[Ed. note: This review contains end spoilers for Fruits Basket season 3 and setup spoilers for Fruits Basket: Prelude.]
The 2019 TV adaptation of the manga series Fruits Basket ended in 2021, prompting tears and big hugs all around, as the Sohma family finally broke their curse and got to move on. Plucky protagonist Tohru Honda and her love interest Kyo, the angsty Cat of the Sohma family Zodiac, wound up together. There were happy endings all around, including some for characters who might not deserve them.
With the story mostly resolved, the new Fruits Basket movie instead turns to the past. The prequel Fruits Basket: Prelude shifts the focus from Tohru to her parents, Kyoko and Katsuya, and the love story that first brought them together. The romantic connection between her parents has sparked some controversy, and the story plunges into overly exaggerated and contrived moments. But digging deep, the emotional thread that makes Fruits Basket so memorable is present in the movie — there’s just a lot of questionable stuff covering it up.
Prelude’s first half-hour is basically a recap of the last season of Fruits Basket, in all its heartwarming and heartbreaking glory. Unfortunately, that’s all it really is: a straightforward recap that doesn’t add much for anyone who’s already watched the show. It mostly exists to remind viewers that Kyo knew Kyoko when he was a kid, and that she was one of the few adults who ever showed him kindness. The recap also resurfaces the fact that Kyo was a witness the day Kyoko died in a car accident, and he could’ve saved her if he hadn’t been paralyzed by fear. All that was handled in Fruits Basket season 3, though, which makes the length of this recap unnecessary, except for new viewers or fans wanting to relive the final season’s emotional highs and lows.
The TV series revealed small snippets about Tohru’s mom over time, though not enough to paint a concrete picture of her past. She was a junior high delinquent who skipped school and joined a gang. When she met Tohru’s father, Katsuya, who came from a more affluent family. They got married and had Tohru, but Katsuya died unexpectedly. Kyoko’s family had already abandoned her, since they deemed her a lost cause, and Katsuya’s family didn’t want much to do with her after his death, so she raised Tohru on her own.
Fruits Basket: Prelude, then, ought to be a touching romance between Kyoko and Katsuya, continuing the anime’s themes of love and redemption. But the problem — which manga readers will be familiar with, and maybe were hoping would get retconned in this adaptation — is that when Katsuya and Kyoko met, she was a 14-year-old middle-school student and he was… a teacher. Technically a student teacher, and not her teacher. But he’s still a 19-year-old authority figure who falls for a 14-year-old girl and shows her the only affection she’s ever known. It’s not made any easier when Kyoko calls him out for falling for a younger girl — and he just replies it’s not his fault she was born later than him. It’s hard to get over that inherent squick factor, no matter how sweetly it’s painted.
As a show, Fruits Basket has two great strengths: the moments when the characters muse about the nature of love and loneliness, usually while gorgeous animation plays out, and when love (platonic, familial, or romantic) is portrayed in minute yet deliberate gestures. Fruits Basket hits its most memorable, evocative high points when it embraces over-the-top emotions and simultaneously uses small details to justify those overly embellished internal monologues.
The movie follows suit. Despite the inherent hmm of Kyoko and Katsuya’s relationship, her words almost turn it into something beautiful. This is especially true in the early days of their marriage, where she waxes on about their happiness and the little personal efforts she’s planning to make him happy. When baby Tohru enters the mix, those moments become even sweeter. But this is still Fruits Basket, so it’s bound to get devastating.
The Sohma family isn’t a focus in Fruits Basket: Prelude, so there’s no magical bond or curse to contend with. All of the tension comes from mundane life, whether it’s Kyoko’s neglectful parents or Katsuya’s familial pressure. To match the fantastical tone of the TV show, all these dramatic elements are taken to extremes: For instance, as a young teenager, Kyoko is somehow a hardened gangster, and she misses her exams because her gang’s leader beats her so severely for skipping out on gang meetings to study.
The worst offender, though, is Katsuya’s over-the-top, soap opera-worthy death. Both the cause and the result are exaggerated to a point that’s almost comical. Yet even though that plot point is the movie’s most unbelievable touch, it also allows for the film’s strongest scenes. Kyoko falls into a deep depression, and her resulting narration cuts through the convoluted plot and makes her grief convincing. When Kyoko describes Katsuya’s cremation, it’s a brief sentence — Katsuya burned, and turned to white smoke, and then he was bones — that’s still a gut punch.
With so much focus on the frankly problematic relationship at its center, Fruits Basket: Prelude is tricky to watch — and it’s even trickier to glean what it’s trying to do. But when the focus shifts back to Tohru and Kyo, the questionable aspects of her parents’ relationship get a little easier to stomach. After all their hardships, they’ve managed to unravel the tangled web that the Sohma family and Tohru’s parents caught them both in, and their happiness is well earned. The movie gives them a soft epilogue that the series only briefly touched on.
Their resolution is a happy juxtaposition against Kyoko’s sad story, and it hands off the happiness she felt in the early days of her young family to the new couple that comes after her. But it’s not enough to balance out the movie’s uncomfortable relationship and exaggerated melodrama. Prelude still has some traces of what makes Fruits Basket so compelling. But stripped of the magic — both literally and figuratively — it loses what makes it special.
Fruits Basket: Prelude is out in select theaters on June 25. The 2019 Fruits Basket series is streaming on Crunchyroll.