For better or for worse, boys’ love anime (hereinafter referred to as BL) has been slowly gaining attention from more mainstream audiences. It seems every season, there’s at least one BL series or movie in the lineup. Some of them even gain a fair bit of popularity, such as 2022’s Sasaki and Miyano and 2020’s Heaven Official’s Blessing. There’s really no shortage of BL titles to watch if you’re wanting to dive into the genre, but many of them are, admittedly, pretty cringe-worthy, and they can often include some rather poor representation. However, there is a fairly recent BL title that manages to avoid some of the usual pitfalls of the genre, and that is 2019’s Given.
Based on Natsuki Kizu’s manga of the same name, Given is the story of two boys, Ritsuka Uenoyama (Yuma Uchida) and Mafuyu Sato (Shogo Yano), as they grow closer during the formation of their band, aptly titled “Given.” Ritsuka is a talented guitar player but has grown bored with life. When he meets Mafuyu, the first thing he notices is the guitar in the boy’s hands. Though it’s a beautiful and expensive guitar, he soon learns that Mafuyu isn’t able to play it, and gets roped into teaching him how to play. During their lessons, Ritsuka soon realizes that Mafuyu has a gorgeous voice and decides he’d be perfect for the band.
Now, you might be asking yourself how this series is different from any other BL. On the surface, it’s yet another series that only focuses on two boys falling in love, without any real story behind it. It even has the age-old trope of touching hands while trying to teach someone to play an instrument. However, that’s where Given separates itself from most in its genre. One of the largest issues with BL as a genre for most viewers is the lack of positive and realistic LGBTQ characters. Often, men in the genre are never expressly stated to be queer, though the stories will completely revolve around the romantic relationships between men. They never seem to be any deeper than their relationship.
Given takes a different path; it focuses on a story about a band, and the people in it and interweaves the themes of romance and questioning while never letting them overtake the central themes of grief, loss, healing, and the power of music. A major plot point of the series focuses on the death of Mafuyu’s boyfriend, Yuki Yoshida, and how the trauma of the event has connected him to Yuki’s guitar, which he now carries everywhere. Singing and music become a way for him to not only connect with his memories of Yuki but also heal from the loss of the person he loved. It also allows him to release all of his pent-up emotions about not only his death but also the worries he has about his friends and the people around him.
Ritsuka, on the other hand, is dealing with the loss of his passion for music. He’s searching for a sound he can’t quite find, and it makes it hard for him to enjoy playing and harder still to figure out how to get his band off the ground. This bleeds into other areas of his daily life; he lethargic, blows off his friends when they ask him to play basketball and he often feels frustrated. Mafuyu represents a fresh perspective for him, a new start to his music.
Though it’s clear that these boys will eventually fall in love, they also prove to be a source of new beginnings for one another as they overcome their difficulties and find themselves again. We see a lot of their lives outside each other and get an understanding of who they are as people. Good representation is about creating well-rounded characters who happen to be queer, and Given does this pretty well when considering the often fetishistic portrayal of queer men in the BL genre. Ritsuka and Mafuyu aren’t queer characters, but characters who are queer. The theme of loss and healing is also seen in Akihiko (Takuya Eguchi), the band’s drummer, and his relationship with his ex-boyfriend, Ugetsu (Atsushi Tamaru). While the relationship is central to the plotline, it still focuses more on Akihito’s growth as he finds his confidence again and learns to stop pushing the people close to him away. This eventually leads him to admit his feelings for Haruki, but only after they each take a journey of self-discovery.
It is also worth noting that Ritsuka’s confusion over his sexuality is handled fairly appropriately in the series. It feels that all too often in BL, we see men insisting they’re straight despite their romantic attraction toward other men. Confusion is normal when discovering your sexuality, especially as a young person, and Given takes time to address that, particularly in a scene between Ritsuka and Akihiko. Akihiko is older, in college, and has had a similar struggle with his own identity, and when Ritsuka asks if it’s strange that he has feelings for Mafuyu, there is no hesitation as Akihiko says no. He explains that he once thought what Ritsuka does – that because he’s a boy, he must like girls, and that’s just how it is – but that he no longer thinks in such a way. He also explains that it took time for him to work it all out and that Ritsuka has time to figure it all out, too. It’s a pleasant interaction to see in a BL anime. There’s no moment where Ritsuka is made to feel weird or bad during his discussion with Akihiko. It’s simply advice given between two queer individuals, and it’s good to see this from a genre that usually lacks any kind of delicate handling of the struggle to find and understand one’s identity.
It can sometimes be difficult to find good LGBTQ content when it comes to anime, but in recent years, it has started to become a little easier, especially as series like. Given pop up. Given does a good job of telling a story that includes characters that are queer instead of telling a story about queer characters, and this is what sets it apart from other series in the BL genre. It’s a tale of healing with the romance coming in second place, and none of the characters ever feel caricatured or fetishized, nor do their romantic relationships. Given is a beacon of hope for the direction the BL genre might be going in, and it’s a great starting point for anyone looking to get into the genre (or anyone looking for a new title for their Pride month watch list.)