The Always Smiling Girl: How Tohru critiques toxic positivity

By: Olivia "Livi" Burke August 20, 20210 Comments
A smiling girl looking up into a sunny sky, her hand braced to block the light from her eyes

Content Warning: discussion of domestic abuse, parental death, trauma.

Spoilers for Fruits Basket.

Honda Tohru is the kind, happy, and loving protagonist of Fruits Basket, whose personality helps soothe the trauma of everyone who comes into contact with her. Throughout the series, Tohru befriends many members of the Sohma clan and helps them face their fears and process their trauma, as well as resolving to break the family’s magical zodiac curse. However, she is not simply a saint who exists to solve everyone else’s problems. The narrative takes care to demonstrate that Tohru has her own issues, and highlights that her relentlessly positive attitude and her devotion to putting others before herself is not healthy. Ultimately, Fruits Basket explores and unpacks the harmful side of her relentless positivity as one of many healing stories across the series. 

This is in part what allows Tohru to be the incredible protagonist that she is. Rather than falling into the “helpful sweet girl” trope who props up the development of others, Tohru’s healing process is intertwined with the Sohma’s journeys, and we are able to see them grow as characters together. Too often, similar characters such as Haru from Sing “Yesterday” for Me and Kaori fromYour Lie In April never really get fully fleshed out or show signs of having any characteristics other than just positive or happy. The time they devote to others’ happiness without any thought for themselves, with no negative consequences, is downright unrealistic.

Closeup of a girl on the verge of tears, her face smeared with dirt

Fruits Basket deals unflinchingly with abuse and trauma. The Sohma clan, cursed for generations to turn into the animals from the Chinese Zodiac when hugged by a member of the opposite sex, is a hotbed of physical and emotional abuse and neglect. Nearly every member of the family struggles with anger, anxiety, and self-esteem issues. When Tohru stumbles into their situation, she bonds with them and helps keep everyone grounded, giving them the strength to continue and heal. Tohru is always there for the people around her, offering them emotional support. Unfortunately, this is often at the cost of her own well-being. When the story begins, Tohru is living in a tent in the woods—her mother just died, and yet her primary concern is not wanting to inconvenience her friends or relatives.

Tohru is established quickly as the type of person who will push her own feelings and struggles aside so that she can put others first. While she puts on a happy front, she herself is struggling: homeless, grieving her mother, and exhausted from overwork. When Yuki, Shigure, and Kyo Sohma take her in, she insists that she is fine, and makes a point to cover up her true feelings with kindness and a smile on her face. This sort of behavior is one kind of “toxic positivity.” 

A girl sitting in a kitchen smiling brightly at a pale-haired boy, seen from the back

Toxic positivity is essentially the belief that no matter what is going on in one’s life or around them, one must maintain a positive mindset. While it’s good to try to look on the bright side, forcing oneself to be optimistic 100% of the time can do more harm than good, as it forces the individual to suppress their true feelings and ignore their own needs. In Tohru’s case, she pushes aside her struggles with her trauma and mental health in order to help her friends. 

Characters like Tohru are definitely not uncommon. There are many female characters that attempt to take care of their friends who are struggling around them, including Spice and Wolf’s Holo, Ai-Ren’s Ai, and Talentless Nana’s Michiru. Some even serve as a maternal figure and nurture the other characters as they overcome their own personal problems and trauma. This trope reinforces the idea that it is natural for women to rehabilitate and fix the people around them, even at the expense of their own physical or mental well-being. 

What makes Tohru different is that her flaws are presented to the audience right off the bat and actually examined as the story progresses. She isn’t just a character that exists to be a vehicle for the other characters’ growth to take place. Her growth is just as important to the overall story, if not more. 

Two teenaged boys, one with bright orange hair and one with gray, running down a street with determined expressions

The sad and damaging behavior that saw Tohru living in a tent recurs throughout the series. When the Sohmas go to see the rest of the clan for New Year’s, Tohru assures them she will be fine at the house by herself, even though this is the first holiday since her mother died. The boys, thankfully, realize that there is no way for her to be okay alone on such a day, and run back to spend the holiday with her. They come to understand that Tohru only said that she would be fine by herself that night so as not to bother them. Tohru’s grief gets the emotional weight it deserves, and the other characters resolve to support her like she has been supporting them.

While it isn’t uncommon for a series to dedicate a single arc to a character’s tragic backstory only to never speak of it again afterward, Tohru’s grief is not forgotten as the series goes on. Her mother’s photograph remains an emotionally important keepsake, and Tohru is distressed when she nearly loses it. When the photo falls from her wallet while Tohru, Kisa, and Hiro are walking back to the beach house in season two, Hiro remarks that Tohru doesn’t talk about her mom much, or her dad for that matter.

A framed photograph of a smiling woman, propped up on someone's lap seen from above

The expression on Tohru’s face changes for a moment, but then she swiftly changes the subject to dinner and what games they’ll play that evening. Hiro and Kisa, both of whom Tohru has already helped with their own emotional issues, get the chance to see that she is struggling on the inside. While the beach house arc largely focuses on the tangled family dynamic of the Sohmas, the writers make sure to draw attention to Tohru’s suffering as well to make sure it isn’t overshadowed by her positive attitude.

Another pitfall writers fall into with these characters is making sure their emotions are never inconvenient to the people they’re supporting. In Your Lie in April, the violinist Kaori suffers from a progressive terminal illness that, not far into the series, robs her of her ability to play violin. Instead of examining her own feelings about her mortality, her sadness and frustration are tools to spur the protagonist Arima’s character arc rather than her own. Instead, she only reveals her true feelings in a letter delivered to him posthumously.

Closeup of a brown-haired girl in a well-lit bedroom, looking down sadly

Tohru becomes sick multiple times due to studying too much and neglecting her physical well-being. When Tohru was small, her mother always told her how important it was to her that Tohru graduated from high school, since she never got to do so herself. This becomes one more area where Tohru puts the wishes of others before her own health, working to embody the hopes of her deceased mother until her own quality of life is affected. Thankfully, her friends make sure that Tohru takes the necessary time she needs to rest and get better. 

When Kureno essentially dumps information about his trauma onto Tohru after they first meet, she barely manages to keep it together, only to break down crying right after he leaves. At this point in the series, Tohru has been holding on to so much from taking on the feelings and struggles of every single character including herself, she just could not take it anymore. Thankfully, her friend Hana comes along to help her feel better. She takes Tohru back to her place where her and their friends drink tea and practice some good old fashioned self-care. 

Tohru’s unconditional love and kindness is her greatest strength as well as her greatest weakness. Much of the positive change in the other main characters stems from Tohru’s support: Yuki opens up emotionally at both school and home and begins to overcome the childhood trauma tied to the emotional neglect from his mother and abuse he received from Akito, the family head. Kyo, whose trauma manifests as anger, begins to calm down and become more confident in himself. Tohru listens to them talk about their problems and gives them a safe space to heal in. 

A group of young people sitting together on a beach at sunset, the shortest of them standing up and smiling happily at the others

What elevates Fruits Basket from the most common version of the “cheerful helpful girl” trope is that this support is mutual. Yuki and Kyo appreciate Tohru so much that they want to help her value her own feelings and wellbeing. Yuki helps take care of her when she is sick and helps her study so she can pass the upcoming exam. Kyo often calls Tohru out when he sees her suppress her feelings. He reassures her that she is not a bother and provides her with a safe space for vulnerability and openness. 

While the people she loves grow because of her, Tohru grows with them as well. Instead of being reduced to an unpaid therapist and constant shoulder to cry on for the other characters who get more development, Tohru learns that her hopes and dreams are just as important as theirs. 

Honda Tohru is the powerful female protagonist that she is not just because of her kind selfless nature but the encouragement and support she receives from her friends that allows her to be so resilient and strong. Her character arc critiques her toxic positivity and gives her struggles emotional weight. By having a flawed heroine whose trauma is shown to be just as important as the trauma she “repairs” in others, Fruits Basket champions mutual kindness and avoids the shallow trope of the saintly woman.

About the Author : Olivia "Livi" Burke

Olivia "Livi" Burke is an activist, writer, and big-time fan of all things related to anime and manga. Some of her favorite anime are My Hero Academia, Hunter x Hunter, Assassination Classroom, and of course, Fruits Basket. When she isn't writing or watching anime, she enjoys trying out new recipes in the kitchen or playing with her dog, Hamilton. She can be found on Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok.

Read more articles from Olivia "Livi" Burke

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