While reading Fruits Basket, I was shaken by a part of Tohru Honda’s story. She, like me, had lost the mother who taught her that she would always be loved, as long as she remained true to herself. The loss she’s suffered is why she wound up with nowhere to call her home, save a tent furnished with a sleeping bag and a portrait in a frame.
As much as it resides at the emotional core of Tohru’s character, defining how she leads her life and finds belonging with the equally irregular Sohma family, this revelation is straight out of the trope toolbox. Her dead mother is a device implemented to rationalise Fruits Basket’s quirky set-up, and a reason for us to care; this poor girl, alone in the woods, braving the whims of nature after coming home in the dark from her after-school part-time job.
This formula for the tragic youngster, and the hook for a viewer or reader to follow them through to their coming of age, is far from unique to anime or manga. It’s the anguish Snow White and Cinderella suffer without self-pity, making them pure and worthy of a better life. Disney have dragged it through from Bambi to Finding Nemo and beyond, and Star Wars, Oliver Twist, and a whole slew of superhero origins make dead mothers the reactor core for their life purpose. But in anime especially, the missing matriarch gives protagonists a wistful blank slate, a foundation to forge their stories from without the baggage of a corporeal relationship bogging down the adventure. In short, it gives the kids their freedom.
While a frown was made Ichigo Kurosaki’s most permanent fixture by his mother’s death pre-narrative in Bleach, the bonus of a somewhat incompetent dad allows him to walk the line of death’s realm as a Shinigami. He tackles his grief head-on with each Hollow, those demons of despair that he dispatches. For Fullmetal Alchemist’s Edward and Alphonse Elric, the intention is much the same. Having meddled with the dark depths of alchemy to revive their mother, their quest to uncover the secrets of the Philosopher’s Stone is begun by the guilt of an unforgivable act committed by blood, against blood.
Lost without their mother at such a young age, they can see no life for themselves without her and submerge themselves in the study of alchemy to bring her back. They see salvation in equivalent exchange, like matter sacrificed for like. They gather the components of a human body, create the altar and begin the ritual. They open the gates to death, a familiar figure tortured and twisted, grotesque. The gate swallows Al, and Ed gives up his right arm to bring the soul of his brother back, without the body, the conditions of the exchange being like for like. Life for life, and parts for parts.
In seeing the consequences of their actions, the screaming maw of their mother, they realise that there should no longer be a life for them in their home. They burn it to the ground, with all presence that may remain of her. They accept that they will never see her again, and were undeserving as soon as they defiled her memory. They make a pact, never to return to this pile of ashes again.
Even if it is in a far less anchored way, Tohru feels she has a home as long she has her mother’s presence. Her grief is subtle, restricted to personal thought, but it’s fresh enough that when her tent is submerged in a landslide – belongings, picture and all – she can’t bear the thought of leaving her mother under the earth alone. Still, she guides Tohru through memories of her stories, smiles and wisdom, and in reminding her to keep an open heart, guides her to heal Kyo Sohma’s. She empathises with his anger and pain, even when she doesn’t know what causes it. When she finds out his mother committed suicide and that he blames himself for her death, his father again convincing him of that guilt, it binds them in mutual understanding and calls them both to belonging and home, together and in their own world.
Leaving home to begin a character’s independent path, requiring them to grow up, is often enabled by the parent’s loss. The mother in particular is the emblem of being unconditionally loved, nurtured and cared for. Cutting that tie is cutting the character off from that security, plunging them into the reality that it was always finite, and that they would have to make their own way in the world someday. But it isn’t always a wound they have to dig inside to remove the hurt; the spiritual presence can be a guiding thread, tethering them to home and the place they belong, wherever that comes to be.
Makoto Shinkai’s your name. approached the loss of self and identity that comes with losing a parent through natural disaster, linking that loss with a national, and even universal, trauma. Spiritual connection, represented here by a temporal anomaly which allows teens Taki and Mitsuha to swap bodies, is the key to healing and undoing the hurt of loss. The ‘kuchikamizake trip’ scene, in which Taki drinks sake made from Mitsuha’s saliva as an offering to the guardian god in the hills of her rural home, connects him to her across timespace. He sees her conception, her birth, and her mother’s death, which echoes Mitsuha’s misfit feelings. By the red thread of fate which becomes an umbilical cord, in contact with the maternal bond, he experiences the grief and loneliness which makes her yearn to escape to Tokyo. He calls her back to life and belonging through his love, a kiss through spirit and the Earth’s nurturing energy.
Such a spiritual connection is also present in Cardcaptor Sakura, whose magical heroine Sakura Kinomoto lost her mother, Nadeshiko, at a young age. In this year’s anime sequel, the Clear Card Arc, she still says goodbye to her mother’s picture as she sets off for her new middle school. But in the 1998 series, Nadeshiko appears in spirit every so often to check on her family, a markedly more angelic rendition of the ubume ghost of Japanese folklore, forlornly watching over her child and trying to provide. Nadeshiko’s memory remains to give Sakura strength, even though her daughter can rarely see her. But considering an illusion of her ghost created by a Clow Card in the episode ‘Sakura and Her Memories of Her Mother’ inflames her immaturity, coaxed towards death by the illusion, the implication is that Sakura can only succeed when her mother is an invisible presence in her life.
The loss of a mother opens characters up to the world around them, calling them through tough love into a life of fearsome wonder. Loss guides them to where they belong, beyond the safety of family. It even suggests that the mother inevitably becomes a toxic presence, a blocker on true greatness for the child. In Fruits Basket, Tohru’s mother assured her that if she went at her own pace, she would be just fine. But Tohru needs to learn to assert herself, to stumble in life and be disappointed, and she couldn’t have learned that with her mother always near. Arguably, none of these characters would have become the aspirational figures they are in anime and manga, without the mother’s loss.