A Story that Took Place One Summer. A Story that Took Place One Evening: Suicide Bereavement and Recovery in Given

by Mike Alvarez, PhD, MFA,

Based on Natsuki Kizu's manga of the same title, the 11-episode hit anime series Given received much praise for its believable representation of gay relationships, one that avoids common tropes found in other shōnen ai/boys-love (BL) titles. The series premiered on July 11, 2019, and aired its final episode on September 19, 2019, with a follow-up movie on the horizon for 2020. Though equal parts about a friendship that turns into romance and about a band striving to make its mark, Given is also a powerful tale of healing from the trauma of losing a loved one to suicide.

A Chance Encounter

When Mafuyu Sato is first introduced to viewers, he is shown picking up a guitar, leaving his bedroom, and walking through the streets on his way to school. He is the only figure in clear focus; everyone around him is blurred, a visual representation of the singularity felt by survivors of suicide. He clutches his guitar, and the scene dissolves to a flashback.

In the high-angle shot that follows, Mafuyu is shown looking up at a male figure, who appears to be suspended from a noose. The camera cuts to a close-up of the man's feet, hovering mere inches above ground. Mafuyu's eyes and face register shock and disbelief, and he tells viewers via interior monologue that the sequence is a nightmare that visits him every night. Such is the traumatic nature of surviving suicide, a trauma that is freeze-framed into an eternal present, from which not even sleep offers solace.

Tonally, Ritsuka Uenoyama's introduction is a stark contrast to that of Mafuyu. Head on his desk, he is roused from sleep by upbeat classmates. Everyone around him is in sharp focus as he traverses the school grounds; though lethargic and perhaps even bored, he is someone deeply connected to the social world, not severed from it. He makes his way to his hideout, a stairwell where he takes occasional naps. To his chagrin, he is not alone. Mafuyu is sitting on the steps.

The brief exchange between them, though innocuous at first glance, is loaded with meaning and possibilities. Ritsuka points to the broken strings on Mafuyu's guitar and tells him to fix it. Mafuyu's interest is piqued; he didn't know guitar strings can be fixed. He asks Ritsuka if Ritsuka could fix it for him right away, and a reluctant Ritsuka obliges. Ritsuka, as narrator, tells viewers: “I had no idea that I was strumming hard on his heartstrings with my own fingers.”

The opening sequence just described, from the introduction of our protagonists to their chance encounter, spans a mere five and a half minutes, but it powerfully gestures at the salvific power of love and creativity. Just as broken guitar strings can be fixed, a broken heart can also be mended. The trauma of suicide can be overcome, and one's connection to life –and to others – can be restored.

Rebuilding a Shattered World

In the ensuing scenes and episodes, Mafuyu's experiential world begins to widen. He follows Ritsuka around, begging Ritsuka to teach him how to play the guitar – the same guitar that (it is later revealed) belonged to his deceased lover, Yuki Yoshida. For Mafuyu, the guitar serves as a linking object, an object that keeps alive the living's connection to the dead. But in the company of Ritsuka, this object that once kept Mafuyu trapped in the past, becomes a gateway to new experiences. Mafuyu's eyes glisten when Ritsuka capitulates to his request for guitar lessons. They glisten again when he sees Ritsuka play with his band members, Akihiko and Haruki, when Ritsuka teaches him how to tune and connect the guitar to an amplifier, and when Ritsuka takes him shopping in Shibuya for an effect pedal. Like the proverbial kid in the candy store, Mafuyu is excited by the numerous options, and he is equally excited by the sound an overdrive pedal makes.

“I've never been anywhere like that,” he tells Ritsuka.

Mafuyu's social world begins to widen, too. In the first several episodes, Ritsuka is established as already belonging to a firm social network that consists of friends, bandmates, and family members, including a sister, all of whom we see on screen. In contrast, Mafuyu isn't shown with anyone from his past (though they eventually intrude upon, and are slowly reintegrated, into his present). We hear from his classmates that he is unapproachable, despite having many fans and admirers in school. This changes, of course, after he meets Ritsuka. Ritsuka's bandmates soon become his bandmates, and Ritsuka's friends become his friends, with whom he enjoys games of basketball.

On the surface, Mafuyu appears helpless and naïve – about music and about matters in life. When asked a question, he doesn't say much besides “yes” or “no.” When asked what kind of song he would like Ritsuka's band (“The Seasons”) to play for him during rehearsal, he replies, “something cool.” And when asked what kind of music he likes to listen to, he is unable to answer.

But this surface naiveté belies inner fortitude and strength. The individual traumatized by suicide is not utterly helpless or broken; on the contrary, he has the innate capacity for post-traumatic growth. Mafuyu is shown to be more self-reliant than viewers (and other characters) initially expect him to be. When he realizes that bands need money to keep playing music, he pulls his own weight and secures a part-time job at a live house. His bandmates also remark at how quickly he learns the guitar. One of the first things he learns, of course, is how to fix guitar strings on his own – a metaphor for his innate ability to catalyze his own recovery.

The devastating trauma of losing a loved one to suicide does not bankrupt a person's ability to touch others' lives. As the series illustrates, Mafuyu has much to give to others. He brings out Ritsuka's protective nature, but more importantly, he has a voice that can shake anyone to their core. When he opens his mouth and sings the wordless song he has been humming in his head, Ritsuka is mesmerized. The screen is bathed in soft green light, as if Mafuyu's voice possesses magic. Hearing Mafuyu leads to a resurgence in Ritsuka's creativity, and Akihiko and Haruki are equally mesmerized.

Expressing the Inexpressible

Central to the experience of trauma is the problem of articulation. For survivors of suicide like Mafuyu, the trauma eludes expression via spoken words. However, it yearns for articulation through other channels, and for Mafuyu, that channel is now music. Knowing nothing of Mafuyu's traumatic history, Akihiko astutely observes that when singing, Mafuyu appears to be screaming without actually screaming. Ritsuka concurs. He admits to Akihiko that Mafuyu's voice makes him feel two contrasting feelings: he wants to run away, yet he wants to immerse himself in it. Mafuyu's voice is a container for trauma, and whoever listens feels its almost unbearable weight.

When Ritsuka discovers the power of Mafuyu's voice and asks him to be the band's vocalist, Mafuyu wavers. To be a member of the band means to express himself in front of others, something that he feels incapable of doing. But Ritsuka assures him otherwise. And when Ritsuka asks Mafuyu to write the lyrics for the band's first ever vocal song, Mafuyu hesitates. Haruki suggests that he write about past relationships, a well-meaning suggestion that strikes at Mafuyu's open wound. Mafuyu asks Haruki what he would say to someone who suddenly disappeared from the world, to which Haruki replies, “I don't know.” “Neither do I,” says Mafuyu.

It's significant that for much of the series, Mafuyu's singing contains no actual words, only non-linguistic syllables. His trauma yearns for expression, but in order for his wounds to truly start healing, he must fuse together past and present, narrative and emotion, melody and lyrics. After the exchange with Haruki, Mafuyu walks around the city by himself, stopping by places – including an ocean front – that are later revealed to house memories shared with Yuki. Rather than a leisurely stroll, Mafuyu is engaged in griefwork and timework, where the sharp division between past and present is slowly rendered permeable, so that all memories – not just painful ones – can safely pass through.

When one pathway for the articulation of trauma opens, other pathways may open up as well. Ritsuka has heard about Mafuyu's deceased lover from a classmate, but not from Mafuyu himself. For Mafuyu, this was a subject that could not be breached in conversation. But after Mafuyu begins singing his pain (albeit without words), and after he revisits memory-laden places, he tells Ritsuka: “I had someone I really, truly loved. I still don't know the right words. But I realized there is something I want to say.” This of course provokes jealousy in Ritsuka, who is now realizing his feelings for Mafuyu. Akihiko gently assures Ritsuka that it's natural to develop feelings for another man. “I've been with guys, too,” he tells a surprised Ritsuka, whose sister he has been dating.

As the live show where “The Seasons” will perform its first vocal song approaches, the band becomes increasingly concerned. Mafuyu has still not written the lyrics. Akihiko asks Mafuyu point-blank if he intends to express what he has been feeling, or run away without verbalizing them. Searching for the right words, or remaining silent, is a quandary faced by many suicide survivors, and this is reflected by this particular episode's visual tone. Heavy clouds loom in the sky, creating a grey overcast. Eventually, the clouds become heavy and raindrops fall, with the weather forecast on the radio promising continuous rain. The time for the articulation of trauma has come, and once loosened, it cannot be undone.

A Song of Overcoming Grief

The climactic episode of the series begins with the aftermath of an argument between Mafuyu and Ritsuka. The argument was sparked by Ritsuka's insensitive suggestion that they stick to instrumental songs, under the mistaken belief that Mafuyu has no lyrics prepared. Mafuyu chides Ritsuka for giving up too soon, and the quick but heated exchange causes Mafuyu to snap his own guitar strings in a sudden and uncharacteristic display of anger – a preview of the torrent to come. For suicide survivors, the mere expression of trauma is necessary for healing, but it is not sufficient. The trauma must not only be heard; it must be empathically received and understood. In a poignant callback to the first episode, to Mafuyu and Ritsuka's first encounter, Ritsuka rushes to fix Mafuyu's broken guitar strings. This gesture communicates to Mafuyu (and viewers) that he need not shoulder the burden of mending his broken heart alone. Ritsuka will be by his side as he heals.

Lyrics or no lyrics, the band agrees to “just have fun” on stage. And they are caught by surprise when Mafuyu begins singing fully realized words.

The song, “A Winter Story,” is a three and a half minute eruption of trauma. The viewer/spectator's sensory registers are overwhelmed by the lyrics, by images of the band on stage, by flashbacks of the past, and by Mafuyu's interior commentary, which is addressed to Yuki. It is a lot to express, and it is also a lot to process.

The lyrics speak to the pain of being left behind and robbed of the opportunity to say goodbye. Like snow that refuses to thaw and melt, it casts a hold over the suicide survivor. The accompanying montage includes Mafuyu and Yuki, as children, holding hands; Mafuyu and Yuki behind police tape, presumably watching Mafuyu's abusive father being arrested; Mafuyu and Yuki sharing a kiss, followed by an intimate encounter; and finally, the petty argument that precipitated Yuki's suicide, with Mafuyu angrily asking, “Are you willing to die for me?” Suicide contaminates everything that precedes it, so that even joyful memories become painful reminders of lost possibilities.

But winter eventually gives way to spring and summer; sooner or later, the snow melts. While the first half of the song points back to loss, the latter half gestures toward recovery and acceptance. Mafuyu comes to accept that Yuki will always be with him – even if he can never say goodbye, even if memories of Yuki begin to lose shape and become hazy over time. The next montage sequence are images of the present, with Yuki's ghost inserted into them. But rather than a haunting, what's represented is the dearly departed's continuing co-presence with the living – the past and present finally becoming linked.

Given challenges the obsolete idea that recovery from traumatic loss, including suicide loss, is contingent upon “moving on” and severing ties with the deceased (and by extension, the past). The series instead advocates a mode of recovery that is premised on moving forward, on continuing – and transforming – one's relationship to the dead. At the end of his interior monologue, Mafuyu says to Yuki: “I can't forgive you. I can't forgive myself. But I want to. I miss you.”

At the end of the performance, Mafuyu and Ritsuka share pained looks of recognition. Mafuyu sees that his pain has been empathically received by Ritsuka. Outside the live house, Ritsuka kisses Mafuyu.

The end credits to the climactic episode is followed by an epilogue. It is a memory of Mafuyu and Yuki taking the train to the ocean front. Mafuyu tells Yuki that this is the first time he's ever seen the ocean, which only inflates the playful yet boastful Yuki's ego. After all, many of Mafuyu's “firsts” had been with him. Then, on a more somber note, Yuki tells Mafuyu that over time, memories of the ocean, and of their time there, will fade, one concrete detail after another. Though a memory, the epilogue can simultaneously be read as a message from beyond the grave, with Yuki giving Mafuyu permission to move forward, live life fully, and love another.

Not Moving On, But Moving Forward

A recurring motif in the series is this line from Mafuyu's interior monologues: “A story that took place one winter. A story that took place one morning.” This of course refers to his discovery of Yuki's lifeless body. At the end of “A Winter Story,” however, the line has been replaced with: “A story that took place one summer. A story that took place one evening” – referring to his performance of the title song alongside Ritsuka and his bandmates. Where one love story ends, another begins, lifting the curse of the suicide survivor's trauma.

The final two episodes of the series perform the narrative function of resolution. Mafuyu welcomes back into his life childhood friends he'd shared with Yuki, friends he'd spent much of the series avoiding. Mafuyu even pokes fun at one of them, displaying a playful side that he'd withheld from other characters (and from us viewers). It's worth mentioning that the series never offers a definitive answer to why, exactly, Yuki ended his life. We only know that he and Mafuyu had a falling out, which led him to drink alcohol excessively. Suicide is a multiplex phenomenon, irreducible to a singular reason or cause, and the question of “why” seldom leads to satisfying answers. On the contrary, it can keep one trapped in a vicious circle, and becoming mired not only takes away focus from Mafuyu, it runs counter to the show's orientation to hope.

The denouement also looks forward to the future Mafuyu and Ritsuka will share together. Mafuyu takes Ritsuka to Yokohama's Minato Mirai (which aptly translates to “Port Future”). He tells Ritsuka that it's his first time there, but more importantly, he tells Ritsuka that he reciprocates his feelings. Later, Mafuyu expresses his determination to continue singing, and to write a new song, a different song. “I want it to be me,” Ritsuka thinks to himself. And we the viewers are optimistic that the song will indeed be about him.

With the formal addition of Mafuyu, the band's name changes from “The Seasons” to “Given.” The new name is inspired by none other than Yuki's guitar, which had been given to Mafuyu by Yuki's bereaved mother. Once a cursed object, the instrument now symbolizes a new beginning – for the band, and for Mafuyu and Ritsuka.

The anime series Given has not only given viewers a fresh and exciting addition to the shōnen ai/boys-love genre. It has given viewers a hopeful tale about recovery from suicide, about our innate capacity to overcome trauma and harness the powers of creativity, and about finding companionship and love in the aftermath of devastating loss.

About the Author

Dr. Mike Alvarez has taught film and media studies, television production, human communication and technology, and a special topics course called “Death in the Digital Age” at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he recently completed his Ph.D. in Communication. He is the author of the forthcoming book, “The Paradox of Suicide and Creativity” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020), and has written about his experiences as a suicide attempt and trauma survivor for various print and online sources. Follow him on Twitter @mfalvarez121.


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