Good girls don’t have to be boring: Sawako & Tohru

Good girls don’t have to be boring: Sawako & Tohru

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a huge fan of Fruits Basket. Even though the series has its touching moments, Fruits Basket often gets praised for being the best at comedy and romance when I feel that there are other shojo series do these things better. My biggest problem with the series, however, is Tohru. I found Tohru Honda to have absolutely no personality – she never stands up for herself, has no distinct likes or dislikes, and I found her constant positivity to be annoying. Soaringwings did an excellent post discussing the flaws of Tohru’s character and why she is ultimately a passive heroine compared to other female shojo protagonists. Although there are many passive shojo heroines, the main character I’ve often seen Tohru compared to is Sawako Kuronoma from Kimi ni Todoke. When I started reading Kimi ni Todoke, I immediately found myself gravitating toward Sawako, the ‘loner’ protagonist who, despite her extreme kindness, has trouble communicating her feelings to others. I began to wonder: how is it that I had such different reactions to these two characters when they share so many of the same personality traits? After giving the question some thought, I began to realizes that many of their shared attributes only skim the surface of these characters. 

Sawako

Tohru and Sawako’s similarities begin with their willingness to bend over backward for the people around them. For example, in Fruits Basket Tohru spends all of her money to buy chocolates for the Sohma family even though she needed it for school. And in Kimi ni Todoke, Sawako does everything from doing all the classroom chores to tutoring her entire class for a test without expecting anything in return. Tohru and Sawako are extremely optimistic, and they each try to see the good in others. Because of their kindness and hyperconsciousness of others, this also means that they have trouble saying what they want and they often feel as though they’re being selfish or inconveniencing the people around them by stating their opinions or desires. Both girls are also purehearted, which is probably why they are so naïve, especially when it comes to romantic matters. However, I feel that Sawako possesses several characteristics that make her very likeable. First of all, Sawako has never really had friends, and seeing her try so hard just to say ‘good morning’ to her classmates (not to mention how elated she gets when they respond) makes it hard not to root for her. Her shyness, combined with her desire to have friends, makes her extremely relatable and also makes it easier to overlook the fact that it’d be hard to find someone as kind and positive as she is in real life. Sawako also has more to her than just her kindness – part of the reason she has always been a loner her whole life is because people are scared of her: her jet black hair and sometimes creepy smile reminds people of a horror movie character named ‘Sadako.’ Rather than resent her nickname, Sawako feels bad that she doesn’t have any supernatural powers and tries to impress people by telling ghost stories. I found this to be an interesting quirk to Sawako’s character, and I loved seeing her accidentally make creepy faces whenever she tries to be cheerful.

Tohru

But while Sawako is relatable and quirky, Tohru has no real defining characteristics other than her kindness. She’s not especially smart or athletic, and the only thing she seems to be good at is cooking (of course). While a lot of Sawako’s inability to speak up for herself comes from shyness, there’s no real reason to explain why Tohru is as passive as she is. Ultimately, I think the main reason why Tohru is a far more bothersome character to me than Sawako is because there are far more interesting characters than Tohru in Fruits Basket. Tohru’s character serves the sole purpose of healing the Sohma family, and the character development of each Sohma member is more important than Tohru’s own. Yet while Tohru learning to stand up for herself isn’t the main focus of the story, Sawako’s character development is the main attraction of Kimi ni Todoke. By focusing on Sawako over Kazehaya or their romance, she is empowered and feels more like fully dimensional character. It’s fun to see Sawako learn to love herself, and once she falls for Kazehaya she realizes that sometimes it’s okay to ‘be selfish’ and say how you feel. So while both of these characters are supposed to be the ‘average girl next door’ so that any female fan can relate to them, Kimi ni Todoke shows that ‘average’ doesn’t have to mean ‘boring.’

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29 thoughts on “Good girls don’t have to be boring: Sawako & Tohru

  1. Fruits Basket is one good manga for me, though I have to say, it would have been better had Natsuki Takaya gave Tohru more personality. Well I can’t say I like Tohru, but I don’t hate her either (I’m pretty neutral about her since she’s the main heroine, but there’s another girl from Furuba that I really like).
    I’m also thinking that the the main reason for Tohru’s character to be like that is because she isn’t the main focus of the story, but rather, it’s the curse of the Sohma family and its members.

    1. I think at first I was neutral toward her as well, but as the series progressed I became annoyed with her having no real personality. And while I agree with you that Tohru’s blandness is because she isn’t the main focus of the story, that still doesn’t justify her being as passive as she is.

  2. I don’t think Tohru is one of my favorite shojo heroines either. I’m also with Alyssa on this one. I always felt neutral about her. A lot of shojos have girl next door types, but like you said they don’t all have to be “boring.” Tohru does have a vanilla type of personality. There isn’t really anything about her that makes you sit up and want to know more about her story. If anything, you would much rather read about all the other characters since they have rich and complex backgrounds.

    1. I’ve seen people defend Tohru as being more than just a ‘Mary Sue’ – they argue that her character’s kindness and purity is because of what she represents for the Sohma family. That’s fine, except she still comes across as weak, and there are other shojo protagonists who are not only kind but also fiesty and funny like Sana from Kodocha.

    2. My main problem with this premise is that it presupposes that only delicate, soft spoken, docile types can be kind and help people. I’ve done a whole ramble on this in my impression of the third volume of fruits basket, but basically my big problem here is that the author controls everything in this story so there really is no excuse for Tohru’s “personality” and it glorifying passive, submissive, self-sacrificing female characters. Yes, I do think it glorifies those personality traits because she’s the main character and is painted in a very positive light. Whereas similar characters (shy, passive) may be painted more neurally by the introduction of personal problems that cause them to feel like they can’t speak up or have confidence to assert their opinions. In Tohru it’s seen as normal and ok (i.e. that’s just who she is). In other cases it’s seen as a problem the character must overcome or something that prevents them from being more assertive. That’s the problem I’ve had and have with this manga.

      That said, I don’t mean to suggest you or Alyssa can’t read and enjoy the manga or like Tohru. We like what we like and I like a lot of questionable stuff myself (^__^);;; But I just wanted to give you an idea of why I felt Fruits Basket was problematic. Hope you don’t mind me jumping in on this conversation.

      1. I don’t mind you jumping in on this conversation at all! 🙂 What you said is exactly my point – I love that Sawako’s shyness in Kimi ni Todoke is seen as something that needs to be fixed, and it’s bothersome that someone like Tohru, who never stands up for herself, is treated as ‘normal.’

  3. While Fruits Basket is one of my favorite manga series, Tohru never really stood out to me. Her kindness, optimism and willingness to help others were always her defining traits and that was pretty much it. I liked her and she fits perfectly in her niche as saving the Sohmas and others as well, but she doesn’t jump out.

  4. I used to love Fruits Basket a few years ago, thinking that maybe Tohru would change, but she didn’t, not even a little bit, as the series progressed, I stopped reading it, I might continue reading it again just to see what happens to the characters but I decided to take a break from it for a while. I used to be neutral toward her in the beginning, but not anymore, she doesn’t get angry, she’s always too optimistic, she doesn’t even try to stick up for herself, etc.
    I like reading about girls that have a temper, have some strange/weird/special things about them (something that makes them stand out from other characters), etc; Like: Sana from Kodocha (she’s feisty, hilarious, and crazy yet still somewhat mature), Minako from Codename Sailor V (her falling in love with so many different guys plus being a bit of a tomboy herself is hilarious), Momoka from St. Dragon Girl (her tomboyishness overall, I just love it, she’s definetly my kind of heroine). Sorry for getting a little off topic and the long comment.
    I haven’t read Kimi ni Todoke, so I don’t know much about Sawoko.

    You gave me an idea, maybe one day if I’m not sure what to post or maybe next week I should talk about one of my favourite manga/anime characters.

    1. Even though Fruits Basket can be very emotionally moving, it certainly has its flaws and I consider Tohru to be among them, which is why I never finished the series either.

      You’re not off topic at all – I myself prefer when female characters have some ‘oomph’ to them as well, which is why it stands out more to me when the protagonist weak-willed. And I hope to read that post – I’m curious to see which character you’ll talk about!

  5. I’m happy you found that post of my helpful. I kind of find it a little embarrassing because I wrote it in quite a cynical and bitter state of mind. ^__^;;;;

    That said, I agree with what you say here 100%. I was shifting this same question in my mind and came to a similar conclusion. For me it was Alice from Please Save My Earth, who prompted me to consider why I actually didn’t hate her even though she was pretty passive, shy, and kind. All character traits I usually loath together. I came to a similar conclusion. For me it’s about humanizing the character through backstory. If Alice is passive and shy because she’s been rejected by people all her life for being weird, then it makes perfect sense and she’s no longer weak and passive in my eyes, but a human being that isn’t perfect and struggling with emotions (and trying to be stronger and fit in). I find that very relatable. Whereas Tohru was just glorifying these traits and making them “normal”.

    1. I think it’s funny that you consider your post to be ‘cynical’ or a rant, because it was very well-articulated – it certainly wasn’t written as though you were angry, in my opinion. Even if you may have strong feelings against Tohru, you gave good logical explanations for feeling the way you did.

      Please Save My Earth is one of those series I’ve always heard good things about but haven’t gotten around to reading; I really should one day.

      1. I think I wrote certain things a bit more rigidly and in a more hostile tone than I would have otherwise. Like calling Tohru the “perpetrator” and the little bit on the “perfect wife” (generalizing what males would want in a wife). But yes, the basic gist of that post was pretty much what I wanted to say on that topic. :3

        Yeah, there are so many. For me it’s Kodocha and Skip Beat and Kimi ni Todoke. The latter I have been recommended by two online manga reading friends, who both really love it and they know what sorts of manga I usually like. Ah, I wish I had an Hyperbolic Time Chamber! xD

  6. Am I correct that Tohru operates kind of like a reverse-harem lead? I’m not familiar with Fruits Basket enough to know. I ask because the desire for a reader analogue-type character in harems comes from the VN idea that if we flatten the lead, it will allow the love interests to shine.

    What you’ve identified is that this really isn’t the case. Tohru doesn’t make an impression or affect her surroundings because she’s passive SO that she can be a stand-in. Without any personality, she’s ostensibly an easier set of clothes to put on (see Oatmeal on Bella ‘Pants’ Swan). Kazehaya/Sawako, are completely different. The fact that the two of them ARE characters (and have character) makes their romance all the more compelling.

    1. Thanks for commenting! Yes, many people would call Fruits Basket a reverse harem, and thus Tohru serves simply for the (presumably female) reader to project herself onto. I think your way of phrasing it (i.e, a character as a set of clothes) is a great way to describe it.

      It’s hard for me to get into rooting for a couple when I really don’t care for one of the characters involved, which is why I’d definitely agree with you that Sawako and Kazehaya make a great couple because they shine as individual characters as well.

    2. I think you are right in making the connection between self insertion and Tohru’s really weak characterization. My question though is why are male stand-ins not so passive. I’ve played dating sims and the males rarely come off as passive. Same in harem shows. There is a level of passivity (in the sense that the hero tends to be less assertive about his love so that other female may latch onto him) but he is never painted as naive, passive to a fault (as the hero still tends to voice his opinions and save the love interest), or lacking any special talents (he’s usually special in some sort of way).

      I’m going to give an example to help ground my thoughts: Zero no Tsukiama. Our hero is Saito, who does have a have mild temperament (rarely angry, not violent, etc.), but he doesn’t fully accept being Louise’s “dog”. He doesn’t think the abuse is ok (tells her such too) and he wants to be her boyfriend, not her pet. It turns out he’s special as well since he’s the special familiar and ends up saving Louise a few times as a result.

      I think it’s safe to say that certain ideas about how female should act or what being female entails and how males should act or what being male entails colour these representations of “the blank hero/heroine onto which you may project yourself” and I reject that because I’m not like that and I don’t believe in feminine/masculine qualities. Sorry for unloading that. Your comment helped me make another connection, so I just let in all out here. ^__^ (I shall me know as crazy comment lady that leaves mile long comments from hence forth~ xD )

      1. Oh man! You nailed all the points I left unsaid in my comment! But… I have answers. Wait here for a second…

        *gets out soapbox and stands on it*

        What you’ve properly identified is the influence of patriarchal memes in anime enforcing the gender binary that puts men in the role of actor and generally relegates women to a more passive, supportive role even when the ‘subject’ of a show (if you peel away her ‘cool’ exterior, even Haruhi of Ouran High School Host Club falls loosely into this category).

        This idea actually frames my original point because so long as the women don’t have agency, it’s hard for a show to claim they’re the ‘focus’ (see: regular harem anime). This makes the surface claims that “harem anime is all about the girls” specious to me. Harem anime is really all about the male gaze, since the women are really objects of affection/worship/other, seedier things.

        But, most importantly, you’ve also identified one of the core ways in which these ‘mainstream’ characterizations fail their audience: gender policing. You, luckily are strong enough to resist it, but the implied message of passive women and active men serves the purpose of both lazily perpetuating “the way things are” and indicating how one should behave. Remember: for every girl who doesn’t want to be Tohru, there’s a boy who doesn’t want to be Luffy.

        You should, then, complain that these characters don’t match your experience, or are unrelatable/unrealistic. Keeping your mouth shut and sighing about ‘the way things are’ gets nothing done. 🙂

      2. While male harem leads may be spineless, that’s because the harem represents a male fantasy in which a man doesn’t have to be aggressive or go after the woman – instead, the women come to them. What’s different is that, as you pointed out, male harem leads still have a voice and aren’t completely powerless, not to mention they are usually seen as ‘wimps’ or losers for being as passive as they are (like Keitaro in Love Hina or the lead in Chobits). But for female leads in reverse harems, being dense or not being able to speak up for yourself is seen as ‘cute,’ which unfortunately reflects how women are ‘supposed’ to act, according to patriarchy. In many ways I can’t blame Natsuki Takaya, the author of Fruits Basket, for presenting Tohru as someone to look up to and representing non-assertive women because those values came from the society she grew up in and thus are ‘normal.’ Yet still, there are many wonderful female manga authors who resist this type of characterization and give us stronger, more well-rounded heroines, and I respect them for it – and that’s why I can’t let Takaya off the hook.

        And soaringwings, you’re not crazy comment lady – at least you’re still on topic! 😀

  7. I am really glad to have read this. I keep on seeing everywhere how awesome and popular “Fruits Basket” is. It was always on top of the shoujo recommendations’ list. So first thing I did was to watch the anime but dang, I just can’t get into Tohru’s character.

    I tried reading the manga but she was always the same. I honestly find the guys and her friends more interesting than her. And I just can’t get into a manga (despite the good storyline) if I find the lead female character so blank and lacks character development.

    1. Tohru’s not my only problem with Fruits Basket, but she’s definitely the one that stands out the most in terms of my not being able to get into the series. Sometimes I feel like I’m harsher on Fruits Basket than other shojo series that are far worse, but it’s because it’s so popular and I came in with such high expectations that I found myself being disappointed. I just feel like there simply are better shojo series out there, and that the reason it gets so much praise is because many of the fans who praise the series haven’t really read or watched many other shojo series. I’ve always felt weird for not particularly loving the series, so I’m glad to see others who feel the same way (and who were also bothered by Tohru’s passivity). And it’s true – if I have a major problem with the main female character I’ll have a hard time getting attached to the series.

  8. Nice post. Sawako > Tohru.

    Tohru’s way too kind, it’s beyond unrealistic. And there’s no way she can be that oblivious and stupid and still manage to function in every day life. And the way everyone views her as this poor little angel is just… infuriating.

    There is nothing to her to but cuteness, kindness and sweetness. This is not a character, it’s a ball of cotton candy. Considering the entire point of the anime is to make us feel sorry for her, they could have at least given her some personality or anything resembling an actual human.

    1. One thing that bugged me is that no one in the series seems to be bothered by Tohru’s naivete, the fact that she’s so positive, or that she has no backbone. Kyo calls her out on it, but rather than being annoyed by her he falls for her. I think it’s unrealistic that every character would not only accept Tohru’s passivity but actually be charmed by it. But I would argue that the point of the series wasn’t to make the audience feel sorry for Tohru but rather to show how she heals the very damaged members of the Sohma family – it’s just sad that the person the Sohmas all idealize is not just completely pure (since it sends the message that purity is what’s most important in a female, sexual or otherwise), but actually so bland she doesn’t feel like a person.

  9. It seems to me anime female leads like Tohru Honda have some kind of similar traits that are supposed to be lovable, but it’s just pretty annoying. They have some mary-sue traits common to them. Like say, they will be clumsy, but then it’s a flaw that just adds to their cuteness if anything. Their mistakes always come across as soo funny, even though it isn’t. And yes, almost all, if not all,characters are crazy about her. In Tohru’s case, this includes the whole Sohma family, except for Akito maybe, but I guess he ends up being affected by her too. It’s like something the author wishes for herself or something. I mean c’mon, getting stuck in a house full of guys, who are cute, and who has problems that only the mary sue can fix. Even her friends are portrayed as weird, so only Tohru is the ideal one.

    Same with Sakura cardcaptor, everyone in that anime is obsessed with her I’m telling you. And another thing,these girls usually love to eat a lot and they all talk in a small baby voice that’s supposed to be adorable(not), I mean even little kids do not sound that squeeky. whatever. And when they’re angry, they puff up their cheeks like a little kid, it’s supposed to be cute.

    Now back to Tohru, yes she is kind, but I don’t get why every thing she says is supposed to be inspiring? especially when she’s talking like, say she’s speaking with Kyo, she starts saying something like “Kyo is really a nice person, kyo is…” I mean that’s like baby talk, Kyo is right there for goodness sake. I mean if a real person did that, it’d be so weird. I know it’s anime but still…is that supposed to be ideal? It’s just no girl there is normal except for Tohru, so what do you expect? For one thing, you never ever can relate to her. And other characters just fall at her feet and are willing to risk everything just trying to defend her, In Tohru’s case it’s because of her too kind and too clueless personality or in Sakura(ccs) case, it’s because she is so darn CUTE, and this never ever fails to get pointed out by various characters,even though Tomoyo is prettier.

    In Tohru’s case,She can’t defend herself, if someone throws something at her, she won’t avoid it, she’ll just sit there, shocked, then wait for the guys to get all concerned. It’s crazy. It’s like her sole purpose is to make herself look good and perfect for the whole Sohma family. Sometimes these mary-suish types try to act all capable like say, Yuki Cross, she acts all tough, but then stands frozen and waits for Zero to defend her. That is just soo…. I never liked Shana either, she was just annoying and mean and don’t even get me started on Nina Sakura, Haruno Sakura, Sakura kinimoto(yes it seems sakura is a common mary sue name) and oh yeah Miaka…I just hate canon mary sues.

    The only ones I find to be really likeable, are Haruhi of Ouran, Misaki(Maid sama) Tasuza(Ginban Kaleidoscope. For one,Misaki and Tasuza are tsundere done right, they come across as just having a hard time expressing themselves, but the thing is, they’re not running over another girl, who’s made to look like a fail next to sue, and especially not being too mean in an unecessary way. And Haruhi(Ouran), she’s just so adorable, without needing to act cute, without needing to act clumsy and clueless. She’s not trying to be a clumsy toddler, she acts her age and she’s smart too. Yes, the guys fall for her, but at least she’s not milking it for all it’s worth, Haruhi is just a normal girl. Most of all she doesn’t get mad or talk in a baby-ish way. Can’t say the same for others to be honest. Sadly, real girls try to imitate these baby-ish cutesy attitude, complete with the Baby-voice and it’s just so..disturbing. But I guess old men like it…

  10. After reading several threads on the topic of whether or not Tohru is a Mary-Sue, I say she has a personality. She has been through hard times. (By the way, these are all spoilers for the manga) when her father died, relatives claimed that she was probably a bastard child because she didn’t look like her father and Kyoko was a rebel. Her mother left her for an exceedingly long time before remembering she had a daughter. Tohru used her fathers polite talk a) to feel as if she was like her father and b) to be sure her mother would never leave her. On both sides of the family she wasnt necessarily wanted, so she became a people-pleaser so no one would abandon her. Her iffy childhood made her the way she is. And she is selfish in ways; she admits that one of the main reasons she wants to break the curse is for Kyo, and she uses to resent her father for making her mother leave her. She is very three dimensional, it just comes later in the manga.

    1. Thanks for commenting! I’m not sure I would say I agree that fleshing out Tohru’s background by showing her complicated relationship with her parents is the same as her having a personality. It’s enough to make her not feel like a cardboard cutout, but I can’t say I feel it makes her interesting.

  11. I quite like Tohru since I was younger because she was so kind, but after rewatching Fruit Basket with my cousin I started to lost interest in Tohru.

    Yes, she is kind and good-hearted, unfortunately she doesn’t have much spark on her personality. I would like Tohru more if the author can give Tohru more spark to her personality.

  12. “There’s no real reason to explain why Tohru is as passive as she is.”
    I always thought it was obvious the reason why she was so passive was because of how she used to be bullied and how she felt responsible for the death of her mother. Tohru is by no means the best developed character, or particularly likeable (I think she’s interesting, but not likeable). However I don’t think it’s fair to say there’s no reason behind her seemingly shallow personality. She doesn’t want to express opinions because she’s scared that if she does she will get bullied again. She tries to be the only one responsible for herself after her mother’s death because Tohru believes she killed the one person who looked after her (her mother). Tohru tries to hide her feelings behind a facade of happiness, well aware of how shallow she is. When she talks to Akito in one of the last chapters she admits that she has been afraid to move beyond her shallowness this whole time- that’s why she can relate to his similar fear, neither of them wanting to risk what they have to move beyond their shallow actions, even they’re hurting deep down. Tohru then ends up saying they should both start again, stop being so shallow and hiding their feelings because of their fears, which gives some resolution to Tohru’s annoying character as she is finally ready to try to move on and be honest about who she is.

    Is it annoying that we didn’t get a lot of this explanation until later on? Definitely. Could the reasons behind her passiveness have been explored in more detail? Absolutely, I feel a fair amount of Tohru’s development was rushed. Tohru’s character could have been done a lot better. But it wasn’t an absolute failure either. I feel like we were meant to dislike her to begin with, similarly to how we were meant to dislike Akito to begin with. Then as we find out the truth to why Tohru acts the way she does she become increasingly pitiable- I can’t truly like Tohru, but I feel sorry for her. Which I personally found made her an interesting enough character. Again, I can’t stress enough that this could have been done a lot better- but it was still there.

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