And it’s really, really good

December 7, 2006

Sure, the actual origins of the 2 million figure are a bit vague, but it’s hard for me to muster much cynicism about Tokyopop’s announcement of the Fruits Basket milestone. ICv2 attributes the accomplishment to “the way in which it appeals to both male and female readers with a combination of humor and emotion in its saga of an orphaned high school girl who finds refuge with a very eccentric family.”

That’s fair enough. It has performed remarkably well in the direct market since its debut volume in 2004. (Also worth noting is the tendency for older volumes to crack the DM list more than once.) Before the ascendancy of Naruto, Fruits Basket was the “surprising no one” poster manga for its frequent appearances on the BookScan charts, and it still charges up those charts despite generally longer waits between new volumes than one finds with Viz’s usual suspects.

(This month should offer an entertaining variation on “Who’d win?” with new volumes of both Fruits Basket and Naruto dropping. My money’s on Naruto, not because I prefer it but because it’s got other factors that contribute to its momentum. And seriously, coming in second in sales to Naruto is hardly the worst thing that could happen to any graphic novel.)

Still, suggesting that boys come for the funny and girls like the tears may be a little simplistic. I think the book has amazing cumulative power and creative narrative approaches that make it compelling reading and extremely rewarding re-reading. Nobody drops hints and builds payoff like Natsuki Takaya. It may be a comedy-romance-drama, but Takaya structures it in a fashion similar to the cleverest and most conscientious of mystery writers. She never cheats, or at least she hasn’t yet.

The combination of elements also lends the book a level of narrative urgency – a need to know what happens next – that’s unusually high in comparison to much of the shôjo I read. In most cases, the driver to pick up the next volume is primarily a desire to spend more time with the appealing cast of characters. That’s certainly in place with Fruits Basket, but Takaya has also invested emotional nuance with genuine suspense. I find the mix to be addictive.

Miki Aihara’s Hot Gimmick (Viz) had something of the same crack-like quality, though its appeal was a lot more lurid. Aihara kept readers guessing as to what form her characters’ torment would take next, and I rarely found myself caring much about happy outcomes for Hatsumi and her ilk, because the choices all seemed to be among varying degrees of unhappy outcomes.

I think it’s the difference between pity and empathy. The struggling youth of Aihara’s book inspired the former, and Takaya’s move me towards the latter. Don’t get me wrong. I found Hot Gimmick gripping and marveled at Aihara’s ability to manipulate an audience with such skill, but five years from now, I can more easily picture myself sitting down with a stack of Fruits Basket for a good, nostalgic wallow.