Given
Episodes 1-2

by Steve Jones,

How would you rate episode 1 of
Given ?

How would you rate episode 2 of
Given ?

Given promises to be both a story about relationships with music and relationships, with music. Both those things are important to me personally, and music is such a paragon of human expression that I'm sure the same is true for many others. We can communicate through music much more elegantly than with words, and music can stir feelings with all the force of a bullet straight through the heart. Given's second episode ends on such a note, with Mafuyu's voice piercing Ritsuka in a beautiful and indescribable way.

I'm not familiar with the source manga by Natsuki Kizu, so I'll be going into this show blind, but I've heard a lot of praise for it in the lead-up to this anime. The story so far has all the qualities of a down-to-earth high school romance, with the experienced guitarist Ritsuka stumbling into an impromptu teaching arrangement with the shy and spacey Mafuyu, who desperately wants to learn guitar for mysterious reasons. This entwines the two, with Ritsuka's frustration and curiosity pulling him toward Mafuyu, and Mafuyu's unexpected talent pulling him into Ritsuka's band. Mafuyu possesses some manner of tragic past that led to him owning his guitar, and it seems like the other band members Haruki and Akihiko have their own issues if the OP is any indication. For the most part, however, the narrative has remained a straightforward exploration of our two leads' deepening relationship.

What really endeared me to Given's premiere was its execution. Director Hikaru Yamaguchi doesn't have many credits to his name, but I have the utmost confidence in light of these first two episodes. In particular, the musicality of the direction is a perfect fit for the story. The first episode takes on a soft, almost soporific quality that mirrors the sleepiness of both leads as they drift through their adolescence. Notably, this is interrupted at two key points: the breaking of the guitar string and Ritsuka's performance with his band. Both of these moments stand out even more thanks to the drowsiness of the other scenes, and their energy drives home the significance they hold in each of these boys' lives. The same holds true if we examine Mafuyu's character and performance in isolation. Shougo Yano's performance is hesitant and soft-spoken until we get to the climax of the second episode, where Mafuyu's voice crescendos into a crystal clear song. Music is all about contrasts, and it's great to see an adaptation that utilizes that to its fullest ability.

Speaking of music, the sound design and soundtrack of Given are also integral to what makes this anime stand out. Composer MICHIRU chooses to score the show with a fittingly moody flavor of guitar-driven rock. Ritsuka's jam session in the first episode cuts through with some energetic math rock, and the direction of the scene actually manages to mesh both 2D and 3D animation into a compelling-looking performance that sells the magic Mafuyu is experiencing. There are also tons of other incidental sounds that instill the duo's musical journey with a tangible quality. There's real care taken to make sure the audience hears the sounds of guitar pegs creaking, finger pads rubbing against the strings, the contrast between an unplugged and amped guitar, and so much more. Also, any string musician will wince compassionately at the sight of Mafuyu's bandaged fingers—those blisters are a rite of passage. It's nice to see that attention paid to authenticity, but more importantly, it emphasizes the importance of music as a very real connection between Ritsuka, Mafuyu, and the rest of the cast.

Compared to the exquisite aesthetic presentation, the writing feels a bit undercooked, but not egregiously so. There's no mistake that Given is much more of a character piece than a plot-driven story, and for the most part these guys come across as likable and believable people. Ritsuka in particular is such a teenager—sleepy and slightly irritable, but with a good heart and passion for music. I like that his guitar idols are both Keith Richards and Thom Yorke, who are two musicians I don't think I've ever heard mentioned together in the same sentence. He definitely seems like the kind of teen who'd be listening to The Rolling Stones and Radiohead, which immediately says a lot about his character. I also want to give props to Crunchyroll's translation of the show, which had Ritsuka utter the amazing and fittingly-snooty phrase “basic-ass J-pop.” Haruki and Akihiko look exactly like two university students in a garage band, but they're given more personality than their stereotypical looks suggest. Haruki looks like such a bassist though, and I'm saying that as someone who plays bass. Naturally, the odd one out is Mafuyu, who's meek and airheaded to the point of feeling like an abandoned puppy more than a person. That's definitely intentional, and it's played for comedic effect as he follows Ritsuka and half-hides behind corners, but I'm hoping to get more out of him if he's going to be a romantic lead. I have no doubt that we'll be seeing his character develop as he and Ritsuka open up to each other more, but it's still a sticking point in these early stages.

I noticed some hubbub leading up to the anime's release calling Given the first Noitamina show based on a BL manga. I think whether you'd call it Noitamina's first BL anime depends foremost on how strictly you'd categorize No. 6, Banana Fish, and Sarazanmai, but regardless it's great to see the programming block embrace explicitly queer anime more often. Now, BL has a bad reputation in some parts of the community, but it's just a genre label with a wide berth of styles, tones, and qualities that have shifted a lot over the years. It encompasses many different kinds of stories told by many different kinds of people. I mention this because I think a lot of people who dislike (or believe they dislike) BL could end up tuning into this show and loving it. Rather than singling out Given as “prestige BL” that's exceptional to its genre, I hope people instead use it as a place to start interrogating their preconceived notions of the genre. As more queer narratives hit the mainstream, we should recognize that these stories—from the most problematic to the most unobjectionable—deserve the same benefit of the doubt that society has long afforded non-queer romances.

Given emerges as one of the season's most emotionally resonant offerings, thanks to its aesthetic musicality and strong chemistry between its central guitar boys. I was sold from the moment of their dreamlike first encounter, and I'm eager to see how both their music and their feelings develop in tandem.

Rating:

Given is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.

Steve is lost in space, but he can still stream anime so it's okay. A communications relay has been established on his Twitter.


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