Author and Artist: Natsuki Takaya
Fruits Basket was one of the most anticipated Japanese imports ever, and with Volume 9, we continue to see why. The basic idea, for those new to the series, is that the Sohma family has a curse: select members are born with an alternate form drawn from the Chinese zodiac, such as Pig, Snake, and Rat. They tend to transform into this alternate form whenever someone of the opposite sex hugs them or when they are particularly tired and weak. This sounds all very sweet and funny, a la Ranma 1/2, but add to the tale the head of the Sohma clan, the mysterious and tyrannical Akito, whose taste for cruelty, control, and abuse turns what would be a lighthearted romp with occasional hijinks into a very dark and serious manga at times.
In Volume 9, Yuki starts in with the student council, and we get to meet two new Sohmas. The student council members look like they will be a handful for Yuki, but might be just what he needs to open up to the world and help keep him safe from Akito and the nightmares of his past. Readers learn more about Hana-chan's sad past than we really wanted to know, but her past may not be any worse than Uo's present might be. If you are following the romantic triangle, Kyo almost touches Tohru, but not quite. Tohru continues to be the force of Goodness in the dark world of the Sohmas, but it is still not clear if she will be enough to save an entire family.
As in American comics, there is a great deal of gratuitous abuse in some titles, and it can be a little wearying to read another "gritty" or "realistic" piece that really just throws pain and suffering into the mix to appeal to Post-Mod angsty teenagers. However, for all the darkness hinted at (or shown) in Fruits Basket, there is a reason. Akito's darkness and despair are balanced by Tohru's light and hope, who knows as much about suffering as any of the Sohmas though they would never know that to look at her cheerful face. The frequent moments of lightheartedness and comedy also make the title much more bearable to read. Readers just hope that Kyo gets a little less clueless soon, and that someday, someone is there for Hana, as well as Uo and Tohru.
Takaya treads the razor's edge between angst and fluff, and actually pulls it off. It's jarring and disconcerting when on one page we have Tohru being her sweet and strong self, a typical shojo heroine to be loved, and then on the next page, we have Yuki remembering being tortured by Akito and the Sohma clan enforcers. It takes an expert writer to pull that off, and we have that in Natsuki Takaya. Finishing this volume will leave you sad, but more than ready for the next one. The Sohmas have a way of drawing people in and not letting them go, and readers will be no exception.