Length: 11 x 24 minute episodes
Genre: Romance, drama, music
Year of release: 2019
You see, the problem with many romance anime is that few discuss prior relationships. Many are saccharine sweet tales of first loves that struggle to make a harder emotional impact. Enter Given, a show that blends overcoming heartbreak, coming to terms with ones own sexuality, intense feelings… and it’s also a pretty damn good music anime, if you can look past that CGI.
It’s actually a little hard to get a read on Given’s opening, but it quickly blooms into one of the most compelling shows of the year. Uenoyama is losing his passion for music, and doesn’t have any for school, so spends his days bunking class and falling asleep on a stairwell. Sadly for him, Mafuyu, the biggest airhead in town, also has that spot. Uenoyama can’t help but be attracted to Mafuyu’s beautiful Gibson, and can’t figure out why an idiot who has no idea how this idiot deserves to have such an awesome instrument. After restringing it, Uenoyama gradually gets roped into teaching Mafuyu and showing off his own band, but the iconography of that stairwell never goes far away.
Early in the season, there were some less-brave watchers that weren’t even assigning the show a romance. Misguided they were, because this surprisingly apt music anime evolves to discuss some real, real feelings, and earns both the romance and drama genre tags. Loneliness is important in this anime, and that’s why the stairwell is so important, but coming together – romantically – is just as key.
The show does take a detour through the music genre as it builds the mystery of Mafuyu’s backstory, but it is absolutely a strong point for the show. Too often I’ll see a genre-blend like this struggle to find a good mix or forgo strong writing for half of its identity, but Given really has musical oomph. As a musician myself, I can spot the love of craft here – not only are the band members really walking the musical walk, but the (often visual) name-drops of guitar string and amplifier effect brands goes well with the use of trips (dates) to music stores, fawning over the actually-quite-expensive gear. And there’s no magical moment for the guys, either; Given fully understands the sheer skill, time and effort that goes into making great musicians. So many tiny moments, such as naming the band or showing chord positions, goes a long way to legitimise Given’s musical identity as much as its romantic identity. There’s a little bit of discussion of the par-for-the-course ‘practice versus talent’ trope that rears its head in every musical show, but that’s not something this season dwells on too much.
The thing that the season dwells most of its time on, however, is the romance. What a brilliant romance it is, too. It serves the series so much to go in-depth as much as it does. There’s the occasional comic skit and lighthearted date, but on the whole we’re diving deeply into the feelings of its leads, and fully understanding the limits of their fears. Uenoyama does a lot of growing as he understands his feelings, and battles with his feelings for music and for this new boy – and the series doesn’t shy away from the context of homosexuality in society (something that few BL I’ve seen actually considers). There’s also the fact that this hardcore musician puts so much effort into his music, and that aspect really shines through in his personality.
Mafuyu has a lot behind his space cadet attitude. I won’t lie, though, that this part of him is a little uncanny, and often hard to take seriously. Thankfully, Given is smart enough to keep his musical skill level low, without relying on any miraculous feats of ability (save for, perhaps, his singing ability). The main draw of the series is figuring out just why he became the depressing mope that he started the series out as, and as that aspect is discovered, tackled and overcome, the different plot lines harmonise for a cathartic, heart pounding crescendo. And, even after everything might seem about finished, the show reminds us that life goes on, waltzing through the equally important aftermaths rather than skipping the details.
But the pacing of the show suddenly jaunts once or twice. I mentioned how lovable those bandmates were? Well, it seemed like the author had a change of heart midway through, deciding they needed screentime – protagonists be damned. It’s a little difficult to grapple at, because our favourite drummer and bassist got wonderful developments that they utilised to push the series forward with, but the problem is that these scenes were timed a little wrong. Mid-arc diversions that take up whole episodes feel like padding, as if the correct response is to drop attention while the show gets back to relevance. Further, as the series means to go on beyond this season to fully get to grips with these once-sider-characters’ backstories, it feels like Given is forgetting what its point was at the start, and who the real leads are. Still, the storytelling showed no signs of degradation, so it’s a minor plaster on an otherwise impeccable romance story – dare I say it, but the best of the year, and one of the best in the BL genre.