So while I had a week off from work for the holidays, I decided to break my unofficial anime hiatus by watching, Given—this was of course after I read through the available print manga volumes. But, since manga can’t sing to me I had to watch the anime if I was going to have any reference points for all of the songs.
For those of you that have been living under a rock for the past year, Given is a music themed anime series based on the bimonthly boys love manga series by Natsuki Kizu. The series follows the highs and lows of a four man amateur rock band, and the romantic relationships that form between them. The band is made up of hotheaded prodigy guitarist Uenoyama,
fuckboi playboy drummer Akihiko, soft boi bassist Haruki, and the newest addition Mafuyu, a gifted singer still dealing with the weight of a recent tragedy.
There was a lot of buzz surrounding the series when it was released in 2019 and it has not died down since, especially after it was announced that we’re getting a film sometime in 2021. So with the promise of more Given content on the horizon, this felt like as good a time as any to jump on the ol’ bandwagon and see what all the fuss was about… so let’s see if Given stands up to all the hype.
So, yes and no.
Music themed manga all have a universal shortcoming that no amount of good writing can fix and that is: manga can’t sing to me. So unless the story is about a cover band or has a crap ton of real world musical references like Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad or Piano no Mori there is no musical reference point to help ground the story for readers. And that was the limitation I was hit with with the Given manga—aside from one or two passing references to existing rock bands, all of the music in the series are original compositions—so I was only going to get so far with the manga (and sadly I don’t have access to the Japanese Drama CDs). But, that said, there just weren’t enough songs for me in the anime; sure you have the opening theme “Kizuato”, the ending theme “Marutsuke”, one instrumental track, “Sessions”, and then the biggest song in the series, “Fuyu no hanashi” (A Winter’s Story)… and that’s it. I don’t believe the series had the benefit of a collab with a music production company like Carole and Tuesday had with FlyingDog, but I felt just a little cheated. Sure, the manga only had a handful of songs too, but that’s where the anime had a chance to expand on that a bit with some original compositions, but that just didn’t happen.
Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE the music that we did get, all of the songs were written an composed by Centimillimental and HE KILLS IT! Every song is a bop, especially the ending theme—there is just something about a cute Pomeranian staring at a starry sky set to pop rock music, that just hits me in the feels. There was one thing that wasn’t meant to be funny, but God help me if I didn’t break out in a fit of giggles every single time it happened… I’m talking about the lead up to Mafuyu’s big song, “A Winter’s Story”.
So, Mafuyu has a lot in common with Koyuki from Beck Mongolian Chop Squad—both characters are supposed to have this ethereal singing voice that is just a wonder to behold and no matter how good of a singer a person is, there is no way someone is going to be “that good”. In Beck they had two different VAs for Koyuki in the Japanese version, one for the spoken lines and one for the singing; but in the English dub, they just let Greg Ayers sing (and he did a damn good job too).
Here, they let Shōgo Yano do both the singing and the spoken lines, and he does a phenomenal job (when he screamed during “A Winter’s Story” I got chills)but… the lead up to that song…This was almost as bad as the Beck live action film where someone thought it was a good idea to use a full orchestra as a stand in for Koyuki’s singing voice… Y’all, Mafuyu’s “lala laa’s” were laughable. I get it you don’t want to reveal too much of the song too soon, this is the moment the series is leading up to, but I could not take the “lala la-ing” seriously and it was made worse by the fact that it ALWAYS happens during the most dramatic and emotionally charged moments. It quite literally kills the mood.
Story wise, Given is pretty solid. High school student,
Kageyama Tobio Uenoyama is a guitarist in an amateur band and despite being a prodigious musician, he’s kinda hit a bit of a slump. One day while skipping class he finds his shy classmate, Mafuyu sleeping in a stairwell hugging a Gibson ES-330 guitar. Curious, he approaches Mafuyu only to discover that he doesn’t actually know how to play it, so Uenoyama becomes his unofficial music tutor. It’s slow going, but during their secret guitar lessons, Uenoyama learns that Mafuyu is a talented singer. His voice rekindles Uenoyama’s love of music and not wanting to let such a catch slip through his fingers, he invites Mafuyu to join his band. While he initially rejects his proposal, Mafuyu does spend more time with Uenoyama and his fellow band mates, Akihiko and Haruki who encourage him to join them. He does, but it becomes clear that Mafuyu is still being haunted by a tragedy from his past that is holding him back from reaching his full potential. But, with the help of his band mates and the prospect of a new love on the horizon, he might just be able to finally move on.
Like most music themed series, the plot mostly focuses on the trials and tribulations of the main cast as they try to come together as a band. And of course when you have that many different personalities in one space, that can lead to a bit of drama—especially when you throw romance into the mix. But, more than anything, Given is a story about grief, not just wallowing in it, but learning to live with loss. Prior to the series, Mafuyu’s childhood friend and ex-boyfriend, Yuki, committed suicide and even though some time has passed, Mafuyu is still dealing with the loss and the feelings of guilt and regret for his part in the events leading up to it. At the start of the story, Mafuyu is a shadow of his former self, closing himself off from others, just kind of lost. He has trouble communicating with others, and it is only when he sings that he can convey the full depth of his emotions, so it’s only natural that he is given the task of coming up with the lyrics for the band’s new song. Mafuyu is able to channel his feelings of loss over Yuki into a powerful song, that even helps free Mafuyu so he is open to starting a romantic relationship with Uenoyama. I love that the series doesn’t try to rush his healing process, we get to see just how much of an emotional toll losing Yuki has on Mafuyu and how overwhelming a presence it is in his life. While vocalizing his feelings through song does help, the lyrics makes it clear that his feeling for Yuki won’t just disappear, but Mafuyu is learning to live with his grief and channel it into something positive.
The relationship between Uenoyama and Mafuyu is cute, it’s adorable. There’s the usual high school romance awkwardness as Uenoyama comes to terms with his budding feelings for Mafuyu (and what that means for his sexuality), but where most school romance stories feel overly trope-y, here it just feels more genuine and honest. And I think that has to do with the characters being much more grounded than you’d usually see in a story like this—Mafuyu is a much more quiet and thoughtful character than I’m used to and while Uenoyama can be a bit brash, it’s more a product of his inexperience than any sort of ill intent and I guess that’s why their relationship works. Their interactions don’t feel contrived, everything kind of happens when it’s supposed too; naturally.
On the other hand you got Akihiko and Haruki keeping things spicy with all the toxic tropes. Blessedly, their relationship is mostly relegated to background drama in the anime, though volume 4 of the manga is almost exclusively dedicated to their relationship. I’m not going to go into detail here, but I will say this: HARUKI CAN DO BETTER.
The art is pretty standard for an anime, but they did utilize this shift to a CG art style during the scenes where the band actually played that reminded me a bit of the rotoscoping technique in Piano no Mori. Though, it was much better executed here, it gave way for much more precise movements, which is a must for a series that focuses the bulk of it’s screen time on actual musicians, fingerings especially were frickin’ fantastic!
Um, so while watching the anime and reading the manga I had some thoughts that don’t fit in to the review section, but are definitely worth mentioning. So, is it just me or did Given feel kinda like a Haikyu music AU fanfic? Tell me you don’t see it. Uenoyama is CLEARLY Kageyama, they’re practically twins, right down to the personality. Mafuyu while not as excitable as Hinata, has starts off not having any musical ability only to reveal that he has a super special talent (kinda like a certain other orange haired jumping bean). Then you got Yagi Shizusumi, who seems an awful lot like Iwaizumi and there’s even a pudding haired character, Hiiragi Kashima….just think about it…
All and all, I really liked Given, it’s cute. I definitely see why it’s so popular. I love the characters and the pacing, there’s a nice balance between the heavier emotional moments and the comedic slice-of life moments. For a boys love series, the romance is handled surprisingly well and I really found myself rooting for Mafuyu and Uenomaya… Haruki and Akihiko not so much… The music, while there weren’t as many songs as I would have liked, all of the songs featured in the anime were really well done; I just hope we get more in the movie… So my final verdict: Given definitely gets my seal of approval!!