Over the years people have told me that there are two series that are "must see" that involve people transforming into animals via some unusual means: Ranma 1/2 and Fruits Basket. I first got into the former title years ago, had the opportunity to read the entire run of the manga, and even wrote several fanfics that inspired original characters who I still use today. Fruits Basket didn't come until this past year when I bought vol. 1 of the manga from a friend and got the anime series for Christmas (which didn't get watched until this past week). In all honesty, I had thought that there were a lot more than 26 episodes. For that number, here's how everything breaks down:
Honda Tohru is a first-year high school student who lost her father to an illness at a young age and her mother to a car accident a mere four months before the start of the series. Due to some unusual circumstances, she ends up living in a tent in the middle of some land owned by her classmate, Sohma Yuki's, family. She stumbles onto the house where Yuki and his cousin Shigure live while on her way to school. After Tohru passes out from exhaustion from the cumulative effects of all the stress on her life, Shigure invites her to live at the Sohma's house in return for taking care of the housework (as the two men are completely inept at doing so). Immediately afterwards another member of the Sohma family comes crashing in (literally) and challenges Yuki to a fight. Tohru attempts to stop the newcomer, Sohma Kyo, by grabbing him from behind, only to get caught in a puff of smoke and find a cat in Kyo's place! In her panic, Tohru falls against Yuki and Shigure, turning them into a rat and dog, respectively. The Sohmas quickly explain to Tohru that their family is cursed in a manner such that when certain members are hugged by someone of the opposite sex, they turn into one of the animals of the zodiac.
Despite stumbling onto the family secret, Tohru is allowed to live with the Sohmas under the condition that she never reveal the curse to anyone, not even her two best friends after they learn of her current circumstances. With that foundation in place, the story progresses as time passes to allow Tohru to meet more and more members of the Sohma family, both cursed and uncursed, develop a strong bond of friendship between the family members, and also do her part to moderate rifts in the family while overcoming her own painful past. Despite all the good she does, however, there are people who want nothing more than to make her life miserable, including the head of the Sohma clan himself.
With a strong foundation that slowly incorporates more members of the Sohma family in a well-timed manner that also allows development to take place amongst the main characters, the story moves quite well and none of the episodes felt like "filler." Sadly, near the end, when some more cursed members first appear, they're only given one episode each before they disappear entirely from the rest of the series and three of the zodiac members (the pig, horse, and rooster) never show up at all. This is due to the fact that the anime series only covers up through Volume 8 (of 23) of the manga and would have needed more seasons to continue. The final three episodes that lead into the series climax are especially well done as, despite having a lot of action, it offers some of the most in-depth looks into each of the main character's fears and doubts while providing the path for them to find their answers. I felt that the series would have ended on a much stronger note had it ended after the first half of the final episode. The second half, while allowing some resolution with Akito, didn't feel nearly as strong and lost the drive that had been building up to that point.
The cast is where the series truly shines as the series is driven by the characters more than anything else. Tohru herself is a strong optimist and very modest, but her tendency to worry about other people often causes her to shoulder burdens that sometimes takes her close to a breaking point. She relies heavily on the advice given by her late mother to carry her through day-to-day circumstances and problems, but remains very unmindful of her own needs, which can lead her to be manipulated by people with ill intent. Despite being a bit of an airhead, she is an excellent worker, is always happy to see others happy, and always knows exactly what to say in order to comfort those around her.
Out of the Sohma family, the ones who hold the status of "main character" are definitely Yuki and Kyo. Yuki is known as the "Prince" in school and even has a fan club devoted to him, but of course he's afraid of getting close to any of the girls as being hugged by one would reveal his curse of being the rat. Despite this he remains very popular because of that "mysterious" side, because the girls are attracted to his looks, and because he is very nice to the people around him despite fears of trying to get close. Kyo is a polar opposite in that he is quick-tempered and readily picks fights with people, but he's also able to fit in with group activities more easily when he's not blinded with his grudge against Yuki. Kyo fully believes that defeating Yuki in battle would allow him to become a full member of the Sohma family since the zodiac legend portrays the rat as having tricked the cat out of becoming a full member of the zodiac.
For the rest of the Sohmas who are part of the zodiac, Shigure is seen the majority of the time. He is a writer who leaves to be playful and tease people sometimes and, as mentioned above, is cursed by the dog. Kagura, the boar, is a very cute and sweet young woman (most of the time) who is in love with Kyo and makes it fully known by charging him with the strength of a juggernaut. Hatori, the dragon (seahorse), is the family doctor and perhaps the most level-headed member of the family, but it's also his responsibility to erase the memories of outsiders who learn about the curse or family members who want to disassociate themselves with the curse. Ayame, who is the snake and Yuki's estranged older brother, is every bit as mysterious as the animal he portrays while remaining a shameless flirt and definitely the most bizarre in the family. Momiji, the rabbit, looks much younger than he is for his age and has every ounce of energy as one would think a happy rabbit houses. Hatsuharu, the ox (really a cow), has a split personality between a "white" and "black" side in which the white side is caring and collected while the black is openly hostile and very tempermental. Kisa, the tiger, who is actually a very shy and timid little girl who even loses her ability to speak for a while and grows very fond of Tohru. Hiro, the sheep, who is Kisa's exact opposite when it comes to personality and how his animal persona behaves. Ritsu, the monkey, who takes after his mother and tends to be incredibly hard on himself, leading him to overly apologize for every little thing. Finally there is Akito, the head of the Sohma house and the one who houses the "core" of the Sohma curse. Pretty much nothing can take place in the family without his approval and he's shown to have somewhat of a sadistic side while suffering from manic mood swings.
The rest of the supporting cast comes in the form of Tohru's two best (and very protective) friends: Arisa and Saki. Arisa is a former gang member who looked up very much to Tohru's mother and has since taken on a fatherly figure for Tohru between her and Saki. Saki, a girl who has the ability to sense a person's aura and who couldn't fully control her powers until Tohru accepted her, of course is the motherly figure. These two are the only ones outside of the Sohma family and Tohru's own that knows about her housing situation and they regularly visit Tohru at the Sohma house, but never learn about the curse over the course of the series.
No two members of the cast can be confused with each other. Every single one stands out in a truly unique way and are definitely the best part of the series. One aspect of each member of the zodiac that I wish was used more often was their ability to loosly communicate with their respective animals. This is seen very early on when Shigure learns of a landslide that buries Tohru's tent from a howling dog while Yuki is able to dig the tent out with the help of a legion of rats. Sadly, such abilites were barely glossed over for the rest of the series.
The character designs for the cast remain true to their initial manga designs and all of the characters' appearances fit their personalities very well. One unusual aspect of the zodiac members is their tendency to "spout" either ears and/or a tail corresponding to their respective animal. This adds a nice touch of humor at times while in other cases, notably Kisa, it complements their design and appearance. While the zodiac members have initial appearances that basically correspond with their respective animals, especially in hair colors, they aren't alone in being able to see what types of people they are by looking at them. Tohru's large eyes and wide smile depict her optimism, Arisa's tall and strong build reveal her tough character, and Saki's dark eyes and gothic outfits highlight her mysterious but awe-inspiring persona. My one beef with the character designs is the fact that many of the men look so effeminite that they look more natural wearing women's clothing.
The animation in the series is very well done and overall very smooth, with various moments done in higher quality than others, but overall very pleasing to watch. There are times when characters are suddenly thrown into awkward situations and the animation style will change to reflect that, such as Tohru's hair standing completely up on end, the characters suddenly becoming depicted as white or stick figures, and the framerate changing to show how time is slowing down during a catastophe for the involved characters. Another clever use about the animation is, rather than characters turning chibi or super-deformed during comedic moments, they're often turned into their respective zodiac animal or item that they're portrayed as (Tohru as a rice ball, Saki as a carniverous flower, etc.)
The actors in the series are able to convey their characters through speech just as well as the artists were able to convey them through sight. The acting for everyone can only be described as lifelike, definitely sounding like how that person would sound if one was to be talking to that person in real life. Emotions are portrayed beautifully, even when characters aren't entirely being themselves or when they're undergoing a personal transformation (such as Hatsuharu going from White to Black) or turning uncharacteristally serious (as Momiji does when telling Tohru the story of his mother). Negative emotions are portrayed just as well, especially when Akito is speaking as the guy just exudes an aura of creepiness while his actor only enhances that effect.
As I didn't watch the English dub, I have no comment for its actors' performances.
Both of the opening and ending themes do a wonderful job of conveying a peaceful, tranquil message of a family wanting to live happily together. While they don't exactly get stuck in one's head, they are very recognizable when hearing again later. Most of the incidental music consists of very few different melodies for the duration of the series, but that isn't a problem as the scenes are driven by the characters and proper use of sound effects. In later episodes, when most of the episodes take place during a heavy rainstorm, the rain is more than enough to set the mood for the inner conflicts that the main characters face at that time. And while the ending theme is enjoyable to listen to, the piano interlude that replaces it at the end of episode 25 is even better and worth listening to several times.
I very much enjoyed Fruits Basket. Despite the issues I had with some of the character designs and the ending, it was definitely worth watching. The excellent mix of comedy with day-to-day situations that helped all of the characters to develop one step at a time even have some real-life issues that people may be having. I don't expect to watch the entire series again, but there are several indivdual episodes worth repeated viewings.
This and other reviews can also be read at my blog: http://gunarmdyne.blogspot.com