Early in 2014, when I was just getting into anime, I decided to watch Free! Iwatobi Swim Club, the now-famous sports anime by Kyoto Animation. Being in the closet at the time, I went into it with the kind of ironic half-interest that wouldn’t tip off my friends that I was hella gay (which didn’t work anyway).
To put it bluntly, Free helped me come out of the closet. Granted, the characters never canonically became boyfriends or stated they were gay in the show. Regardless, the characters were all content in their masculinity and displayed a level of intimacy and emotional expressiveness that was really meaningful to me. I will always have a soft spot for that series. I talked more about this in my tribute to Kyoto Animation that you can read here.
Ever since then I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the Boys Love/ Yaoi genre of manga and anime. There are great stories that have been told, especially recently. Yuri on Ice hit the mainstream with gayness like a nuke and we’re still waiting for that fucking film. Sarazanmai went even harder, though I can’t say it was too memorable. The romance in No. 6 was the saving grace when the rest of it was a rushed mess. Finally, dated as it was, Banana Fish was the action drama infused with gay romance I always wanted and I should really finish it.
For every decent to great gay show that has seeped through the cracks, a lot of yaoi shows have turned me quite cynical towards the genre. The trash-tier of yaoi can be downright infuriating. Shit like Junjou Romantica and Love Stage too often treat non-consensual sex as the starting point to a relationship. There are a lot of really unhealthy tropes that have made it hard to get into anime with gay romances.
There is a lot of garbage out there, but recently, anime with gay characters are being produced more and more. Hell, half of the good examples I mentioned before came out in the last couple of years. And today I want to talk about a show that broke through a lot of that cynicism for me and left me a lot more hopeful for future stories like this.
Given is the story of Ritsuka Uenoyama, a member of a small indie rock band called the Seasons. One day he meets Mafuyu Satou, an aloof boy with a guitar, but seemingly no knowledge about how to play or care for it, as evidenced by its poor condition. Mafuyu lights up all of a sudden and asks him to fix it and teach him how to play.
Uenoyama is no teacher and has a rough time helping Satou at all, but he agrees and introduces him to his band. One day, as the lessons continue, Satou sings and his voice hits Uenoyama to the core. Uenoyama asks Satou if he wants to join the band as the lead singer.
Given is a story about past traumas and working through them. Satou’s aloof demeanor and the way his desires contradict his actions establish a mystique about him. The reason he even owns the guitar he does is a mystery for much of the first half. It becomes clear though that his guitar wasn’t always his.
Mafuyu finds it painful to confront his past, to the point that he has completely cut himself off from his old friends. He doubts himself a lot because he’s strong enough to push himself to try new things, but then questions if he’s dealing with his pain the right way. Learning guitar and becoming part of a band is fun and is probably exactly what he needs, but the process awakens memories and attracts attention from people he cut off because he was afraid to face what happened to him.
Expressing one’s pain through art isn’t a new concept, especially in character drama. Any show framed around an extracurricular activity can take on that kind of story. The reason it works so well is that the maturity and relatability with which this show approaches Mafuyu’s introspection, self-reflection, and expression is heavily endearing.
On the other side, we have Uenoyama. Going from being a very independent person to suddenly having these intense feelings for another person is already a big shock. Having those feelings and not knowing how to interpret them from a lack of experience with love is even more shocking. But having that happen with someone of the same gender with no prior thought given to your sexuality? That’s some thunderstruck horniness right there.
I loved watching him come to terms with his feelings for Mafuyu. Even at the very beginning, he was noticeably charmed by him enough to break his usual routine to go out of his way to teach him how to play guitar. There are a lot of cute touches to their friendship that come up again throughout. Stuff like Mafuyu being the only person who can wake up Uenoyama from his naps halfway through the school day. Or stuff like Mafuyu becoming far more animated when Uenoyama writes him a tune or teaches him something new.
I think my favorite part of the show, however, was how other characters gave their input on their relationship. The other two members of the band are in their own complicated love story. Haruki Nakayama is the band’s bassist, who works at a coffee shop and is a hair model on a TV stylist’s program. Haruki has a crush on the band’s drummer, Akihiko Kaji.
The former has had a crush on the latter ever since they met in school and internalizes those feelings, seeing it as a fleeting dream. Kaji on the other hand, a more relaxed and easygoing sort, has his own secret relationship with violinist Ugetsu Murata. There’s a whole love triangle going.
The downside is that Haruki and Kaji’s stories aren’t resolved by the end of the season. It’s likely meant to be covered in the upcoming film sequel. I wonder what will come first, the Given movie or the Yuri on Ice movie. On the bright side, their own stories give them some unique perspectives that prove invaluable in helping Uenoyama and Mafuyu through their budding relationship.
One of my favorite scenes is a conversation between Uenoyama and Kaji, in which the former asks the latter if it’s wrong for him to feel this way. Kaji tells him “no” and his response is so casual as if the answer was obvious. Uenoyama feels an immense relief because to him, the answer didn’t feel obvious. That kind of supportive dialog, especially coming from a show from a conservative country like Japan is pretty astonishing, and the moment is directed in a way that the audience feels the weight coming off his shoulders.
Speaking of directing, Hikaru Yamaguchi directed the series. I’m unfamiliar with most of her previous work, but I would love to see what else she’s capable of. Most of her other credits are as an animator, but the flow of this rather short series created a very cozy and warm atmosphere that eased you into its more emotional and sensitive subject matter.
A lot of the credited production staff is unknown to me, something I enjoy because it gives me all kinds of new people to appreciate. The character designs by Mina Oosawa were all very cute, with a soft color palette and aesthetic that mixed well with the tone.
There are so many tiny and relatable character moments, typically comedic, that connect so well because they were moments I found relatable as a gay man, and have rarely seen in anime. Stuff like Haruki adorably freaking out after spending a bunch of alone time with his crush, or the relief Uenoyama felt getting some support from friends after he opened up to them. These “simple” moments just hit differently thanks to the direction.
The art style of Given makes up for its limited scope in terms of animation. For a show centered around a band, there are only two major performances that stand out in my memory and both have their share of good and bad. The good comes from big narrative moments that earn your investment leading up to them, and the music by artist Michiru. The bad comes from the mixed quality of CGI used for when they’re playing their instruments.
The mixture isn’t so bad, but the way the character designs warp to achieve the desired effect is less forgivable. The CGI models’ appendages appear a bit more bloated than their hand-drawn counterparts. It’s a double-edged sword because, on the one hand, there are only two times this technique becomes apparent. On the other though… this is a show about a rock band, and I would think they’d like to put their best foot forward. Let’s just hope the budget increases enough for the film to get better CG or hand-drawn musical sequences.
Given was light and fluffy fun that I would recommend to anyone in need of some good vibes. It gets an extra thumbs up because admittedly I was being pandered too and that’s fine. Getting to see this band of gay and bisexual bros supporting one another made me feel like my arc as a gay anime fan came full circle.
I went from wishing Free went a bit harder, to freaking the fuck out at Yuri on Ice, to now feeling a calm satisfaction at a simple love story that some people may have slept on. And I have a feeling we’re only gonna get more fun shows like this from now on.
Given is available for legal streaming through Crunchyroll.
What did you think of Given? Has my review piqued your interest? Leave a comment below and tell me what you think. While you’re at it, tell me what your favorite gay couple in anime is.
Thanks for reading and as always, see you next time!