One of the hallmarks of the manga industry is that series will often gain enormous popularity and then fade into obscurity a short while later. Few manga-kas (authors) have achieved lasting success. Natsuki Takaya is one of these uncommon success stories. She unknowingly created a phenomenon that defined a genre with her series Fruits Basket. This 23-volume series became an icon of modern shojo, or manga directed at young girls, and by its completion had become famous for actually getting better as it continued. But what came before this sugary sweet epic? Tsubasa: Those with Wings, not to be confused with Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicles by CLAMP. Today, I’m analyzing the difference between these two Takaya works, and comparing the similarities in style and execution.
Fruits Basket Volume 1
Age Rating: 13+
Tohru Honda was an orphan with no place to go until the mysterious Sohma family offered her a place to call home. Now her ordinary high school life is turned upside down as she’s introduced to the Sohma’s world of magical curses and family secrets.
Tsubasa: Those with Wings Volume 1 Omnibus
Age Rating: 16+
Kotobuki is an ex-thief trying to give up her criminal past. Joined by former military commander Raimon, she has turned to the exciting but simple adventure of finding a “normal” job. But people seeking the Tsubasa, a legendary object that grants its beholder any wish she or he wants, never stop causing them trouble. Everyone is trying to claim it as their own—and they want to use Kotobuki and Raimon’s skills to do so!
Unarguably, Fruits Basket is one of the most popular manga series ever to hit the States. It has sold millions of copies and has spawned an anime series and a multitude of merchandise, from bookmarks to stuffed animals. The question, however, is why the hype? Why has this rather lengthy series gained so much widespread acclaim? The answer is a bit difficult to sum up. The short response is that it improves, dramatically, over its 23-volume run, in plot and art, and is so engaging from page 1 that it’s hard to put down. The art, while a bit overwhelming at first, grows on you over time. As each member of the cast grows and matures, so their design and appearance does as well. Overall, the art style successfully conveys both the lighthearted and the depressing moments and perfectly complements the vicissitudes of the plot. Speaking of plot…there’s a lot of it. From Kyo’s intense hatred of Yuki, leeks, and Tohru’s blithe attitude, to Yuki’s struggle with his loneliness, the many sub-plots and story arcs weave together and underscore each other perfectly. Though I won’t reveal the ending, everything eventually comes together, but not everything works out as expected. The ever-changing and expanding cast of characters is never hard to keep track of, even when it balloons to a ridiculous size. Each one has their own detailed history, relationships, and aspirations. These all combine for an engaging tale about a homeless and cheerful girl who stumbles across the home of a mysterious group of men, all with their own stories, but who also share one big secret…
Tsubasa: Those with Wings is radically different in setting and in plot from Fruits Basket. While FB takes place in modern-day Japan, Tsubasa is set in an almost post-apocalyptic world, ravaged by wars, and controlled by the army. The common people are destitute, and live in extreme poverty. Kotobuki, a talented thief, is one of these commoners, who has resorted to crime to stay alive. She’s constantly pursued by a shady army officer named Raimon, whose motives are unknown at best, and illegal at worst. He seems to be incurably infatuated with Kotobuki, and will go to any lengths to protect her. Beyond that, the plot revolves on Kotobuki’s endless search for a legitimate job, and Raimon’s evasion of the army, who, for some reason, have “unfinished business” with him. The art is pre-FB, so it seems more stereotypical shojo and less stylized; however, it does foreshadow a few of the hallmarks of the FB art style, like flamboyant, long-legged bishonens (pretty boys), long glistening hair, and easily differentiated characters. Length and plot-wise, I think Tokyopop made a bit of a mistake in packaging Tsubasa as an omnibus. The series seems to follow a formula: the plight of the world is described in detail, Kotobuki finds a new job, Raimon expresses his affection for her in an actually-kind-of-creepy way, the army shows up with some nefarious plot, Kotobuki angsts over her perceived uselessness to Raimon, the pair defeats the enemy, and they kiss. It becomes kind of tiresome to read after a while, especially when there’s 400 pages in one volume. We get a glimpse of future volumes at the end in a thank-you message from the author, and it seems like the art has improved. Maybe there’s hope for this series, but as it stands, it can’t live up to the standards later set by Fruits Basket.
After the wild success of Fruits Basket, it was only natural that Takaya’s earlier series would follow it stateside. Whether or not this particular one is worth the price of an omnibus has yet to be seen. I’ll wait to pass judgment on this one until I read volume 2. I hope by then the art style will have improved, and the plot will develop past the routine into which it has fallen. Hopefully, we’ll see the beginnings of the style Takaya has cultivated that has made her one of the greats of the industry. Until then, Fruits Basket will continue to be the uncontested benchmark for plot and characters by which all other shojo series are measured.