Zodiac. She is also an angry, lonely young woman forced to live as a man in public, abused by her mother, Ren, and still grieving the loss of her father, Akira.
When Akira dies, he reveals that his greatest regret was never reconciling with Ren, leading Akito to believe she was never the most important person in his life. As a result, she pursues the unconditional love she believes he never offered her in her relationships with the rest of the family.
Simultaneously, as a result of her father’s death and her mother’s emotional abuse, Akito is so terrified of losing love that she, in turn, abuses the other members of the Sohma family. Unable to face the world as a vulnerable human being, she manipulates her power as the “god” to control the futures of the other Zodiac members.
Akito’s relationships with Kureno and Shigure, the rooster and dog respectively, reveal how damaging her approach to power as well as romantic and sexual intimacy is for herself and others. This unspools the series’ core themes, illuminating the ways in which love, sex, and power are inextricably entangled. Only once Akito lets go of her role as God, accepting both her powerlessness over others and her power over her own destiny, can she enter into a relationship borne of mutual desire rather than power and control.
Kureno tells Tohru, the story’s protagonist, about his sexual relationship with Akito, which he feels he cannot escape. This relationship is deeply unequal and unhealthy: Akito abuses Kureno, isolating and belittling him, only to turn around and beg him not to leave her. Meanwhile, Kureno enables this vicious, insecure helplessness by refusing to challenge her.
Kureno and Akito’s relationship is framed as that of an addict and enabler, as Kureno offers kindness but fails to ever enforce consequences for bad behavior. In this way, Kureno’s relationship with Akito bears more similarity to the other parent/child relationships we see throughout the manga: indulgent to a fault, but also consistent and unconditionally supportive, both qualities Fruits Basket depicts as crucial to a parent/child relationship.
Kureno consents to a sexual relationship with Akito despite confessing to Tohru that he still sees her as a child—a “sobbing little girl.” This perception, as well as their aforementioned familial dynamic, immediately places them on unstable ground. Their pseudo-incestuous relationship, based on desperation and indulgence, is meant to inspire discomfort, even disgust in the reader.
The way Akito manipulates her power as head of the Sohma family and God of the Zodiac to bind Kureno to her deepens this discomfort. Akito uses their relationship to seek the intimacy and control she’s denied otherwise, and Kureno maintains a sexual relationship out of guilt with someone he does not see as his equal.
The two are not necessarily ethically equivalent, but both contribute to their imbalanced relationship, wherein Kureno acts as a substitute for both Akito’s father and Shigure, whom she loves but is unable to bind to her through fear. Kureno even explicitly confesses to Shigure: “Akito doesn’t keep me around because she loves me…even now, there’s only one person she really wants to be with.” As this conversation unfolds, the manga panels lead the reader to Shigure standing in Akito’s room, waiting for her, illuminated by moonlight.
This further emphasizes that Akito’s relationship with Kureno is not one based in mutual respect or pleasure, but power. She clings to Kureno even as their relationship makes her miserable out of fear of losing control—and, by extension, losing her role as God of the Zodiac.
The idea that the Zodiac members are supposed to love her is, in a sense, the last gift Akito has from her late father and the only protection she has from her mother’s insistence that she’s unneeded. Without it, Akito would be forced to reconcile not only with her own powerlessness, but also, finally, with her father’s death.
Akito’s relationship with Shigure also illuminates the manga’s themes surrounding love, sex, and power, precisely because it is so different from her relationship with Kureno. Unlike Kureno’s feelings of intermingled compassion, pity, and pseudo-paternal love for a “sobbing little girl,” Shigure expressly sees Akito as an adult.
When Shigure’s editor sees Akito at a family event and observes that she looks very young, Shigure corrects her, off-handedly remarking that Akito is actually in her twenties. Additionally, he tells Ren that he is attracted to her because she looks how Akito might have looked if she were allowed to live as a woman. This is explicitly sexual and focused on Akito as an adult rather than as a child.
This difference helps to establish their relationship as one between equals, even when it’s at its most dysfunctional. Shigure also refuses to allow Akito emotional control over him; she repeatedly refers to him as “cold” or “cruel,” eventually admitting that this is largely because he is not afraid of her. Even with someone she genuinely loves, sex is a negotiation of power for Akito, an attempt to maintain control of the future regardless of anyone else’s desires.
However, there is still some truth to Akito’s claims that Shigure treats her coldly. For example, at one point he sleeps with her mother as revenge for her sleeping with Kureno. His feelings for Akito are also often contradictory, complicated, and ugly, such as when he tells Kureno he loves her so much that, “[he] want[s] to spoil her rotten… [He] want[s] to crush her to a pulp.”
Although he accepts her sexual advances when she makes them, in some ways this is part and parcel of his “cruelty.” He accepts her when she comes to him but refuses to chase her or attempt to bind them together until she’s able to see him as an equal.
However, Shigure’s coldness serves largely as a form of resistance to the barriers that the Zodiac curse has created between himself and Akito, as well as the effect that her father’s death and her mother’s abuse have had on her. At one point she rails against Shigure, declaring, “I can do whatever I want with the Zodiac…they’re mine!” Shigure does not actively challenge this attitude, but he refuses to indulge Akito, instead choosing to wait until she’s willing to choose him as a lover and thereby an equal.
Unlike Kureno, Shigure does not indulge Akito’s every desire and explicitly states that he refuses to be a substitute for her late father. He is often selfish, vindictive, and manipulative, but consistently acts in a way that rejects and undercuts the power disparity between himself and Akito.
This, alongside Akito’s fear of the Zodiac escaping her control, is what fuels her resentment of the relationship between Hatsuharu and Isuzu (the ox and the horse, respectively). Isuzu actively resists the power that Akito and the Zodiac curse exert over her relationship, seeking freedom and autonomy in part because of her love for Haru.
Even as Isuzu copes with her history of abuse in unhealthy, self-sacrificing ways, such as pushing herself to the point of physical collapse and pushing Haru away despite his wishes, she continues to search for a way to break the curse. Haru, in turn, accepts and values Isuzu as a unique individual, and at the end of the manga defies Akito because of his love for her.
Haru and Isuzu both struggle and sometimes hurt each other, but they face each other on a level playing field, challenging the power of the Zodiac curse over their lives. In this way, they represent the possibility of a successful romantic relationship for members of the Zodiac.
Sex is crucial to this dynamic, as sex for Haru and Isuzu is about intimacy, desire, and acceptance. Isuzu’s flashback to a post-coital moment with Haru is one of the most tender and romantic moments in the manga. This depiction of a sexual relationship with a balanced power dynamic has especially significant implications for Shigure and Akito, as they struggle to act on their genuine love for one another in the face of trauma, stubbornness, and fear.
When the curse breaks at the end of the manga, Akito can love Shigure and be loved by him in return because she is finally able to see Shigure as an equal rather than as a vessel for her own desire to be loved, which puts the two on level ground for the first time.
The dissolution of the curse also liberates Kureno from Akito and vice versa. Because the structure which so strictly defined their lives has been broken, Kureno is able to move away from the Sohma compound and make a life with someone of his own choosing. Akito, in turn, comes to understand him and lets him go.
Fruits Basket’s messages about the natures of love, sex, and power are, well, powerful. The Zodiac curse acts as a cipher for many different forms of power that need to be acknowledged and balanced to achieve truly mutual, equal love. Akito moves through these modes of power in her relationships with Shigure and Kureno until she can let go of her role as “God” in order to live as herself. When Akito relinquishes her power over others and accepts power over herself—even when this is terrifying—only then can she fully participate in love.