Here's what I thought about Fruits Basket after first watching it several years ago:
"The most adorable anime in the world! The makers of the show wanted to make something that would give the audience warm fuzzies. Like Hellsing
, this is an anime to turn newbies into hardcore otaku. It's a guaranteed 'you'd have to be dead inside to hate this' show and especially effective if you don't say anything about it in advance! My sister went in cold and at the end of episode one practically fell off the sofa."
So that was then. Recently though I rewatched the series after reading the manga
. How well did this old favourite stand up?
Firstly, it was a mistake to watch it back-to-back with the manga. Those last few manga volumes are a gut-punch, after which the anime initially feels lightweight... but that's no one's fault. It's just the source material. In 2001, Natsuki Takaya was only a third of the way through and furthermore much of her work so far was homoerotic fantasy-fulfilment. Big tonal shifts were still to come. It would get almost terrifying before the end in 2006, but in 2001 the tone was still light.
In fact, to my surprise, the anime's faithful. Specific gags and panels are straight from the manga. Pages of dialogue are practically verbatim. In fact the anime prunes more than it invents, for instance omitting the baseball cap incident from Tooru's childhood. They've rearranged scenes and ignored the odd character point that Takaya too would eventually get bored of, e.g. Momiji being half-German, but basically everything you love in the anime comes from the manga. It would be absurd to praise one and not the other. The differences are largely in tone and emphasis.
You can do a lot with tone, though. This is where the director comes in.
For those who haven't heard me going on about Akitaroh Daichi before, he's my favourite director in any medium. (That's largely thanks to Kodocha
, but I first discovered him through this.) I recently learned that he's done lots of mini-episode gag anime that will probably never be available in English because they're full of topical jokes and cultural references, e.g. "Sexy Commando Side-Story: You're Amazing, Masaru-San". There are also bad anime that suddenly got good for a few episodes when Daichi came in as guest director. He's supple. He can be side-splittingly funny, or he can reduce me to tears. He can turn on a sixpence and he has complete control of emotions, character and story.
What he does here is to be a witty but sensitive male storyteller with a keen sense of the ridiculous, instead of a slightly drooling female manga-ka who sometimes appeared to be writing one-handed.
1. He detoxifies it. The anime never feels like fanservice for teenage girls.
2. He makes it funnier. The manga has plenty of jokes, but the anime is hysterical and one of its biggest sources of comedy is Kyo. This is a significant point of departure. The manga had a bad boy fetish. It has all these tortured, aggressive men who behave shockingly and deny their own feelings, but are really waiting to be redeemed by the right woman. Uh-huh. Yeah, right. The anime though isn't pandering to any fantasies. Daichi simply thinks Kyo's funny. His dialogue's still overdosing on testosterone, but this just makes him look like a twat and one of the funniest things you've seen all year.
Daichi's use of incidental music raises this to another level, incidentally. Just look at what he does with the rhythm section, although I'm still surprised about him using bagpipes for Ayame. It works, though.
3. It's more coherent... although of course that's largely because they're doing only the first seven or eight books, not the full 23. Nevertheless I still appreciated the fact that things like the Prince Yuki Fan Club and Tooru's part-time job were allowed to last the full length of the anime, instead of being forgotten.
4. Tooru is less of an airhead, although the voice acting makes her slightly simpleminded in the American dub.
5. The big problem of course is the finale. It's weak. I used to find this a disappointment, but paradoxically the manga made me like it better. They're stopping a third of the way through the storyline. Of course it won't be a resolution. Any attempt to do so would probably wreck everything. The only question is how elegantly they manage to tie off the bleeding stump, to which the answer is "acceptably". They don't hurt the original. There's a new backstory for Akito (and his voice is wrong), but I can live with that and in any case the new stuff is just ten minutes at the end of episode 26. It's not great, but it's watchable and you wouldn't be thinking twice about it if they'd done a second season.
The fans were desperate for further episodes, incidentally. They even mounted a paper crane folding campaign in 2005, but Studio Deen and Hakusensha didn't cave in.
That's enough comparison, though. Pretending for now that the manga doesn't exist, what's the anime like in its own right?
Answer: it's lovely. Daichi's production team concentrated on the psychological depth and sincerity that, to be fair, was already in the manga. You've thus got great warmth and intense awareness of the characters' inner pain... but in the context of an anime that's light and funny. This material should have been heavy, yet it's not. It can be sad. It can dig so deeply into its characters' extreme mental problems as to become uncomfortable to watch, particularly in episode 22 and the Prince Yuki Fan Club. You're aware in forensic detail of the darkness of these characters' inner lives and why they're so broken, yet at the same time it's a happy show. It's fun. It believes in goodness and in its heroine, Tooru. It'll also make you piss yourself laughing, which is a big plus.
This is a beautiful show, in multiple ways. It wants to know what could make us better people. It blends light and dark with such deceptive ease that it wouldn't occur to you that this could even be difficult. It's both sad and happy. It's goofy and realistic, tragic and hilarious. The manga's more extreme and takes its story way further, but the anime's brilliant.