High school senior Ritsuka Uenoyama used to have two things that gave his life colour and meaning: playing the guitar and playing basketball. Lately, however, nothing seems to give him joy; despite being in a band and playing the guitar to a highly technically skilled level, and despite being an excellent basketballer whose athletic ability makes him popular with his fellow students, all Ritsuka feels is a grey ennui that manifests itself in a perpetual desire to sleep. One day, however, Ritsuka encounters Mafuyu Satō, a student in the same senior year as himself, who is something of a lost soul, wondering around aimlessly, carrying a guitar with rusted strings he doesn’t even know how to play. Annoyed by Mafuyu’s neglect of his guitar, Ritsuka brings it back into working order, which prompts Mafuyu to ask Ritsuka to be his guitar teacher. At first, Ritsuka declines; but Mafuyu’s persistence gradually wears him down. And when Ritsuka hears Mafuyu sing and realises that he has a beautiful voice, he invites Mafuyu to join his band, which consists of Ritsuka and university students Haruki Nakayama and Akihiko Kaji. The other band members likewise accept Mafuyu when they hear him sing; together, they begin composing a song which they plan to premier at a local concert. This is when Ritsuka hears some disturbing rumours about Mafuyu’s past: the guitar he carries around with him once belonged to a student named Yūki Yoshida, who was also in a band, but who killed himself when he and Mafuyu – who were lovers – had a falling out. As the day of the concert approaches, Mafuyu struggles to complete his part of the song’s composition; while Ritsuka discovers that, instead of being repelled by the thought that Mafuyu had a male lover, he is jealous instead – and that his feelings toward Mafuyu are not merely those of sympathy for someone who seems out of place in the world…

Based on the manga by Natsuki Kizu and produced by animation studio Lerche, “Given” premiered on Japan’s Fuji TV network in its Noitamina anime block in 2019. Animated in a realistic style that effectively combines both 2D and 3D animation methods, “Given” was the first anime series to appear on Fuji TV with openly gay characters – despite the popularity of the yaoi manga and anime genre in Japan.  Instead of being either prurient or exploitative, “Given” handles with a deft touch the sensitive issues of emerging emotions and the vulnerability of awakening sexual identity, leavening the dramatic undertones of the narrative with a sympathetic humour that ultimately adds to the poignancy of the story it tells.   The narrative itself is supported by an excellent soundtrack; likewise, the revelations about Mafuyu’s past don’t encumber the storytelling, but through an effective show-but-don’t-tell method (involving both flashbacks experienced by Mafuyu, as well as encounters with his former childhood friend, Hiiragi Kashima), allows us to appreciate the impact of Mafuyu’s past relationship without recourse to long, didactic monologues. If the series has a failing, it is perhaps in its treatment of Ritsuke’s older sister Yayoi’s unrequited love for his bandmate Kaji; a kind of reverse mirror image of the burgeoning romance between Ritsuka and Mafuyu, it is treated as little more than a sideshow. Nonetheless, “Given” is a powerful and effective story about emotional vulnerability and awakening identity, in which the themes of loss, grief, the power of memory and the hope of new beginnings are tellingly explored. A feature-length sequel, produced by anime studio Blue Lynx and focusing on the relationship between Kaji and Nakayama, was released in 2020.

Text ©Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2021. All rights reserved.