Something else that is established from the first volume is the fact that Kyoko wasn’t just part of Tohru’s life. Tohru’s closest friends are two classmates with no ties to the Sohma clan: Arisa Uotani and Saki Hanajima. While Arisa is loud-mouthed, somewhat aggressive and shows her emotions openly, Saki tends to be reserved, eerily quiet and mostly maintains the same blank facial expression. They form a peculiar trio with the selfless and oblivious Tohru, who is visibly dear to both of them; what’s surprising, however, is that they seem to have been very familiar with Kyoko as well.
When Kyo, one of the Sohmas Tohru lives with, joins their class, Arisa and Saki remark that his orange hair resembles Kyoko’s colour. Later on, they joke about how much Kyoko would have adored Kyo and enjoyed teasing him. In volume 2, the two of them pay the Sohmas a visit to make sure that Tohru is in good hands. The Sohmas learn that Tohru was their first real friend, and that they vowed in front of Kyoko’s grave to always be there for her.
One year after Kyoko has passed away, Saki and Arisa look back on her:
It still feels as though she could pop up anytime. She’d say “Sorry for being late!” and would be all smiles. […] She was that great. The “Red Butterfly of the Kannana Highway” may be gone, but the legend will never die. Arisa, Volume 4
Kyoko is remembered as a laid-back, yet impressive person. What defines Kyoko in the early volumes is not just her energy and her radiance (almost all images and memories of her depict her with a big smile) or her devotion to Tohru — it’s also how approachable and casual she was in her interactions with just about anyone.
All of those initial impressions culminate in the visit of her grave on the anniversary of her death in volume 4, where the trio of friends repeatedly shock the two Sohmas that have tagged along:
- Tohru explains that the temple for Kyoko’s grave was chosen primarily due to how homely it is.
- Arisa shows up in full biker gang attire, wearing the Red Butterfly Squad robe Kyoko passed down to her.
- The trio’s mood is decisively enthusiastic, and they even picnic on top of Kyoko’s grave, stating that Kyoko loved things to be lively.
- On that occasion, the Sohmas also learn that Red Butterfly was Kyoko’s gang moniker and that she used to be quite famous. Uotani in particular revered her even before meeting her in person.
When she rode her bike and the taillight lit up red, she looked like a flying butterfly!
All in all, Fruits Basket — in just four volumes! — paints quite a vivid picture of the person Kyoko was. What’s more, that picture is not one-dimensional. Kyoko had ties to many different people, and not all of them were fond of her: Katsuya and Tohru, who she loved dearly; Katsuya’s father, who brings flowers and her favourite snack to her grave on her death anniversary; the rest of Katsuya’s family, who speak dismissively of her; Kyoko’s own parents, who didn’t want anything to do with her (something that only comes up in a thought bubble); Arisa and Saki, who hold her in high regard — and even Yuki and Kyo Sohma, who are hinted to have known her, with Kyo seemingly harbouring feelings of regret and confusion.
I’ve mentioned that Kyoko’s hairstyle in her depictions keeps changing throughout the volumes (even just within the very first volume). The explanation is that the impressions Kyoko left in the memory of others cover a large time span, beginning with her adolescence. It’s astounding when you think about it: Not only has Kyoko already passed away at the start of the series, she is someone’s parent — neither criteria usually leads to such nuanced and continuous characterization in the kind of story she is featured in.
From the beginning, Kyoko is not solely set up as an extension of Tohru or as Tohru’s inner voice or pillar of support. It’s very clear that Kyoko was — factually and narratively — a person of her own, and may have her own story to tell at some point.
Here’s something to keep in mind: Fruits Basket spans 23 volumes. Kyoko is featured in about 19 volumes, sometimes as a picture or a memory, sometimes mentioned purposefully, sometimes fleetingly. An impressive number, all things considered.