Fruits Basket (2019) Episodes 1 & 2 Premiere

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Seventeen years later, and Furuba fever hasn’t subsided. I felt at home among fellow passionate fans in an auditorium laughing, cheering, and crying at this familiar-yet-fresh reboot of the beloved shojo classic. Not every seat was taken, but the audible excitement and enthusiasm in the room could’ve fooled you into thinking it was a full house. I can only imagine what it must’ve been like at the previous day’s packed and sold-out screening for the dub, which I know must’ve had a massive turnout considering my theater ran out of the commemorative goodie bags FUNimation promised for each patron. I’ll mail-in my voucher, but truthfully I’m already so satisfied by my experience that I won’t feel too bad if I never take a sip out of that plastic cup. The new Fruits Basket has already filled me up with food for thought and food for the soul.

While I’ve been anticipating this new adaptation as much as most, I was prepared to receive a tasteless gift rather than a complete meal. Fruits Basket follows a recent trend of high-profile adaptations of classic stories for new audiences, and for every artistically-motivated reimaging like Dororo there’s a Hoshin Engi, a cash-in that wants to make bank on nostalgia rather than tell the story fans were promised. Even a creatively-inspired show like Banana Fish ultimately suffered from modern anime’s unwillingness to run longer than two cours unless it’s based on a popular battle-shonen, and the lack of time and space to tell the story served to its detriment. When it was announced that this new Fruits Basket would strive to tell the complete story, I was worried that it might abridge the storytelling to such an extent that it’d be reduced to nothing but plot points, leaving no time to let the crucial emotions at the heart of Fruits Basket boil and stew

I’m ecstatic to see my fears were unwarranted; this new Fruits Basket is truly a labor of love. It’s clear from the get-go that the staff is genuinely passionate about this story and wants to tell it properly, giving the story room to breathe and draw viewers into its world. The pace is deliberate and precise enough to communicate what’s needed without losing sight of the characters, establishing who they are and what they’re all about in an effective and engrossing way. The first episode of the new series covers as much material and ends at the same place as the first episode of the 2001 show, but it somehow feels faster and more dense with insight into who these characters are and the background of the larger story. It certainly helps that the staff and voice actors know the direction the story is going, something the original anime team didn’t, and that’s reflected in the foreshadowing communicated both in the performances and on-screen visual cues. Crucial symbols in the story, like Kyo’s beads and the hat in his sack, are emphasized in ways subtle enough not to distract newer viewers but prominent enough to reward and excite fans familiar with the source material.

Perhaps most telling of the new Fruits Basket’s love and adoration for its roots are the storybook illustrations depicting the fable of the Chinese Zodiac. These are practically identical to the ones used in the original anime adaptation, and these and other easter eggs show the depth of the staff’s adoration for Fruits Basket, and demonstrate their intent to encapsulate the nostalgia viewers have for the series in their new interpretation. The show’s character designs find a middle-ground between the distinct early and late looks of the original manga, leaning closer to Takaya’s modern take on the characters but retaining some embellishments that feel reminiscent of an early 2000s sensibility. While the bright color palette is certainly modern, the environments still remind viewers of an older era with its focus on a small-town flanked by lush forests. The beauty of the world surrounding the characters is always at the forefront, letting whatever technology or tools they use slip into the background as embellishments instead of distractions. There’s a certain timeless quality to the way the Sohma estate is drawn that makes it feel like you’ve been welcomed back to a place that, while a little cleaner and nicer looking, unmistakably feels like home. The new Fruits Basket isn’t a slavish panel-for-panel recreation of the original manga nor is it a wildly different experience like the first anime adaptation. Rather, the new Fruits Basket embodies the emotional core of the series and delivers a delicious version of it that feels complete as a good story that stands on its own, one that’ll satisfy new and old fans alike.

For as strong as the visual presentation is, the magic and soul of Fruits Basket truly lies in its impeccably perfect voice cast. Even though the original voice cast has been replaced, each of the newcomers embodies the interiority of their characters, imbuing every line with a hint of deeper meaning that clues the viewer into their characters’ inner feelings. They may be newcomers to Fruits Basket, many of them having only read the series in preparation for their audition and some, like Tohru’s actress Manaka Iwami, only being as young as the series is old. Even so, as the actors remark in the interview presented alongside the theatrical screening of these episodes, Fruits Basket is a timeless story that can touch the hearts of anyone regardless of age or gender. In watching the interview, I was immediately stricken by how well the actors understood their characters and their admiration for Tohru in particular. Iwami’s self-deprecating remarks that she isn’t as emotionally sincere as Tohru, calling herself “filthy,” particularly stuck out to me. I think her humility and ability to articulate the best qualities in other people makes her quite apt to play Tohru, and that viscerality comes across in her performance. Similarly, Uchida’s Kyo is as stubborn and Shimazaki’s Yuki is as confidently gentlemanly as both actors appear to be in real-life, in another remarkably serendipitous bit of casting. It truly feels like the team behind this anime sought out actors that truly embodied the characters they play in Fruits Basket beyond their acting, and together with the sincere appreciation these actors have for the work, the resulting performances are profoundly nuanced and emotionally rich. The performance that perhaps encapsulates this most is Yuuichi Nakamura’s sardonic portrayal of Shigure Souma. His line reads communicate the manipulativeness and resentment at the character’s core through dialogue that in other hands, like in the original anime, might be expressed uncharacteristically sincere. Nakamura’s Shigure truly highlights the impressive insight and nuanced understanding that the new Fruits Basket has of its characters and the story it’s telling, reassuring that it’s not simply content to regurgitate Takaya’s manga, but express and amplify its best qualities.

There’s little to find fault with the new Fruits Basket; it’s a good-looking adaptation with a beautiful soul, made with love by people who seem to be as invested and care about it as much as its fans. If I have any reservations, they stem mostly from comparisons to the original 2001 adaptation. While rough around the edges, it’s still an emotionally rich creative achievement that plays with the animated medium in inventive and uniquely quirky ways that is irreplicable, even compared to similar shows by its director like Kodocha. In contrast, the new Fruits Basket is thoughtfully made but doesn’t stand out. Though beautiful, its aesthetics are practically indistinguishable from other modern shojo or iyashikei anime with similar settings.

This isn’t bad, necessarily, but there’s a samey-ness to the way the new Fruits Basket is presented in terms of artistry and its directorial decisions, something that can’t be said about the original show’s dually manic and dramatic flair. Most symbolic of the different natures of these adaptations is their depiction of the Prince Yuki Fan Club. While bombastically introduced with an eccentric cheerleading routine in which the members of the Fan Club spell out Yuki’s name and usually serving as vehicles for zany slapstick humor in the original anime, the new anime’s versions are restrictively bullies who serve to antagonize instead of being entertaining in of themselves, and the new show characterizes them more like a unit than a group of idiosyncratic idiots. Even their character designs look less distinctive and blend in with the nameless background students, with their leader Motoko Minagawa looking particularly unremarkable compared to her manga and original anime counterpart. It’s a little sad and a bit ironic that some of the things that stood out most in the original show now stand out the least in the new one. That said, it’s unfair to compare the new Fruits Basket to the old because while the contents are the same, their goals are distinct. Limited by the material available to them, the first anime was left free to set itself apart from the manga, choosing to prop up and embellish the ideas they resonated with. Meanwhile, the new Fruits Basket seeks to recapture the tone of the manga and represent Takaya’s vision, emphasizing the human drama and downplaying the comedy to better fit the overall story’s goals. They’re different animals with unique things they bring to the table, neither necessarily better than the other, and there’s room for both of them at your banquet.

It’s only been recently, after revisiting the series for the first time in over eight years, that I’ve understood how much Fruits Basket resonates with me. As the voice actors articulate in their interview, it’s a story that crosses boundaries of time and place, age and gender, because it is rooted in raw and relatable emotional problems. It focuses on everyday traumas intrinsic to social systems and familial obligations that most people have grappled with no matter the community they’re apart of, exposing the pain and offering catharsis. It’s an easy story to get teary-eyed at, even during the innocuous early material where the quaint doldrums of the characters’ daily lives are but a trifling facade hiding their deeper despairs. Still, even at the most innocent trifles, even after having already revisited this material through the manga and original anime, tears were still brought to my eyes by this new adaptation. I wasn’t alone. This is the Fruits Basket anime fans deserve, and it delivers. Even though I’ve had my fill, I’m still hungry for more, and I can’t wait to dig in and savor each and every episode when it continues in April. This is a story that no matter how long it’s been, unfailingly stays together with me. Always.

 

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