Nectar

Woe betides the industry watcher who must track the manga market. For weeks at a time, they must come up with a new way to announce that Tokyopop’s Fruits Basket has maintained its iron grip on the BookScan rankings of graphic novel sales.

It hovers at or near the top, sometimes with multiple volumes in the top 10 simultaneously. It’s even cracked the top 10 in comics specialty shop orders via Diamond Distribution. (In July, it rested, possibly uncomfortably, between Marvel’s X-Men: New Age of Apocalypse and the Wizard Michael Turner Millennium Limited Edition Deluxe Hardcover.)

It’s fair enough to wonder just what this shôjo title has got that dozens of others don’t. After reading the first volume, I admit I asked that question. It seemed competent but formulaic – charming everygirl stumbles across mysterious magical shenanigans and cute boys, lather, rinse, repeat. The art was appealing but unexceptional, and the characters seemed like they came from casting central.

There’s the girl, of course, optimistic orphan Tohru Honda, who makes Pollyanna look clinically depressed. Then there are the boys, members of the Sohma family. Yuki is the aloof Prince Charming, whose cool exterior masks a kind heart and a tragic secret. Kyo is the misunderstood thug, whose angry exterior masks a kind heart and a tragic secret. Oh, and when they’re hugged by a member of the opposite sex, they turn into animals (literally, and cute ones, so get your minds out of the gutter).

The Sohma family is cursed, you see. Thirteen members of the clan are possessed by the vengeful spirits of the Chinese Zodiac. Kyo seems to have it the worst, as his spirit (the cat), didn’t even make the final cut for the zodiacal pantheon. But Tohru’s kindness and utter lack of guile convince the secretive Sohmas that they can trust her, and she takes up residence with Yuki (the rat), Kyo, and Shigure, a romance novelist who, quite literally, ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog.

It all just seemed so average – a love triangle, a dark secret, and virtue rewarded. What was the big deal, I wondered?

Seven volumes in, I know better.

The thing I learned about “Furuba,” as it’s called by its legion of fans, is that the standard shôjo stuff is just a feint. Yuki and Kyo’s tiresome feuding and the vague mythology are in place to lull readers into a false sense of security. Then, when you least suspect it, creator Natsuki Takaya delivers the kind of emotional gut punch that most writers pull off maybe a handful of times in their entire careers. And Takaya pulls this off in every volume, sometimes more than once.

It helps that the Sohma family is a study in dysfunction. Secretive by necessity, it’s inevitable that their shared burden would keep them in close proximity. It’s that same proximity that makes them yearn for freedom, not just from the stifling restrictions of the curse but from each other. They overcompensate for their restrictions, and they all quail under the authority of the mysterious Akito, the manipulative and sometimes brutal leader of the clan.

While the mechanics of the curse aren’t particularly clear yet, the consequences of it are agonizingly so. Lost love, shattered families, madness, violence, illness, despair – all of these run through the Sohmas like hemophilia through the Hapsburgs. It could easily become overwhelming if it weren’t for the improbable heroine of the piece, Tohru.

Let’s face it: as fictional characters go, Tohru could easily become sickening. How can a person who’s suffered that much loss (the death of her parents and abandonment by the rest of her family) be that optimistic, that open-hearted, that selfless and kind, and still seem remotely real? It beats the hell out of me, but Takaya makes Tohru seem not only real but entirely plausible.

Instead of coming off as saccharine, her refusal to be a burden and her insistence on focusing on the positive aspects of her life seem courageous. Her innocence doesn’t seem like it’s a function of naiveté – her father died early, and her mother had a rough history. It’s more innate than that, and as a consequence, it’s more impressive. It’s easy to see why she’d jolt the self-involved Sohmas out of their bubble, and it isn’t simply a case of them being shamed by someone who’s handled misfortune well. Her kindness and humor are the source of their astonishment; that she’s held on to them in the face of tragedy is merely reinforcement. Extra credit, if you will.

Takaya reveals the Sohmas’ secrets slowly and carefully, giving them considerable impact while building suspense. Even if the source of their misfortune is unclear, it’s impossible not to be moved by their pain.

Given the cast’s size, Takaya could be excused for focusing on some at the exclusion of others, but she’s remarkably even-handed. Tohru, Yuki, and Kyo are unquestionably the leads, but there’s a rich range of distinct supporting characters. My favorite is probably Momiji, a childlike Sohma cousin who almost matches Tohru in optimism and adorability. But Momiji hasn’t been spared the customary Sohma fallout; his sweetness makes his more emotional moments almost lethally potent.

The crowd gives Takaya the opportunity to provide a menu of crush fodder, too. Beyond Yuki and Kyo, the Sohmas include suave, slightly lecherous Shigure, stoic and mournful Hatori, flamboyant and ridiculous Ayame, and bi-polar Hatsuharu, with his rough-trade hustler aesthetic. Adding spice are Tohru’s best friends, former gang-girl Uo and spooky pseudo-psychic Hana. The fan art, published in each volume, seems to affirm Takaya’s success with her cast – everyone seems to have a different favorite, or a different combination of them.

When asked to articulate her philosophy on soap opera writing, the legendary Agnes Nixon (creator of All My Children and One Life to Live) would quote the old saw, “Make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry, make ‘em wait.” I don’t know if Takaya has ever heard of Nixon, or the phrase, but she executes Nixon’s mantra like she invented it herself.