Fruits Basket, one of the most famous shoujo manga published, first hit the market in 1998. It tells the story of an orphaned girl, Tohru Honda, who accidentally stumbles upon the mysterious Sohma family and their secret — an age-old curse that turns certain Sohma family members into one of the animals of the twelve Chinese zodiac. Despite the fact that decades have passed, Fruits Basket remains a well-loved story and was given the “Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood treatment” by receiving a reboot that promised to cover the entirety of the manga’s storyline.
However, times have changed dramatically since Fruits Basket’s first published volume, and with them, the opinions towards the story and characters. In particular, people have begun to critique Tohru Honda, the iconic protagonist of Fruits Basket. She has the personality of someone who’s incessantly kind, angelic, and cares about what seems to be total strangers. While she certainly fits a particular angelic female archetype that was infinitely more popular then, Tohru is not your typical “nice girl” — she’s a good example of a real-life empath.
Empaths are often portrayed in fantasy novels as characters with the literal power to feel other people’s emotions, channel it, and manipulate it as they please. However, throughout the years, the idea of real-life empaths has materialized and contributed to a different understanding of the term. One such study by Abigail Marsh, called The Fear Factor, dives into the psychology and science of altruism within real life empaths. While they cannot absorb external emotions and drain their target, or project their emotions to other people and deliberately persuade them, real-life empaths do have an innate ability to simply connect and understand most people’s situations and emotions. They feel bad when others feel down. They’re overjoyed when other people are happy. They tend to be the devil’s advocate in an argument, even when they don’t actually mean to side with the others. Because of their ability to feel and understand people, they are also capable of responding to how others would want them to. And yes, at times, real-life empaths do seem “too nice to be true.”
Many people fail to understand that because empaths are generally well-in-tune with other people, it causes the empath’s identity, accomplishments, and positive emotions to become directly tied to the other party. Empaths feel prouder when they’ve made someone happy than if they’ve done something incredible by themselves. They feel their best moments are when friends entrust them with their insecurities rather than the empath doing something valiant for themselves, such as standing up for themselves or fighting what they believe is right.
That is the biggest distinguishing factor between a “nice person” and an actual empath. The “nice girl” is genuinely nice for no particular reason, has no identity, and does things to just be the healer of the group. In particular, they’re concerned about “healing” any conflicts to immediately return to what it “should be” as if no conflicts had not risen at all. They’re concerned and ask questions, but they don’t genuinely understand or seek to understand like empaths do As a result, nice girls are unable to find the real root of people’s problems.
When Kisa runs away from home, unable to deal with the bullying at school, a nice girl would simply shower Kisa with generic loving words. She’d say Kisa shouldn’t care about what bullies think, that bullies are mean, and that Kisa is amazing in her own right. Instead, Tohru quickly understands that the heart of Kisa’s problems stems from her fears to face her mom and tell her the truth, rather than the actual bullying. When Kisa’s mom comes to question Kisa, Tohru shows a surprising amount of initiative and answers hard questions for Kisa. She articulates what Kisa has been unable to voice: Kisa ran away because she’s scared that her mom would feel ashamed of having such a weak daughter. This particularly stands out because Tohru isn’t usually someone who takes such direct actions. She often chooses to support from the sidelines, like she does for Ayame’s attempt to close the gap with Yuki.
However, in that moment, Tohru knows that, more than anything, Kisa needs someone to communicate for her — and Tohru does that without hesitation. One can certainly argue that Tohru only sympathized with Kisa because Tohru herself experienced bullying as a child. However, the series shows Tohru’s empath traits through other nuanced moments with the Sohmas in situations that she hasn’t experienced before.
When Momiji reveals his familial circumstance and how his mom chose to have her memories erased of her own son, Tohru opts for a silent hug while crying on Momiji’s behalf. A nice girl would have tried to “heal” the situation. The character would suggest Momiji to try re-establishing a relationship with his mom, all while lamenting on how sad and tragic the situation is. However, Tohru says nothing because she understands that there’s nothing to say. The situation won’t change, can’t change, and Momiji loves his family too much to try to change it. A moment of solidarity means more than expressing your own feelings, even if it’s on the side of the victim. Tohru was able to understand what he truly wanted from her without having ever been in his shoes.
However, at the root of their differences, the most basic one lies in the fact that empaths are humans. In other words, empaths have flaws while “nice girls” do not. For the latter, they’re always emotionally stable, they never have issues on their own, and they have a never-ending capacity to provide endless support. However, in Tohru’s case, her kindness is a direct extension to feel good about herself more than anything else. It’s a case of self-satisfaction and selfishness that results in very positive results for the opposite party but does not benefit the empath in the long run. When Tohru can’t help people, is unable to be that shoulder, and fails to understand people, she feels empty and aimless. Her very identity is tied with her actions to make other people around her feel good, which is very dangerous in real life, and often mentally debilitating when an empath hasn’t learned to balance things out.
This becomes especially prevalent in the second season when she discusses with Kyo about her future. She hasn’t thought about college because, prior, her entire life revolved around making her mom happy. Part of that mission was to find a job out of high school to ease the income burden. Now that she has lost that purpose — and her sense of identity — she feels like she no longer knows what her future should look like. In her conversation with Kyo, Tohru desperately tries to change the topic by addressing Kyo’s worries instead. Luckily, Kyo knows exactly the kind of person Tohru is and presses forward with his questions. His immediate hit-the-nail-on-the-head moment results in Tohru bursting into tears at his unexpected perceptiveness.
As much as empaths love to help other people, they also grow dependent on others to an unhealthy degree for their own happiness and satisfaction. It’s an extremely dangerous hill to down, and many empaths have worn themselves out that way. Their intense attention and devotion towards others compel them to avoid everything they can about themselves. It leads to unresolved tensions and self-esteem issues. Because they care so much about others, empaths only see their self-worth within others.
But what if the person they base their happiness on leaves? Bonds are not promised to last forever. Unexpected incidents occur. That’s exactly what happened with Tohru with the sudden death of her mom, and Kyo understands the effects it has on her. He says to Tohru what many people fail to realize: being empathetic and kind is not at all bad, but when it comes at the expense of yourself, it’s no longer worth it. So, for the first time in the series, another character’s prodding causes Tohru’s own insecurities to come tumbling out from her mouth as fast as the tears from her eyes. Even then, she tries to pass it off as nothing and avoid speaking about it until Kyo’s nonchalant tone reassures her that her image and her identity isn’t shattered because she also has her own worries.
Empaths get taken advantage of quite easily and often unconsciously. I do believe that most people are good people, so when empaths are walked over, they’re not walked over by mean spirited or manipulative villains. The people who walk over them are often friends who just become used to the consistent support. They often forget to check on the mental health of the “emotionally stable and perfect” empath, who often hides their instability and mental exhaustion.
As a result, the empaths’ true friends are the ones who teach them to be more altruistic — by being more honest with themselves. Kyo, Uo, and Hana know of Tohru’s dependency on other people, so they take every chance to force Tohru to do more selfish things, such as pushing her to request favors from others, to say directly what she wants, and to open up about her own pain rather than crying about someone else’s.
Despite the fact that Tohru’s dogged kindness towards helping the Sohmas might seem so unrealistic and paints her as a perfect angel, it only proves her flaws. She sticks close to the Sohmas because she desperately needs them. Only through helping them does she even start to feel better about herself, and she latches onto them just as fast as the others have latched onto her. And while helping others may help her sense of self-worth, it is, at the same time, only a temporary band-aid to her own troubles plaguing her, as evidenced by how quickly she broke down when Kyo turned the therapeutic talk on her instead.
Fruits Basket’s choice to make Tohru an empath rather than just a nice girl is an incredibly powerful and emotional choice for the entirety of the Sohma family and herself. As an empath, Tohru guides both the characters and viewers how to deconstruct and understand the problems of their toxic situations while providing the appropriate comfort for gradual healing. Tohru isn’t here to simply mend relationships on the surface but to actively and completely reset the foundations of a toxic situation. Yet, at the same time, by making Tohru an empath, the story also teaches viewers that it is healthy to develop a path for yourself while you change other people’s lives for the better.