everyone has to lose their way once
Kyoko’s story and the impressions she left on others are conveyed in fragments, repeating scenes as well as fragments of said repeating scenes, all of which are presented out of their chronological order and not always from the same perspective. (Perhaps the most exciting thing about making Baton Pass was deciding how to group and present all those fragments!)
What I love about that, even if it makes it difficult to discern Kyoko’s relevance in the story at first, is its authenticity: I adore Fruits Basket’s storytelling when it comes to her, as it gives you, the reader, the task to piece together all the parts that make up the character “Kyoko”. And the puzzle pieces that make up the whole picture are memories: memories of many different people, and words and feelings that have reached those people — in different times, in different situations. In Kyoko, I feel that we see just how much of an impact a single person, a single life can make, and what it is that humans leave behind long after they’re gone.
I do believe that Kyoko was written to encapsulate the entirety of Fruits Basket, and the message of her story and experiences are repeated in crucial parts of the narrative not pertaining to her. The most striking example of this is when part of her dying thoughts are repeated in the series’ epilogue: “Good times follow bad times, and with each change, the years pile up.” Her own lesson is also repeated twice at the end of her backstory, before the chapter concludes with a smiling Kyoko and Katsuya in the background:
Everyone has to lose their way once before finding their answer. Everyone. Volume 16
But the echoes of the character Kyoko run so much deeper, which is something you only see when you reflect on all the lessons she has imparted after you’ve learned her own story in volume 16.
Her past interactions with Tohru’s friend Arisa are the best example of that. While Arisa’s chapters are the reader’s first opportunity to learn more about Kyoko, they are largely about how Kyoko was perceived by Arisa, not the other way around. The connection between Kyoko and Arisa, however, is so much more than that, because surely, Kyoko must have seen her younger self in Arisa: They both had an unhealthy relationship with their parents, they both were members of street gangs, they were both constantly wavering between anger and apathy that they couldn’t direct at anyone in particular, which is why they lived that frustration out in street violence and yelled at everyone at the slightest provocation. Loneliness suffocated them both, and they wanted so much to be loved by someone, anyone; yet, even though they both knew that they were messed up, they saw no other choice but to continue on their wrong path — because it was the easy thing to do, because it was the only thing to do in their despair and helplessness.
But it’s not just their issues that they had in common — it’s also the way they escaped that darkness, and the resolve they both needed to see it through. Both of them first needed to find the one person who needed them, listened to them and accepted them, and it was for the sake of that person that they, just as desperately, wanted to change themselves: to become a better person, to stop blaming their misery on others. They decided to quit the gang, tired of how they had been living their life, and admitted to themselves that they had been immature.
That step took a lot of courage (even more so when you consider the “lynching” they had to face), which is later on echoed in Hiro’s chapter: Kyoko made sure to tell Tohru that it’s difficult to admit you’re helpless, immature or flawed, but that admitting is nevertheless a sign of courage, and a first step in your growth. In the same vein, Kyoko later on told Kyo that making a villain out of someone was taking the easy way out, and that rather than blaming someone else, you ought to focus on your own qualities and growth.
Arisa even says that she only ever learns her lesson after taking a beating, mirroring Kyoko’s own lesson in its meaning. And Kyoko’s lesson and the message to the reader is this: It’s alright to make mistakes and to mess up badly in life — that is what allows you to learn and to grow, as long as you take the lessons to heart. Draw strength and courage from those experiences and keep walking forward. Moreover, remember your younger self, your mistakes, your weaknesses, and all of your pain and struggles when growing up: They will be what allow you to connect to other people, they will be what help you understand and empathize with others, and see things from a different perspective — and one day, those experiences may even guide others through their hard times.
The reason Kyoko, as a character, touches me so much is because she makes me feel like I can brave anything in the world. She is the one character who, after a lot of struggle, found a place to call home, found that home in a person, only to lose both. Kyoko hit rock bottom again, and she struggled so very much, but she persevered; she kept living, and through that, she kept loving and learning.
The reason her own story comes so late in the series is because the reader needs to see who the smiling, loving and supportive Kyoko was as she raised her daughter, the impact she made, and how fondly she is remembered, to understand the full force of her own past: Kyoko was a radiant person, and it is her bright laugh that everyone remembers the most, but you wouldn’t know the hardships that she went through, and how much she grew from them. But once you do, that is something that fills you with awe and hope alike — awe because she never gave up, and hope for your own future.
In a sense, Kyoko is the only character with a “full arc”. I don’t mean that in terms of character development, and I’m not saying that because she has passed away. What I’m saying is, the future for every other character is uncertain, with Fruits Basket taking place over the time span of about two years (Tohru’s second and third high school years). In contrast, Kyoko’s personal story shows her adolescence in middle school, her time with Katsuya afterwards, the three years of happiness as a family, and then her entire time with Tohru, from Tohru’s childhood to her first high school year. (As pointed out, the very first volume showed Kyoko with plenty of different hairstyles due to the fact that so many different periods in her life are woven into the series.)
Because of that, Kyoko’s entire story allows you to see the longest continuous development of a life, something you cannot find in any other character in the cast. And so, although the future is uncertain, that is nothing to be afraid of: After all, Kyoko has been through all of it, and braved all of it even with the mistakes she made along the way. Because she kept living and growing, she is the one who leads the way — for the other characters, and for you.
And all of what I’ve said here is why Kyoko is on the cover of Fruits Basket’s last volume (each volume cover features only one character from the series). Natsuki Takaya, the mangaka, says as much:
It was to start with Tohru, and end with Kyoko. That was planned from the very first moment. With a bang, and a laugh so bright that it could only come from Kyoko. Volume 23
Kyoko is a constant presence in the series, and her own life has touched countless of other lives, the returning words of her lessons and wisdoms becoming the series’ themes. When Fruits Basket concludes with Yuki thanking Tohru and seeing her off, I’m sure he is voicing the entire cast’s and the reader’s gratefulness to Tohru as a guiding and supportive presence — as a mother figure just like Kyoko.
As I have said so many times before: Kyoko is gone, but her legacy lives on in Tohru and those who remember her. I take comfort in that thought, and I think that is something worth getting up for when you are beaten down, and what gives you a reason to persevere and fight to the end.