In the entirety of Fruits Basket, there is no character — with the natural exception of Tohru, and even then I’d argue — who has inherited as much from Kyoko as Arisa. It isn’t just Arisa’s bond with Kyoko or what Kyoko has given her, it’s also her backstory and her concept as a character: her present attire, mannerisms, her fierce loyalty, and, much later on, the progression and nature of her romantic relationship.
It is no surprise then that Arisa would often be the first to say things along the lines of “If Kyoko were here, she’d say this!” or “If Kyoko were here, she’d act like that!”, and Arisa is indeed the first to inform the Sohmas and the reader about the kind of person Kyoko truly was, beyond what she meant to Tohru and how she shaped Tohru. In fact, the largest parts of Kyoko’s past are conveyed through two characters, Arisa being one and Kyo being the other.
Tohru’s mother having being somewhat unusual and having left a bad impression on her husband’s siblings is established in volume 1, and further hints of her rowdy teenage years are dropped during her first death anniversary in volume 4. Who Kyoko used to be and what her personality was like, however, isn’t revealed until Arisa’s backstory in volume 7; before that, the reader only catches glimpses of Kyoko through Tohru’s memories.
Back around 5th grade, Arisa used to be part of a delinquent gang, wearing full gang attire, setting things on fire, getting involved in fights and being chased by the police on top of getting into trouble with teachers and parents alike.
To put it bluntly, I was a hopeless fool. But even as foolish as I was, there was someone who I looked up to. That person was Kyoko. “The Red Butterfly”, leader of her own kamikaze squad that would take on any guy. The taillight of her bike danced behind her like a red butterfly. She fought bravely and fiercely, but always fair. The more I learned about her, the more I admired her. Arisa
The young Arisa created Kyoko as a hero in her mind and idolized her. When she heard the rumours that Kyoko’s daughter attended her own school, Arisa set out to look for that person, imagining her as an outstanding and rowdy girl she’d be able to relate to while dreaming of getting closer to Kyoko herself. Of course, Tohru turned out to be anything but that, and Arisa expressed her disbelief at Tohru being Kyoko’s daughter with rage.
That rage turned into verbal insults when she met the actual Kyoko and was severely disappointed, the image of her hero crumbling and replaced by that of a working housewife and a doting mother. Unable to take the loving mood around Kyoko and Tohru, Arisa voiced her frustrations at Kyoko for “sinking so low”. In retrospect, Arisa realizes that her reaction back then was very selfish, though Kyoko just smiled and forgave her, stating that she just wasn’t as obstinate anymore and that it had been time to move on.
Arisa turned her back on Kyoko and Tohru only to return to her gang. Although she knew the gang environment didn’t make for the best company, it was also the only kind of company she could tolerate and be around, especially considering the amount of fellow members with negligent parents. Arisa herself had been living with her alcoholic father since her mother had eloped.
It wasn’t until Arisa ran into Tohru and was invited into their household again that she could admit to herself that her frustrations weren’t so much about who Kyoko was or wasn’t. They were a result of her suffocating envy and her desperate longing for the things she felt around Kyoko and Tohru, things she didn’t have in her own life to soothe her loneliness — loneliness that was at least in part self-inflicted due to her own obstinate attitude (particularly wanting to be loved in one moment and wanting to be left alone in the next). It was in that moment that she understood the words Kyoko had said to her.
From then on, Arisa regularly visited the Hondas, and her veneration of Kyoko turned into respect and affection. Kyoko made her feel welcome and not just took time for her, but always listened and responded to her questions and rants. Mother and daughter gave Arisa strength, and Arisa regularly went to school again to spend time with Tohru and to help her with her studies.
That friendship and Arisa’s new attitude weren’t well-received by her gang. When she eventually resolved to quit the gang, she readily accepted the physical penalty (see “lynching”), desperately wanting to change for the better no matter how afraid she was — not just of the beating, but of change itself. And then, while Arisa quietly took the beating, Kyoko appeared out of the blue, her quiet disdain for the lynching dominating the scene. It’s notable that she didn’t show up in her old gang attire, well-known and awe-inspiring as she still was in the gang scene, but in her usual attire as the person she had become.
Kyoko pushed the girls aside and made off with Arisa, piggybacking her back to the waiting Tohru. To Arisa, Kyoko explained that she had been alerted by a senior gang member who cared deeply about Arisa’s well-being, and who wished for her to have a proper life. Arisa was fortunate for having someone who looked out for her, as many girls who quit their gangs end up with penalties far worse. When realizing that, Arisa burst into tears: “I’m an idiot… I only ever learn my lesson after taking a beating. I’m such a fool…”
And just as before, Kyoko listened and responded in earnest:
Some things you only learn once it hurts or once you get others involved. That’s just the way it is. There are many things you only understand once you’ve hit rock bottom. You fight all the beautiful things in life and often learn to appreciate them only by having been in the dirt.
You need love to recognize pain, just as the sun is needed for you to see the darkness. Nothing about that is foolish, and none of that is futile. You can afford to trip and to make mistakes. That, too, isn’t in vain. The crap that you make is the fertilizer that allows you to grow beyond yourself. That’s my motto! Kyoko
Touched by those words, Arisa admitted to wanting to become a friend Tohru could be proud of, with Tohru as the source of strength that allowed Arisa to change. Arisa never looked back on that decision; this is emphasized by her backstory chapters being accompanied by present-time gang members who follow her around after identifying her as a “quitter”.
By the end of the chapters, Arisa gently rebuffs them: “The time when nobody takes you seriously is the best time of your life. If it’s attention you want, there are better ways to get it. I suggest you stop those obstinate ways of yours before things stop being fun. But if it’s a trouncing that you need, you can come get that anytime.” Arisa’s smile in that scene signifies that she’s thoroughly content with the turn her life has taken, and that she’s very happy with where and who she is with now. What’s more, the last page reveals that her relationship with her father has significantly improved.
Arisa’s entire backstory is conveyed to the reader as she narrates it to Yuki and Kyo, and her looking back closes with thoughts regarding Kyoko as a significant pillar in her life:
Kyoko’s laugh was so bright. I… I still can’t believe that she is gone. Now, no light burns in her house anymore. Hard to believe. I loved her. She was the kind of person who, without any obligation, would save a girl she barely knew… A kind, sincere and caring person who I liked very much.
I’ll never see Kyoko again. But something of hers will always remain. Her words, her spirit… and Tohru. They are the fertilizer that allow me to grow beyond myself. Arisa
In Arisa, we see a person saved by Kyoko and Tohru both, with Kyoko personally stepping in to give Arisa a second chance. Kyoko meant — and still means — so much to Arisa, especially as a person she could relate to due to their similar backgrounds and due to Kyoko’s guidance and investment in her own person.
Kyoko’s passing touched Tohru and her friends deeply, but the extent to which it hit Arisa in particular cannot be understated. There’s a quiet scene in all these flashbacks, where Arisa stands in front of the dark Honda residence, tears silently rolling down her cheeks as she thinks back on Kyoko’s most prominent trait, her smile, and it’s one of my favourite moments in the series.
The way Arisa still dresses despite having left the gang scene (her long skirts in particular) and her protectiveness of Tohru are of course traits of her own and a result of Tohru having saved her from loneliness, but it wouldn’t be far-fetched to assume that some of it is in honour of Kyoko or amplified by her feelings for Kyoko. The best examples of that are the solemn vow in front of Kyoko’s grave as well as Arisa donning Kyoko’s former gang attire during the grave visit.
It’s interesting to note that it won’t be until much later on that the reader would understand just how much of herself Kyoko must have seen in Arisa. Arisa’s chapters naturally focus on her relationship with Tohru as well as her growth as a person, with Tohru and Kyoko both acting as guides, but they don’t speak from Kyoko’s perspective. Although Kyoko’s bond with Arisa isn’t explored in detail afterwards, it’s worthwhile to keep Arisa’s story in mind when advancing to Kyoko’s.