Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Fruits Basket Another Volume 1 by Natsuki Takaya is a love letter to fans (Manga Review)

I value journalistic integrity above many things. So I would be remiss to start my review of Fruits Basket Another Volume 1 without revealing my bias. Natsuki Takaya is my favorite mangaka of all time. Her series Twinkle Stars is my favorite manga of all time (with the original Fruits Basket a close second). I love her stories, her very distinctive art style, the emotions, everything. So it will be hard to separate my fandom from my views on the first volume of this new series. But...I'm not sure I need to.

From page 1, Fruits Basket Another Volume 1 (by Natsuki Takaya and published in the U.S. by Yen Press - THANK YOU!) seems specifically created for fans of the original Fruits Basket and not as a person's first introduction to that world. While you certainly could read it as a stand-alone, it is so chock full of references (hidden and explicit) to characters, events, and locations from the original series, that it would not, could not, have the same emotional impact without intimate knowledge of that series.

However, let's start by assuming that you don't know anything about Fruits Basket. How might this volume fare? (Here's where I TRY to be objective).

Our story in volume 1 starts with a quick introduction to Sawa Mitoma who is late to school. This immediately initiates a meet-cute with Mutsuki Sohma who saves her from the mean authority figure at the door. He is handsome and princely. We have no idea why he knows her name or saves her, she asks herself the same questions.

In going to seek him out, she steps on Hajime Sohma who is sleeping in the doorway to the student council room. Meet-cute number 2. We come to find out that Mutsuki and Hajime are cousins. Over the course of the four chapters, we meet many other Sohmas and come to understand that they are a vaunted family (remember, we're pretending we are coming at this series fresh).

What is strange is the interest they all take in Sawa, as if they know her already. There are lots of cousins in the Sohma family and they all seem ready to instantly befriend and help her. She is, quite rightly, overwhelmed by the attention.

As for Sawa's character, we know little. Just that, as a child, her friends abandoned her and she doesn't know why. Her mother is away a lot (and in true Takaya-sensei style) doesn't seem to be a very good parent. Sawa doesn't think very highly of herself and is shy and nervous as a result. Yet somehow, this large and mysterious (and beautiful) Sohma family takes her under its wing.

Being new to the series, most of the references to the original series would be easily missed. The pacing is also quite brisk, which is neither good nor bad, but does parallel Sawa's own experiences and exhaustion. The lack of depth of her backstory could make it tough to identify with her, except that Takaya-sensei's art and sensitive writing draw us to her regardless of our prior knowledge.

But of course, we really do love Fruits Basket and know so much about this world already. From that lens, how does Fruits Basket Another fare? We get references to Yuki's uncle, we get people who are look like they could be Rin and Hatsuharu's children, we see the house, we hear about the cliff where Tohru fell, we get told that as the new kids turn teens the Sohma children are told about the zodiac, we see Megumi (Hanajima's younger brother), etc...etc... All wonderful, heart-swell inducing references. We even get hints that Mutsuki might be Yuki's child and Hajime might be Tohru and Kyo's child (I'm hoping anyway...please let it be so!).

So with the abundance of references, the brisk pace, the similarities between Sawa and Tohru (even their look - a little bit), it's hard not to feel wrapped-up-in-a-warm-blanket-with-hot-chocolate-type-emotions. And I think, truly, that was Takaya-sensei's goal. I doubt she would do Fruits Basket Another with a mind toward the uninitiated. This seems like a total love letter to fans and therefore, any minor faults are more than forgiven.

One minor fault, at least to this point, is that Sawa and her backstory seem a bit too much like Tohru's. It also is reminiscent of Shiina's from Twinkle Stars. Takaya-sensei's heroine's have an archetype. That of the chronically abandoned and abused young woman who is strong on her own and a survivor and infallibly kind and will rise with or without a man by her side. Romance enters but is not the reason for the heroine's strength or value (by far the best part of Takaya-sensei's works is that profoundly important feminist message).

But so far, we don't get the sense of depth to Sawa's backstory. However, this is also only volume 1 and what may seem superficial at first, may evolve into a more complex story later. I wouldn't put it past Takaya-sensei but I also wouldn't fault her if she didn't take that this story so far and chose instead to rest on the emotional laurels of our fond love of the original series and just kept it charming without the horrific baggage she normally includes.

But if anything, the biggest fault of Fruits Basket Another may be an aspect of this and the original series that doesn't play as well today as it did 20 years ago. And that is the privilege that the Sohmas have in society. Their family is not only universally smart, talented, and beautiful, but also rich and powerful and positioned above other people simply by their name. We see this in Fruits Basket Another where Hajime is the school council president and Mutsuki is the vice president. They are adored by all the girls. We hear talk of how their family is held in such high regard.

In my official work (in the real world), I work on equity in education. I specifically look at racial disproportionality in the suspension of special education students as well as explicit and implicit bias in education overall. I also spend a fair amount of time promoting LGBTQ rights and awareness of society's continued overt discrimination by race, gender, LGBTQ and other characteristics. Therefore, it is hard for me to read this and not recognize the Sohma's as the 1% that they are. Born to power.

Yet, I do not mean this as a critique of people born into power. No one has any control over what circumstances they are born into. I would never judge a person negatively just because they come from a rich and powerful family. But as a society we continue to position those with privilege above those without. I am definitely not saying that this manga has to explicitly address that or carry a social justice perspective, simply that I can no longer read about this without recognizing privilege for what it is. Hopefully, the Sohmas will use their privilege and power for the betterment of all person-kind.

That is also not a critique of Fruits Basket Another simply because I do not believe it is a work meant to be taken in isolation, outside the already established world of Fruits Basket, and mostly for the enjoyment of its many existing fans. I completely get that broad social justice messages are not the point of this series and don't hold it against Takaya-sensei in the least. Not everything in life has to confront social ills, but at the same time, we can talk about it when they don't as a way of bridging that gap.

That all said (whew!), the art is wonderful. I love Takaya-sensei's art more than any other mangaka. It is unique in several respects. It pays homage to classical shoujo styles, but is quite individual. Her eyes are large but dark and almost always with a vacancy that plays up the longing and hurt in her characters. Her faces are none-the-less incredibly expressive even while their bodies are drawn fairly rigid and simply (hands especially are almost always very rudimentary). Her use of screentones is exceptional, backgrounds are often more ethereal sparkles than distinct places, and mood abounds. I could swim in her art.

For fans of Fruits Basket, Fruits Basket Another volume 1 is a must. In no way does it diminish the original series and instead makes one hungry to know what happily-ever-after looked like for those characters. The art is top notch, the story-telling classic Takaya-sensei in its themes and rhythms. It does feel a little bit like a mirror image, but in the most loving way. However, for those new to her work, the pace might be a bit brisk and the references missed. I'm giving this a strong 8/10 ("highly recommended") as a fan because it delivers more of what she's best at. I can't wait for Volume 2 (and are there more?) to see if this continues to be a simple thank-you to fans or if Takaya-sensei takes it into original and haunting depths like her prior series.

Thank you Takaya-sensei for being awesome and thank you Yen Press for publishing this in the U.S. relatively quickly after its original publication.


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