Given Plays a Flat Tune

This started as a completely different essay. I wanted to write about how good and compelling music anime can be; my problem was that I didn’t have enough music anime to write about. I’ve already gone on about Your Lie in April and Those Snow White Notes, and I’m saving K-On for a rainy day when I get around to my essay on moe. So, I decided to watch a few new music anime to get a better selection.

I picked Given, partially because I’ve only heard good things about it, partially because it clocked in at eleven episodes and I figured I could wipe it out in a mere afternoon. There’s my laziness coming back to bite me. I wouldn’t say I was disappointed by Given, perhaps the better word is underwhelmed.

Music is such a raw, emotional form of art, where the barriers of language and technical knowledge are irrelevant to your audience. The more I learned about Given’s story and characters, the feelings they conceal from everyone around them, the more I expected it all to build into a brilliant climax where the real feelings behind the masks are laid bare. Did I get that? Um, maybe?

That is the snag here. Given isn’t a bad anime; I just can’t say anything good about it without tagging on “I guess” to the statement. The animation is good, I guess. It’s just that the CGI is jarring and there’s not a lot of movement. The music is okay, I guess. It’s just that it’s barely featured. The characters are alright, I guess. You know what? No more guesswork, let’s get into why Given has no sense of rhythm.

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Promotional art featuring the band Given, formerly known as The Seasons.

Mafuyu Sato is a second-year high school student who totes a guitar to school every day, despite the fact that he can’t play it. Truthfully, it belonged to his ex-boyfriend who committed suicide, and he’s unwilling to part with it, even though he doesn’t know anything about guitars. Thus, he’s thrilled when a chance encounter with his classmate Ritsuka gives him a chance to learn.

Sato’s a novice at guitar when he’s introduced to Ritsuka’s bandmate Haruki, who’s in love with their drummer, Akihiko, who has yet to convey to Ritsuka’s sister that no one in this band is straight. Luckily for The Seasons, Mafuyu has the voice of an angel, and they’re willing to add him as their vocalist, as long as he can manage to write a song in time for their upcoming show.

Mafuyu stumbles over writing this song, mainly because everyone is encouraging him to write a long song and get everything off his chest. He wants to move on, and to put everything into this song, but he can’t force himself to leave the past alone. He even claims he doesn’t have the lyrics written, right up until the band decides to go on stage without vocals, and then he starts singing.

After that, Mafuyu and Ritsuka decide to put a label on their burgeoning relationship, and…that’s it. The show kind of trails off after the performance in episode nine. I know there’s a movie, but if you can’t be bothered to give your TV series a satisfying conclusion, why would I expect it from the movie?

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Mafuyu unveiling the song he wrote at The Season’s performance.

Given builds up to this performance for most of its runtime, and Mafuyu’s struggle to put his grief into words is the central conflict of the story. As such, I was expecting a whole lot when he actually started to sing, and was let down tremendously. It’s not a bad song, I guess. It’s just mediocre.

Take it from someone who listens to too much J-rock, it sounds exactly the same as a hundred other songs, and none of them are exceptional. If your entire anime is about musicians and the climax of your anime is their one gig, I kind of expect your song to be good. I’m no expect, so I can’t speak to the technical skill of the song, but you don’t need to be an expect to listen to a song and know it’s just adequate.

If I were driving and it came on the radio, I would leave it on for as long as it took me to reach for the dial. The vocals are fine, but they’re wasted on a song that doesn’t serve its purpose. This is supposed to be Mafuyu’s farewell to the boy he loved, who he’s been unable to leave behind, and it’s a weirdly upbeat song that doesn’t communicate any of that emotion.

And nothing takes you out of a story like seeing the characters hype up something that was supposed to be impressive, when it was just mediocre. It’s a forgettable J-rock song that wouldn’t cut it as the opening for a disposable anime; in fact, Given’s opening is better than Mafuyu’s song. It exacerbates the dissonance I’m feeling when I sit there, underwhelmed, while characters who are supposed to be musicians pretend that Mafuyu is a once-in-a-generation talent.

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The band watching a video of their performance, looking more entertained than they have any right to be.

But that’s just a problem with the last few episodes, and to be clear, Given wasn’t much good before that. Close to nothing actually happens in the course of the story; once every character has their backstory explained, they kind of just idle aimlessly for the rest of the story. This applies to even Ritsuka and Sato; Ritsuka puts his feelings on the back burner after realizing them early on, while Mafuyu doesn’t even consider Ritsuka romantically until the other boy kisses him.

The other band members get even less to do than that. Haruki is shown to be in love with Akihiko early on, but it’s almost immediately revealed that Akihiko is in a relationship after that. You see Haruki pining a little bit, but there’s no substantial development to a central character’s storyline.

Akihiko gets even less to do than that. He talks to his boyfriend a couple of times, we see how they met, and he references that his boyfriend has a guy on the side casually. They also never clarify his relationship with Ritsuka’s sister, other than off-handedly mentioning he “dumped” her at the end. That’s weird; they actually hung out quite a bit before, and the writer doesn’t clearly communicate whether or not it’s one-sided. Considering Akihiko is never depicted as being interested in anyone other than his boyfriend, it just doesn’t make sense.

And this is the part where I repeat that I’m not going to watch the movie. There’s a chance they’ll wrap up the loose threads I’m complaining about, but the writers didn’t earn that. You don’t get to twiddle your thumbs for eleven episodes and then demand I watch a movie to know the stuff that you should have put in your show.

In fact, I think less of Given because they purposefully had fewer episodes than the average anime, did nothing with it, and followed it up with a movie. If you had made the most of the time you had, you wouldn’t have needed a movie.

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The character design is well done, at least, but Given never really wows you visually.

Given is just one of those anime that doesn’t accomplish anything that it set out to do. It’s not disgustingly bad, but it feels like a waste of my time. The longer I watch anime, the more I value my time, and the harsher I am on any series that wastes it.

I also think that this series got a lot of undeserved good press, and that’s probably just because it’s yaoi, but that isn’t fair to yaoi. BL stories are far more capable than Given, and they don’t need to be treated nicely because they are better for representation. We do all the good BL a disservice when we elevate the mediocre stories over the genuinely exceptional ones.

And maybe that is its own point for representation, the fact that Given is mediocre. I know i’ve seen more than my fair share of mediocre straight romantic comedies and dramas, so for the sake of equality, Given should be given the same degree of exposure as those. The problem is, and you’ll hear me say this a lot, is that media doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

As it stands, BL is a much smaller field than similar genres, and while it has a dedicated fanbase, many people simply don’t show up for yaoi the same way they would for a slice-of-life or sports anime. It’s not fair to say that yaoi has to do better to be noticed, but that’s the thing, an anime’s fight to get recognition is inherently not fair.

If you aren’t a battle shonen based on a big name manga, or an isekai from a successful series of light novels, you’re at an inherent disadvantage in marketing your anime. Considering that romance occupies a smaller space than other, bigger anime, and yaoi occupies an even smaller space, it simply has to be of better quality to get noticed. By lauding weaker BL, we’re mistreating the excellent ones.

With that in mind, if you have any preferred yaoi anime you’d like to talk about or recommend, great places to do that are in the comments below, or over on my Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku. Until next time, thanks for reading.

2 responses to “Given Plays a Flat Tune”

  1. Wow, I had heard a lot of good stuff about Given and was going to put it on my watch list, now I’m thinking twice. You mentioned some excellent BL anime, could you maybe name a few so inquiring minds could enjoy them too? Thank you for the heads up!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Generally I’d recommend Hiroko Utsumi, as her work is universally well-produced. Banana Fish is more explicitly BL than her other work, but they’re all excellent stories. Anime like SK8 The Infinity and Free are excellent, though they toe the line of being bona fide romances.

      Liked by 1 person

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