When I think romance anime, I tend to forget about Harem and Reverse-Harem animes. They dance more to the tune of romantic and sexual fantasy rather than a love story, and the jokes commonly between shows tend to grow stale. But great things can happen in overused genres, especially when the writer decides to shake things up.
For the few who don’t dance in anime circles, Harem anime refers to an anime in which the male protagonist (who’s usually a useless dork) is chased by or encounters a large group of females who are bound and determined to jump his bones, come hell or hellish rival. Reverse-Harems flip the genders and put one female in the center of Pretty Boy Island, or at least in a position to pick amongst a crop of guys all very much interested in her. Both genres have a heavy fan-service focus, though Reverse-Harem prefers to go the traditional shojo romance route: everything is sweet and cuddly because all these cute boys.
And then there’s Fruits Basket, a beautifully raw little gem of an anime that will make you laugh your ass off and bawl your eyes out in the same breath. Rather than a fantasy to be enjoyed ironically, Fruits Basket plays more like a character study of tragedy and trauma. Because sometimes we smile when, inside, we hurt.
Tohru is Tohru, And Thank God.
The idea behind Harems and Reverse-Harems in anime is to allow yourself to slip into the title role and fantasize about being fought over by multiple types of guys/girls. As such, the leads in these types of series tend to be bland or blank slates, with minimal personality traits to get in the way. Reverse-Harem Girl is essentially, a paper cut out for the audience. As someone with a deep love of Otome, I can’t judge it.
To each their own
Tohru is not. Maybe her personality isn’t as colorful as those of her compatriots, but it is distinct. She’s a hard worker, sweet, caring, stubborn about helping others, and honest to a fault. She’s an underdog protagonist who’s overcoming a lot of emotional trauma to be where she is, making it difficult for the audience to really be “in her shoes.” She fits in with our study of character flaws because she herself is dealing with some intense issues.
Not Everyone is in Love With Her
One of the biggest criticisms you hear about reverse harem anime is that “everyone is in love with the protagonist.” I call this the “Tenchi Muyo” scenario, mainly in that one pathetic little protagonist is being hounded by several highly aggressive partners and acts like their life is a living hell. It’s the ultimate fantasy for some; for others, the only hell they know is watching the show.
Nope. Nope nope nope nope.
Enter Tohru, the sweet little cutie-pie who’s now living with three guys whilst meeting the other men in her family. And even though these men (and a few women) drink from Tohru’s Pollyanna Therapy, they are not all romantically attracted to her. In fact, I would argue only one of them is and the rest just find her helpful. While this may kill the fantasy for some, it’ll help others give the anime a try. There’s nothing wrong with the fantasy of being chased by guys/girls, but there’s also nothing wrong with only having one true love in the pack.
We shall Delve into the Abyss and Laugh til it Hurts
Shojo animes tend to turn up the cute to absurd levels. Most people don’t realize, however, that a handful also get dark pretty damn quick.
Whether it be Sailor Moon delving into suicide or Tokyo Mew Mew discussing sexual assault, shojo isn’t always afraid to dip into the darker topics and spread, like a spritz of delicious dark chocolate. The problem comes, like confectionary treats, when that dark chocolate is put on too thick. When those dark topics are not treated with respect, or when the audience is bombarded with them over and over, they lose their impact.
Yeah yeah, tortured soul, tortured past, yeah right
Fruits Basket goes pretty heavy on the heavy topics, mostly focusing on physical and mental abuse by family. It goes so heavy that it can’t really stand on its own as a romance fantasy but it also works alongside some absolutely fantastic belly-laughs. With both drama and comedy walking hand and hand, the viewer is put through a gauntlet of different emotions, which steer us away from fanservice and straight into the story.
In its own way, Fruits Basket does fulfill some kind of fantasy. It’s still a perfectly ordinary girl being the prized jewel of a family of attractive men, making it someone’s dream come true somewhere. But for the rest of us, or even for those people, Fruits Basket also offers a deeply moving plot that cuts real deep; it’ll make you laugh like crazy, feel horrible for laughing, then smile again as wounds mend. I’m not always into drama, but this drama is my cup of tea thanks to its heart and awesome sense of humor.
It makes me all kinds of happy.
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