Thoughts on ... Fruits Basket, and Toxic Motherhood
Mother’s day is coming up, and like every year, I’m despondent. The feeling creeps up on me every March, originating from somewhere in my stomach, and before I know it, my heart is fluctuating with flashbacks, I’m muttering to myself on the bus, whilst making dinner, brows furrowed and eyes hard, and it’s only after getting concerned looks thrown my way do I realise I’ve been looking deranged for several weeks. My mother isn’t dead, but my relationship with her is currently in the hospice, a purgatory between something that could be great, and some bitter underworld. I sometimes feel guilty because I know far too many people who have already lost their mothers, some much younger than me, and they struggle through every day trying not to imagine their mother’s reaction to their uni admission, or their latest job offer, or their first proper boyfriend. Unfortunately, some of us have fragile, complicated relationships with our mothers which means that that one day of the year when social media is decorated with rose petals and heart-shaped boxes and collages of baby photos and graduation photos, all with a smiling woman by their side, is equally painful for people like me, people who, upon looking back through their childhood, realise that they never had a proper relationship with their mothers in the first place.
I’m a rainbow baby. I came as a small miracle after my brother died a few months after he was born. Before that, though, my parents were already broken people. My dad, a Windrush child, had endured a lot both in Jamaica and in London to make a name for himself, and he had achieved much. My mum, although not born in Jamaica, had lived a Jamaican upbringing in South London, full of church grandmas and homemade hard dough bread, plantain and beans for Sunday breakfast, adults she didn’t even know telling her off in the street if she was acting up, seemingly knowing exactly who her parents were, where they lived and where they went to church. Behind the church-going, patois-slinging family, was a mire of child abuse and neglect which damaged my mother irreparably. It turned her into a woman-child who always expected to be looked after by her own children (for example, when I was 6 or 7, she took us to Euro Disney. She wanted to go on a tour ride, but I wanted to go on a small rollercoaster. She took me to the rollercoaster but said “you really are like the rest of them [my siblings and father]” and didn’t talk to me for the rest of the day. All because I didn’t want to go on her ride at Disney Land. I was 7).
She was a mother who always measured her own skills against child abuse, so the fact that she didn’t abuse us, and gave us food and a house to live in, was all she needed to pass for an excellent mother. If she ever found out that any of us didn’t feel comfortable telling her our troubles or our successes, she would never ask whether she had set a precedent, instead, she would call us selfish and hurtful. She totally ruined my moment when I passed my degree with a First Class, because I had announced it on Facebook before telling her, and she didn’t speak to me for weeks, ranting about me on her own social media (with her friends politely saying “be grateful she did well” beneath her essays).
Things took a turn for the worse three years ago, when her abusive (and racist) boyfriend moved in and almost triggered my old mental health issues. He was disrespectful to me (the last child living at home) and to my siblings and new born nephews who lived else where. He literally badmouthed two newborn babies, saying that their birth would put him lower on my mother’s priorities. My mother never said anything, never corrected him. He came first because she was lonely and broken and didn’t want him to leave. He ended up physically pushing me when I was in the kitchen, which led to a massive fight, my husband (fiance at the time), sister and her boyfriend rushing over to the house, and asking my mother the question: “do you want this man to stay in this house after what he did"?” and she said “yes, I want him to stay”. All the while his smug self looked us all in the eyes, without shame, and without an apology to me. So I left the house, my mum saw me leave, and she never phoned me to find out where I was even staying for the entirety of the next day. Since that night, my relationship with her has never been the same.
I could say so much more (how when I had a psychotic break and was self-harming, she told me “well, I go through a lot of things too, but I don’t have the luxury to get sick”), but that would be too painful and too long. It’s something I’m still working on personally, praying about, trying to relieve myself of, because I would like to have kids of my own one day, and I don’t want to pass on anything to them. I plan to go counselling about it too, because that’s something my own mother never did, and instead of breaking the cycle of her own pain, she just passed it on another generation.
I say all of this because if there’s ever a manga that I think beautifully portrays the complexities of toxic mother-daughter relationships, and how harmful the cycle of abuse can be, it’s definitely Fruits Basket by Natsuki Takaya.
I first discovered the manga during one of my after school library visits. They only had a spattering of volumes, erratic numbers in no order, the lowest being 9. I thought the cover art looked interesting: some androgynous man with silver hair and amber eyes, reclining against the book spine nonchalantly. I shrugged, gave it ago, and I suppose the manga’s been in my life ever since, although it’s been a good few years since I’ve re-read it. It was the first series I bought, and the only series I own in its entirety. I feel a certain satisfied smugness when I see all that turquoise on my bookshelf, and a pang of nostalgia at the TOKYOPOP logo on the spine, bright red and garish. I never knew that I would one day resonate so much with the series’ main antagonist. Her character is built and explored with so much depth. Akito is a villain written excellently, and with the anime re-make coming up next month, I’m looking forward to seeing all those wonderful characters animated on the screen again, and the inevitable wave of new fans to the series as a result.
To put a long and complex story short, Fruits Basket focuses on the affluent Sohma Family. Their secret is that every few years or so, a generation of Sohma children are reborn with the spirits of the Chinese Zodiac, meaning that whenever they are under extreme physical distress, or hugged by a member of the opposite sex, they turn into their Zodiac animal. That’s twelve children in total, and a a thirteenth child is reborn as the cat—the cursed, forgotten member of the Zodiac according to folklore, who has another form: a frightening, foul smelling beast that is only kept at bay by a magically enhanced bracelet to be worn at all times. The host of the cat endures his days locked in a cage in solitary confinement on the Sohma estate, and prospective members of his line are forced to walk past the cage from childhood as a reminder of their fate. The head of the Zodiac is Akito Sohma. The God, whose conception was a transcendental experience for the members of the Zodiac, was born a female , but due to the jealousy of her mother, was forced to be raised as male.
Ren Sohma, described as “a little unwell, both physically and mentally” faced the malice of the Sohma aides when she married the original head of the family, Akira. As a former housemaid, she was seen as unworthy to be his wife, and was left alone to face the cruelty of the rest of the family because of it. Akira’s love and devotion was her main sense of consolation until she fell pregnant with Akito. The morning of, a group of young boys, the older Sohma children, possessed with their respective animals, surrounded her, crying. They had all felt it, the coming of their leader, and wanted some comfort. This would be Ren’s introduction to her true place in the family: reduced to a vessel, and feeling shifted aside as the Second Woman, clearly behind the pecking order in Akira’s life, despite his assurances to the contrary. Akito is born and Ren’s hostility towards her daughter intensifies. Despite her young age, Akito is left to fend off her mother’s abuse evenly, whilst comforting herself with her father’s kindness.
Akira soon dies, and his surviving family crumbles, their relationship broken beyond repair. Akito is exhorted as the God of the Zodiac, and her position means everything to her. It was the one thing her father had promised, that she would always be loved, regardless of Ren’s hatred. And she basks in the love of her Zodiac, until one day, the curse breaks.
When Kureno’s rooster leaves his body, severing him from the Zodiac inexplicably, Akito suffers a psychotic break. This was her karmic link to her father, and the confirmation of who she was and what she meant, and it got broken? The scene between Akito and Kureno is heartbreaking: she, small and fragile and still a child, screaming at him, eyes overflowing, begging him not to leave her, and Kureno, a tween at this time, perplexed and scared, and concerned for Akito’s health. Here we see that Akito’s sense of self-worth is all in the Zodiac—without it, she is nothing, and every evil thing her mother said to her suddenly holds merit. She is unable to see that her father loved her because she was born, instead, she believes that she is only worthy of love because she is the heir of his position. She is lauded and revered by the family aides because she is the God of the Zodiac—Akito Sohma by herself, is nothing. And thus begins her descent into hatred. Mirroring her own mother’s abuse, Akito spends the rest of her life abusing her Zodiac.
For Akito, kindness and love has not helped: the Zodiac curse still betrayed her, and so, in the same way Ren’s abuse has imprisoned her, forcing her to unconsciously shackle herself with centuries of Zodiac folklore and Sohma tradition, she binds the Sohma children with her position as God. It becomes the only thing she uses to identify herself with—not even her gender is as important as her title. She rules the family with mental and physical abuse, and any sign of love between them has to be severed, because she cannot stand to see people happy: she forces Hatori to abandon his relationship, the only time he has ever fallen in love, and pushes Rin off a balcony because Haru is madly in love with her, and begins a sexual relationship with Kureno to get back at Shigure, the person she really wants, and who refuses to bow to her intimidation. And she hates Tohru Honda, the protagonist of the story who accidentally stumbles across Shigure’s house, because her refreshing involvement with the family helps the Zodiac members heal over their past hurts, to mend tensions they have with each other, to make love confessions, to be themselves, and Kyo, the current cat, finds out that she is the love of his life. The main focus of Akito’s hatred is women: she hates them. Her mother is the first woman she knew, and in some way, she internalises that feminine rivalry that Ren is so good at: seeing other women as a challenge to her own importance, not wanting to come second, desiring the attention, both familial and romantically, of men, a source of power and respect.
One scene that encapsulates her leniency towards men is when Haru discovers that Rin has been imprisoned by Akito for conspiring with her mother, when in reality, Ren was cruelly manipulating her. Rin is kept in a room for weeks, her hair is hacked off unceremoniously, and she has no means to contact anyone for help. Haru’s discovery sends him straight to Akito’s dwellings. He almost attacks her, and Akito is left trembling and subdued. Gone is the authoritative, fearless leader. Seeing Haru’s anger towards her, spurned by his love for Rin, brings to the forefront all of Akito’s fears: a dismissal of her authority, and someone other than herself being the recipient of another man’s true love. She has told herself that she always came first in her father’s eyes, but in reality, she could never be his wife, and there was a place in his heart that she could not reach. Ren knew Akira more than Akito did, and this affects her memory of him: did he love her as he said he did? What about the rest of the Zodiac? Why do they keep rejecting her? Do they love her at all? Weakly, she calls after Haru, who has decided to punch the wall instead, but he leaves without turning back, and she looks so vulnerable, as if she has reverted back to a child.
In reality, both Akito and Ren are incapable of moving on from past trauma. The reader isn’t told what Ren endured growing up, whether or not she had a loving home, but we know she was a maid who fell in love with someone of a higher status, and was faced with loneliness and hatred as a result. Akito has never developed beyond childhood, her mental age having stopped from that day Kureno’s curse broke, and so she forces him to stay by her side, emotionally blackmailing him with the memory of her breakdown, and if he leaves the home for too long, is then subjected to her verbal and physical abuse. She carries with her a small box, a trinket left behind by her father, the only physical heirloom he gave to her. This is the object of Ren’s obsession, and was the subject of her manipulation of Rin, who attempts to steal the box from Akito’s bedroom, believing that it will give Haru more freedom. After everything, the contents of the box is finally revealed: air. There is nothing in there. It was a kind gesture from her father to her, that whenever she felt lonely or worried, his spirit would be in the box to comfort her. The revelation enrages Ren, who leaves Akito trembling and crying in the aftermath. It is Hatori, the heartbroken and stoic doctor, who sweeps her into his arms. Hatori is one of the eldest members of the family, and in his wisdom, he can see that the Akitos of this world are not born, but created. He, like Kureno, knows that Akito is a damaged child.
These revelations are made all the more poignant because we are first introduced to Akito as a cruel man, decked in black, a shadow in everyone’s memories. Akito features in every flashback of the Sohma children’s life stories; their defining moments all started with Akito’s interference in some way: whether a physical attack, a harsh word, the destruction of a relationship, they all came of age through Akito’s abuse. It progresses and worsens until just after the halfway point of the story, Akito’s gender and background are revealed, and everything makes sense, and she is no longer a maniac drunk on her own power, but the result of a toxic family cycle of abuse, manipulation, and brokenness. In just a few chapters, the reader sympathises with Akito’s situation, and we get to the moral of Fruits Baskets’s story: cycles need to be broken. The Zodiac curse begins to weaken in parallel with Akito’s healing, and as the other family members equally overcome their past issues, their curses break, one by one, and they are freed from their Zodiac animals. This time, instead of screams and tears, Akito remains silent in her room, feeling their presences leave her. She finally comes to term with her own past, and realises that the only way she can move on, is when the cycle breaks.
I’ve only been able to see these lessons in the story after understanding my own trauma, and suddenly, Akito’s turmoil made so much sense to me. Although I’ve never treated people in the same way she has, I’m sure there are subconscious things I’ve picked up on, without even knowing, because of my own up-bringing. To say that my mother is a clone of Ren would be unfair and exggaerative; I know that there are more extreme cases of abuse out there, and I would never claim to have had a terrible upbringing. Compared to others, my childhood was tame, a fairly pleasant Jamaican, working-class home. But the issues were there, and they were never dealt with, only left to intensify as I grew, and as adults, my sisters and I are still trying to overcome the problems our mother left us with.
My grandma died when she was 66. I was still very young, in primary school. The morning of, I saw my mother burst into tears, staring at the dining table in confusion. Later that day, she was on the phone to my auntie, and they were cackling over vulgar, morbid jokes. I remember feeling so hurt and disappointed, but several years later I would understand just why this laughter was a sense of relief for my mother. Grandma had died without repairing her relationship with her child. The only way for my life to be different is if I decide to end the cycle here. Loving from a distance is one thing, but pain and unforgiveness and bitterness are heavy burdens to bear. By breaking my own family’s curse, I will be truly free.