I started Natsuki Takaya’s “Fruits Basket” once before and couldn’t get into it. The main character, Tohru, was just too shojo saccharine for me to take; all bubbly kawaii innocence, unfailing optimism, and wide-eyed paens to her dead Mom because…is she an orphan? Of course she is.

Still, I’d heard lots and lots of good things about the series, and I hadn’t hated, hated it the first time through, so I thought I’d give it another go.

It’s working for me somewhat better this time out. I’ve only gotten through the first volume, and, yeah, Tohru is still a bit much. But once you get over that, there are a lot of low-key, touching moments in the series. For instance, in one sequence Shigure Sohma asks is relative, Kyo, what Kyo would do if a girl ever told him that she loved him. Kyo responds, “I can’t even imagine. I guess…I’d ask her if she were insane.” Similarly, Yuki (another Sohma relative) can’t believe that Tohru doesn’t find him repulsive. The thing that makes these moments work is how Takaya downplays them; instead of great torents of dramatic adolescent self-loathing, the self-hatred is touched on quietly. The lack of drama makes the emotions seem more lasting and intractable and sad.

The gimmick is good too. Fruits Basket is centered on the Sohma family, all of whom turn into various animals of the Chinese zodiac when they’re hugged by a member of the opposite sex, or when they get overly stressed. If you know Ranma 1/2, this’ll probably sound familiar. The trick is, in Ranma the fact that all the main characters turn into pandas or cats or pigs or members of the opposite sex when they have water dumped on them is played for madcap comedy. Takaya takes the trope and, improbably and rather brilliantly, finds poetry in it. In Fruits Basket, the transformation curse isn’t a joke; it’s actually a curse, which separates the Sohma from everyone else. The fact that the change is triggered by hugging becomes a metaphor for their isolation and loneliness; they literally can’t touch other people.

So I’ll keep going for the present. Who knows, maybe I’ll even overcome my insulin-shock reaction to Tohru. We’ll see….