Yaoi, more affectionately known as Boy Love, is a genre of manga and anime that focuses on romances between male character. The intimacy in these stories can range from a tender shoujo teen romance to explicit. Often, yaoi is stereotyped as only containing the latter of these which makes it hard to openly discuss within anime fandom. It’s because of this that Boy Love anime are often written off as guilty pleasures and while some anime in this genre, like the beloved Yuri On Ice, play up the fanservice, comedy, and never confirms the romance between its leads, others stand out as valuable stories of sexuality, romance, and more. Given (stylized given) is a manga and anime series that pulls its audience into a traditional romance and then crashes them on the shore of grief.
Written and illustrated by Natsuki Kizu and published for English audiences by SuBLime, an imprint of VIZ Media, given was adapted into an 11-episode anime series last year and can be found in the United States on Crunchyroll. The series follows a group of four students in an amateur rock band and the dual romantic relationships that form among them between vocalist Mafuyu Satō and electric guitarist Ritsuka Uenoyama and between bassist Haruki Nakayama and drummer Akihiko Kaji.
During a community watch event, we settled in to watch a simple Boy Love anime. In doing so, we expected to say “now kiss” multiple times into our mics when the characters got close to kissing but never did. We thought we would endlessly ship characters and get riled up whenever a love triangle began to form. To be honest, we did those things. But then episode nine happened and what was once a loud chat filled with laughs and shipping conversations went silent and then turned to sobs.
To understand this shift in given you have to understand how it begins. In the opening episode, Mafuyu isn’t a part of the band that currently consists of Ritsuka, Haruki, and Akihiko. He’s alone in a big high school and going on with life after his boyfriend Yuki’s death, a death we’re made to assume is a suicide. Opening the story up with a hard-hitting moment, we know that Mafuyu discovered his boyfriend’s body after a fight they had and is now holding onto Yuki’s guitar and learning to play it. While this a solid emotional opening, the rest of the episodes move through the traditional anime romance beats after that.
There are moments where Mafuyu’s trauma surfaces itself, like when he explains to Ritsuka that he has a problem showing the right emotions at times, or when he stumbles backward after a former friend meets him in the street and asks about Yuki’s guitar. But even though there are moments in given where we see Mafuyu’s grief, the comedy and romantic elements shine front and center of the narrative. Mafuyu is timid and his inability to write and share his lyrics propels the narrative.
That said, it all shifts in episode nine. Having spent the majority of the series practicing and writing lyrics for a brand new song, the boys are set to perform but the catch is Mafuyu isn’t confident enough to sing the lyrics. After a brief fight with Ritsuka, they take the stage. As the melody begins, Mafuyu surprises everyone and begins to sing.
Your everything has lost its tomorrow
And now is wandering around eternally
Along with me
Who was unable to say goodbye or move on
As he works his way through the song, clips of his and Yuki’s relationship play. Their childhood together. Their first time having sex. Mafuyu’s last words to Yuki. And it’s then that you realize every action Mafuyu has taken up until this moment was processing his grief. The way he sees Yuki everywhere, including in his new crush Ritsuka. The way he feels guilty for moving on. Every emotion that Mafuyu has hidden from his friends and bandmates come flooding out. Up until this point, Yuki’s suicide has only been referenced in passing and Mafuyu’s emotions haven’t been on display. In fact, everyone around him has described the event and talked about it, except him. It’s his silence that makes his lyrics powerful.
Even if your everything loses its shape one day
You’ll always be here within me
As I try to move forward again
Even though I couldn’t say goodbye
You’ll always be here with me
The power of given is that it’s not just a love story, but that it’s a powerful grief story as well. Mafuyu’s guilt is with him in every moment of the anime up until the point he begins to sing. It numbs him and keeps him from seeing the romance blooming between him and Ritsuka. Mafuyu carries the weight of his last words to Yuki: “would you die for me?” They are with him with every pluck of a guitar string, and as he details in his narration that plays over the music in this scene, he knows that he can’t forgive himself, but he wants to.
When it comes to processing our grief, there is no right way. It’s as individual as the trauma itself. Mafuyu’s silence was his grieving process, and his song was the only way to complete that process. It was the only way for him to close the door on one love and open a door to a new one. While given doesn’t need to be anything more than a romance to be a good Boy Love anime, its handling of grief makes it one of the best anime stories detailing the subject regardless of genre.
Instead of bringing you through constant sad emotions, given forces you piece them together when Mafuyu decides he’s ready to. The story isn’t about this sadness; it’s about Mafuyu’s life after his trauma. However, in order to move on, he has to acknowledge it, something he doesn’t do until he sings. Mafuyu processes his grief on his own terms, and episode nine is a breathtaking episode that showcases the importance of that.
While the love is very real, so is the grief. In the guise of romance, Kizu was able to tell a moving story of life on the other side of loss and how we have to choose to move forward on our own terms. We can’t be pushed into it. We can’t be forced to feel what others want us to. Sometimes, we just have to be until the moment we’re ready to release our pain. In that way, given is one of the most powerful anime put into the world.
Kate Sánchez is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of But Why Tho? A Geek Community. There, she coordinates film, television, anime, and manga coverage. Kate is also a freelance journalist writing features on video games, anime, and film. Her focus as a critic is championing animation and international films and television series for inclusion in awards cycles.