Graphic Illustration by Chrys Marr (She/They)
Trigger Warnings for Mentions of Suicide
Gays. Anime. Some may think they don’t overlap, but in fact, there is a rich division of anime known for and characterized by its LGBTQ+ themes. The last few years in particular have yielded some of the most refreshing and positive instances of representation within the genre. This series hopes to give a proper platform to those unique productions that take LGBTQ+ representation out of the comfortable shadows of connotation or fetishization it typically resides in and present themselves as unapologetically, beautifully gay.
Now, it’s only fitting to start this series with the show that inspired it: the soul-wrenching, eleven episode phenomenon known as “Given.” Absolutely falling into the “beautiful” column of categorization, the original manga written and illustrated by Natsuki Kizu began publishing in 2013, and received an anime adaptation in 2019. The animated adaptation became the first explicitly gay series to air on Noitamina, a programming block of Fuji TV reserved exclusively for anime. This in itself is a feat, as while the amount of gay romance in anime is anything but lacking, in general, it tends to stay as a separate, subcultural portion of the more mainstream force of modern animes, most stories remaining as mangas and never getting the chance to be animated in the first place. That this explicit, multi-layered LGBTQ+ love story was aired on a mainstream anime program is a huge milestone for the community, and goes to show just how undeniably good this show is.
Before we go any further, it’s worth saying that if, at this point, you have any interest whatsoever, you should really take the time to watch this show and experience it the way you’re meant to. With only 11 episodes, each 20 minutes long, it’s an easy breeze through a beautifully crafted, LGBTQ+ love story surrounding grief and new beginnings. It follows the main character, Uenoyama, as he meets a quiet, seemingly air-headed boy named Mafuyu. Mafuyu carries around a high-end model guitar, but is unable to play it, capturing Uenoyama’s curiosity and prompting him to teach Mafuyu how to play, as well as eventually getting him to join his band as the lead vocalist. Uenoyama quickly finds himself falling for Mafuyu; however, Mafuyu himself is still seemingly trapped in a past he won’t speak of. It is only through other characters who return from Mafuyu’s past and very small moments of reflection from himself that the audience learns Mafuyu’s childhood friend and long-term boyfriend, Yuki, had committed suicide earlier that year.
This jarring revelation shocks Uenoyama and their other bandmates as much as it does the audience. With support from his bandmates and particularly strong motivation from Uenoyama, Mafuyu is able to work through the trauma of the past through writing a song titled “Fuyunohanashi”, or “Winter Story”, which the band performs for a live audience in Episode 9. The song itself is a soul-wrenchingly beautiful ode to Yuki, accompanied by a simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming montage of the time Mafuyu spent with him. Through the song, Mafuyu is finally able to express his grief and openly cry for the first time. The genuine, raw emotion in this scene is overwhelming and one of the main factors to making this story so impactful overall. Post-performance, Mafuyu is also able to acknowledge his mutual, budding feelings for Uenoyama, and the show’s conclusion episodes are spent following the two of them as they get permission from their bandmates to officially date and spend time together.
This stirring narrative is what makes “Given” so good, but what makes it downright beautiful are the unique ways the story breaks away from typically stigmatizing or overly sexualized themes which are usually present in the Japanese BL, or “Boys’ Love” genre. Typically, the emotional aspect to both the story itself and between the characters in BLs are superficial or forced at best, and there’s no room to address real issues or vulnerability, rather quickly devolving into… well, porn. “Given” is more realistic in its themes and deliberate in its character development, making the story surrounding them easy to engage with and become invested in. It’s the difference between an LGBTQ+ story being centered around the mere fact that the characters are gay versus a genuinely compelling story that incorporates gay characters and themes relevant to the community, and it makes a world of difference in terms of quality. While there is a short sex scene as part of the montage overlaying the performance of “Fuyunohanashi,” it is not portrayed with an overtly fetishizing gaze. It’s a purely tender moment and only compels the audience to feel the ache of lost love all the deeper.
Additionally, almost all of the other supporting characters are also LGBTQ+, but, once again, not in a superficially advertised way. They are allowed to simply express their feelings of attraction and experience those moments in a realistic manner. One particularly notable scene is when the band’s drummer, Akihiko, confronts Uenoyama about his recent suspiciously affectionate interactions with Mafuyu and helps him not only come to a realization that his feelings are romantic, but assures him that feeling that way towards another guy is completely normal and valid. Frankly, it’s adorable and extremely validating in its own right to see Uenoyama get that kind of support and guidance from his senior, and it is one of the dozens of moments that contributes to the oh-so-notable emotional realism of the show.
This combination of good writing, genuine emotional expression, and beautifully expressed themes of LGBTQ+ love and loss make “Given” an experience worth having. The band in the show is an actual, active band in real life, Mafuyu’s voice actor genuinely being their vocalist, and the album that came out of it is just as amazing as the show itself. Surpassing the default mechanism to use queer-baiting in order to enrapture LGBTQ+ audiences, “Given” is unapologetically and beautifully LGBTQ+ in a way that makes it a feat of modern anime. It’s also proof that our stories can exist and be largely successful and recognized, earning the addition of a feature length animated film to cover the newest editions of the manga. Indeed, a second season is also not far away from many people’s minds. Of course, in order for that to happen, people must continue to see and acknowledge “Given” for the groundbreaking narrative it is, and people like me must continue to gush about it to readers like you. So, it is my hope that this small window into the story of “Given” will contribute just that to the cause.