In 2013, writer Tim Kreider penned in a New York Times column, “If we want the rewards of being loved, we must submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.” Roughly five years later, the phrase exploded on social media as a series of memes that erase Kreider’s original context (he was accidentally cc’d on an email lightly making fun of him), while drawing on the universality of the emotion he was channeling. The phrase speaks to the struggles of being vulnerable and the craving of intimacy that seems too distant in an online world.
Kreider’s wording is vague — what is it about being known that strikes such a fear? The possibility of being hurt? The concept that our inner self might be at odds with our outer self? The idea that revealing our burdens will alienate others? But the popularity of the statement speaks to how all-encompassing the feeling is.
In all its facets, the popular anime and manga Fruits Basket perfectly encapsulates that idea that being known is embarrassing and difficult. The show’s entire theme revolves around fear of revealing secrets or allowing emotional intimacy, and the difficulty of forming meaningful relationships. It is, in essence, the perfect accompanying piece to the meme, a series that captures the true vulnerability and pain of baring yourself — and also the possible triumph of love.
[Ed. note: This post contains major spoilers for the first season of the Fruits Basket reboot]
At the center of Fruits Basket — the manga, the 2001 anime, and the 2019 reboot — is the Sohma family. Cursed to turn into animals from the Chinese Zodiac when hugged by members of the opposite sex, the Sohmas keep outsiders at a distance. Some are shunned by their own parents, like childish Momji, the bunny of the Zodiac, whose mother was so disgusted at his transformation that she fell into a deep depression. Some have had partners leave them. All are compelled to do the bidding of mysterious family head Akito, who wields power over them as the “god” of the Zodiac. Plucky protagonist Tohru Honda more or less accidentally falls into their lives and learns their secret within the first episode. But when her classmates Yuki and Kyo turn into a rat and cat, respectively, Tohru doesn’t respond with fear or disgust — just understandable confusion.
The metaphor is obvious for the Sohmas. Getting close to anyone is a risk, because they might expose their secret and alienate possible connections. Almost every Sohma Zodiac member has had someone close to them recoil at their very existence, so they often purposefully rebuff others. They find solidarity in the family, but have a hard time admitting that they do care about one another, let alone those outside the family. The series makes their fear of being known evident, but as the story progresses, they slowly come to terms with their anxiety, and realize how it inhibits their lives. They recognize the rewards of being loved, and actively work to overcome their fears.
Tohru forces the Sohmas to open up a bit more, not just to her, but to one another. Prickly Kyo is reluctant to let anyone know how he feels, but even the more polite and friendly Yuki realizes what he’s missing from life when he sees how easily Kyo gets along with Tohru’s friends. Though Kyo is a bit of a jerk, his competitive spirit and playful nature allow him to comfortably be at least surface-level friends with his classmates. Yuki, meanwhile, infallibly polite yet always aloof, attracts a fanclub of admirers, but has no friends except Tohru.
As the show progresses, he’s able to recognize these shortcomings, and slowly begins to reveal more about himself to Tohru, her friends, and Kyo. In the reboot’s second season, he extends a hand to his older brother Ayame, in an effort to repair their alienated relationship. Childhood struggles and neglectful parents estranged the two boys, and while Ayame previously tried to help, Yuki resisted. But with his newfound self-awareness, he tries to bridge the gap. The brothers’ outward personalities are deeply different — Ayame is flamboyant and bombastic, where Yuki is dignified and reserved — but each of those outer layers is a tool they use to guard their true emotions. By the end of the episode, they share a moment of sincerity, and Yuki decides that even if he doesn’t understand his brother, and even if his brother’s obnoxious attitude can be grating, he’s still glad both of them are making an effort.
Yuki’s struggles to open up give the Sohmas’ supernatural conflict a more grounded reality. Being too reserved to show your true self to potential friends is not just something a teenager with a generational curse goes through. It’s a universal feeling — one that Kreider’s New York Times column emphasizes is present throughout life.
On the more extreme and magical scale of the Zodiac is Kyo, who has the double whammy of being cursed to turn into a cat if he’s hugged, and also becoming a grotesque monster if he loses the magical bracelet that controls his form. Even other Zodiac members detest him, since the cat isn’t actually part of the Zodiac. While hot-headed Kyo gets along with potential friends better than Yuki, he still holds people at a distance. But exposed to Tohru’s unwavering compassion for those around her, he slowly begins to open up, though he still doesn’t reveal his true nature to her. In the last episodes of the first season, his adoptive father figure Kazuma notices how close they’ve become, and knows that in order for Kyo to possibly know any peace, he must confront his fear. He takes Kyo’s bracelet in front of Tohru — but she’s undaunted, even when the monstrous Kyo pushes her away. She embraces him, perceiving him for what he is, and loving him just the same.
The fear of being perceived isn’t just a problem for the Sohmas. It extends to all the characters. Tohru’s school friends, goth girl Hanajima and tough Uotani, both struggled to trust others. Backstory-focused episodes at the tail end of the first season reveal the vicious bullying Hanajima endured, and Uo’s turn to crime after her mother abandoned her. Both of them held others at a distance because of past pain. And both eventually learned to open up, leading to the close friendship they share with each other and Tohru.
And even Tohru herself is slowly going through her own journey. Her struggle isn’t as obvious: she’s not burdened by an ancient curse or malignant bullying. But her mother died the previous year, and at the start of the series, she’s effectively homeless. She minimizes her own problems in order to help others, rarely revealing what she’s struggling with. She’s afraid of being seen as too much of a burden, and turned away. As the show progresses, Tohru inspires those around her to draw support from others, but she also realizes that it’s okay to let people in and confide her problems to them. Both Yuki and Kyo help her confront her neglectful family. When they realize she’s going to be alone on the New Year, they cancel their own plans to be with her, risking Akito’s wrath. Tohru has shown them what the rewards of love can be; they extend it to her, and she makes the active choice to trust them.
Fruits Basket gets its name from an anecdote Tohru shares about her childhood, about a classroom game where students gave each other fruit names, then called out fruits in turn to assemble a metaphorical fruits basket. (Think “The Farmer in the Dell,” but with preassigned fruits.) But Tohru didn’t get a fruit name — classmates dubbed her an onigiri (a rice ball), so she was never called on in the game. This first instance of rejection haunts Tohru throughout her life, and the title sets the series’ theme. Every character is afraid of being truly perceived, and then being rejected, or hurting someone else with their needs or experiences. But the flip side of being known is that others around them walk the same path, wanting to be loved, but too afraid of vulnerability. All it takes is for one character to extend a hand, and start the slow domino effect of characters reaping the rewards of being loved.
The Fruits Basket reboot is available to stream on Crunchyroll. New episodes air on Mondays.
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