13 January 2020

Musings On "Fruits Basket"

"Fruits Basket" is one of the most charming Japanese manga series ever written, was made into a very well done anime series in 2001 and another in 2019 which is available in an English dubbed version on Hulu. I've read the manga and watched the 2001 series and I'm now watching the 2019 series, which is considerably longer, omitting less from the original magna series.

Our heroine, Tohru Honda is a classic sweet and pure ingĂ©nue, and, of course, also an orphan, like a disproportionate share of young protagonists in fiction.

What really distinguishes the series is the very counterintuitive (to American eyes) way that Tohru and those around her deal with the interpersonal issues within the Soma family in which Tohru becomes ensconced, some of which are counterintuitive to anyone, and others of which reflect distinctly Japanese values rooted to some extent in Confucianism, about the appropriate ways for people of unequal status to interact with each other.

Even deeper than that, however, is the very sophisticated level of psychological analysis rooted in very deep empathy (rather than explicit social science  theories) employed by Tohru and several of the more mature characters in dealing with these interpersonal conflicts. This is more obvious in  the longer retelling of the story in the 2019 version makes it possible to focus on the meaty interpersonal relationship analysis in the underlying material relative to the 2001 version. It seems even stronger in the 2019 anime, to some extent, relative to the manga itself which is a bit more subtle on some of these points (although perhaps I just wasn't as attuned to them when reading it as one of the early full manga series that I read). Some of this may come with the passage of time too. The 2019 anime, for example, has a somewhat less tone deaf recounting of the travails of a transgender member of the family, although, as it is bound by the original material, not one that fully fits today's sensibilities about how to talk about and deal with transgender individuals respectfully.

The depth of understanding, empathy and sensitivity on display in the series itself has an internal irony to it. Despite the very sophisticated understanding of others that some in the Soma clan hold, the clan as a whole does a horrible job of recognizing the importance of love or the feelings of its members and is full of interpersonal misery. In part, this is a consequence of apparently unenlightened leadership of the mysterious Akito Soma at the top that everyone is powerless to address, a classic problem in any Confucian hierarchy. In part, this is a consequence of an epic, multigenerational curse that it is hubris to think that anyone can actually really overcome.

This in turn is rooted in a moral axiom and ideal rooted very deeply in modern Japanese culture that is absent in Western culture to anything approaching the same degree. This axiom is that everyone, no matter how deplorable their conduct, is capable of being persuaded and won over to acting more appropriately is you can only get to understand them and what is making them act the way that they do much completely.

As an empirical proposition, I have my doubts that this moral ideal accurately describes the world. It bears a lot of similarity to the almost ubiquitous tendency to overestimate the relevance of Nurture, relative to Nature, in understanding people's propensities and abilities. 

The reality is that behavior arises from complex Nature x Nurture interactions, and also depends a lot on immediate social context. But, the reality is also that some uncommon but not terribly rare people, perhaps one to four percent of the overall population, are just irredeemable, for example, due to a congenital condition that deprives them of the ability to have empathy, or due to a traumatic brain injury, or due to a life time of bad experiences that it are impossible to undo at some point.

Still, it is also true that there is something very positive to be said for routinely putting more effort than is common into trying to see things from someone else's perspective in an effort to understand why they are acting the way that the do. There is value in recognizing that behavior often does have roots that are understandable when known, that may not be immediately obvious without further intense investigation. And, it is likewise true that a myopic view of social interactions that looks just at an isolated incident of interaction in isolation (as most Western rules of law do) can obscure more fruitful ways to prevent bad behavior from continuing that approaches roots in imposing brute consequences often long deferred from the misconduct in question as a response to anti-social or inappropriate interactions and behavior. 

The snotty, spoiled and immature, but smart young family member Hiro Soma, routinely abuses his authority and tries to manipulate situations and rules to his favor. He exemplifies and demonstrates the perceived flaws in Eastern legal and political thinking of a narrow Western style system of "rule of law" that can be manipulated in so many ways and ignores the pervasive inequalities found in so many socially and legally important interactions. These are flaws relative to an Eastern legal and political philosophy oriented system focused on putting in place moral and wise people to administer society at every level and clear understandings about the appropriate ways to act interpersonally towards others who are in unequal relationships with each other, in which the focus is on nurturing well socialized people for leadership positions in which their own innate morality rather than formal rules of law are the primary guiding force in their actions. In Western legal and political thinking, the natural response to something that isn't working well is to adopt better laws and policies. In Eastern legal and political thinking, the natural response to something that isn't working well is to put in place more virtuous leaders.

It isn't wrong to observe that the Western narrow incident oriented approach does have flaws. Punishing someone for hitting, even when they do so only after extreme and inappropriate anti-social provocation, doesn't do complete justice or solve the problem entirely. Treating a girl who kills a man that has been keeping her as a sex slave and repeatedly raping her when she gets a chance because legally authorized self-defense in the moment is futile, isn't culpable to the same extent as a pre-meditated killing of a weak stranger. Many bullies start out as victims of other bullies until a vicious cycle builds up that treating each incident in isolation as an act to be punished with stiff consequences can't break. 

Sometimes someone gives someone else the cold shoulder out of misplaced love, trying to protect the person that they love from the woes that the person giving the cold shoulder is afflicted with, rather than hate or actual disdain.

Looking at acts narrowly and imposing consequences in isolation may be better than anarchy and easier for marginally competent people charged with enforcing peace and order to carry out without making serious mistakes. But, this is also crude and misses many opportunities in which more enlightened, empathetic and wise actions by those in authority and those involved without authority could have treated a situation differently and secured a better result. 

It brings to mind the truth that teachers and school administrators (who are better educated and who are specifically trained to deal with the issues of developing children) often do a better job of balancing consequences with empathy and understanding to get good results in dealing with discipline issues of students in school, than "school resource" officers who think crudely like the cops that they are and systemically lead to a school to prison pipeline.

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