Spoilers for Fruits Basket
Back in the ‘00s, in their quest for more gender non-conforming, strong female characters, much of fandom pushed aside heroines who they deemed to be too “girly”. Female characters who put their energy into caring for others, rather than standing up and fighting, were dismissed as passive doormats who exist only for the male cast’s development. One such character was Tohru Honda, the heroine of the classic shoujo manga and anime Fruits Basket. The first part of the remake has made it abundantly clear that Tohru is plenty strong; however, since her strength comes in the form of traditionally feminine roles such as nurturing and protecting those dear to her, audiences tend to disregard her strength because of how these roles are devalued.
Fruits Baskets’ set up does resemble that of a typical reverse harem. Tohru Honda has been living alone in a tent after her mother dies, and finds she’s unwittingly been trespassing on the property of her classmate Yuki Sohma and his cousin. Rather than kicking her to the curb, the Sohmas invite her to live with them, offering her free room and board in exchange for her cooking and cleaning for them. Not long after moving in, she discovers that members of the Sohma family, including her new housemates, are cursed to turn into animals of the Chinese zodiac when embraced by members of other sexes. One by one, she meets and bonds with the mostly-male zodiac members.
The misreading of Tohru as a doormat comes from a combination of genre awareness and gendered expectations. The main characters of so-called “reverse harems”, in which a female protagonist is surrounded by handsome male suitors, tend to be passive and accept whatever abuse comes their way, while the male characters are more active and drive the storyline. Compared to the fantastical and allegorical circumstances of the Sohmas, Tohru’s own situation – recently orphaned and homeless because of her self-sacrificing nature – seems positively prosaic by comparison. The true nature of her strength only becomes clear after pulling back that top layer of expectations and actively engaging with the material.
Learned empathy and the labor of caregiving
The gendered expectations are the far more insidious cause for misinterpretation. Tohru fills a lot of classic gender roles. She cooks and cleans for the Sohmas, who were slobs who ate takeout every day before she came along, on top of school and working part-time as a janitor. She’s polite and cheerful to everyone she comes across. But most importantly, she offers the Sohmas and her close friends Arisa “Uo” Uotani and Hana unconditional love and acceptance, without ever asking for anything in return.
Unconditional love and acceptance is hard work. Caretaking is hard work. Takaya even makes it clear within the narrative that caring for others is a learned skill. Tohru describes how her mother, Kyoko, would say that people aren’t naturally kind. We come into this world only knowing our own wants and needs, and only learn to overcome their own instincts over years of growth. To be fair, Tohru seems to have a preternatural talent for it, able to heal the Sohmas’ intergenerational trauma with her soothing presence. That makes her similar to any given scrappy shonen hero with some great destiny or unusual potential to fill.
Since that talent is something that is considered to come naturally to girls, rather than throwing punches or swinging a sword, audiences tend to discount it as an actual strength. They don’t consider that empathy is something learned rather than inborn, nor take into account that it’s quite literally text that it’s a skill that takes a lot of conscious effort to learn. It’s a pernicious cultural belief that leads to female-dominated caregiving professions like early childhood education, social work, and elder care to be underpaid and underappreciated. Tohru never gives up on those around her, which takes an unbelievable amount of determination.
The strength found in loving
Just because she never gives up on them doesn’t mean she just lets all of them run roughshod over her and the ones she holds dear. When it comes to protecting those around her, Tohru has a spine of solid steel. She bonds quickly with Yuki, getting to know him and his internal self better than anyone outside his family has, probably in his life. He opens up to her, in part because of her giving nature, and the two grow increasingly emotionally intimate.
So when she sees the terror in his eyes when Akito, the head of the Sohma family, shows up to their school, she doesn’t idly sit by. Acting on instinct, she shoves Akito in a desperate bid to protect Yuki. The instinct to protect is a source of strength for many people, but it tends to be most discounted in women as “maternal instinct”, just an extension of their natural nurturing tendencies.
Over and over, Takaya goes out of her way to show that the decision to love and protect can be a greater source of strength than violence. Tohru’s mother Kyoko and Uo are both former members of girl gangs, but chose to leave them. Both had difficult upbringings, and turned to the gangs as a way to express their anger at the world. Fruits Basket doesn’t try to cutesify the situation – their lives as gangsters are pointlessly violent, cruel, and dangerous. The gang members resent their choice, talking about how they’ve gone “soft” and how it makes them sick to see. When Uo tried to quit, her former comrades almost beat her to death, until Kyoko came to her rescue.
They found the strength it took to leave that life behind because they found someone to love them. Kyoko found love in Katsuki Honda, and she taught that life of love to her daughter. That love, that offering of grace, saved them inside and out in a way that violence never could. That love wasn’t instinct; it was something they learned from another, and grew stronger through practicing the act of loving. Because love isn’t just an emotion; it is an action, a way of treating people around you. Loving is Tohru’s strength and skill, not merely an instinct or innate quality.
That is what gives such power to the season’s climax. Kazuma, Kyo’s foster father, pulls off his bracelet and reveals his monstrous true form to Tohru. As Kyo flees into the forest, Kagura, who claims to love Kyo, closes the curtain and hides her face. Only Tohru follows him.
She makes it clear that it wasn’t an easy choice or act. She describes how in this form he disgusts and frightens her. He is foul and misshapen and carries the reek of death. But she still follows him, because he needs her love. That’s not the action of a doormat; that takes incredible strength. Offering someone love and acceptance, even when they show their ugliest sides, even when it’s difficult or frightening, takes an incredible power.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in the limited-edition 2019 AniFem Zine. It has been republished here with minor edits with the author’s permission.