Given is a Beautiful Love Song

“I think the human heart is similar to these guitar strings. When the pain is too much to bear, it’d feel like a certain string laid across your chest is about to snap. Sometimes, it’d really snap, and you’d think it can never be fixed again. But if there’s someone who can replace the string for him like this, it may also fix the broken string in his heart.”

~Ritsuka Uenoyama, Given

I generally don’t compare anime live-action films to the animes, because in the end, they are different versions of the same story told by different creators. But with the Japanese live-action version of Given, viewers got a unique experience. Although the writers made minor cuts and changes to allow for time constraints, Given retained its essence. The use of music to overcome grief and depression while falling in love is why the live-action is as powerful as the anime that inspired it.

Given is an adaptation of Natsuki Kizu’s manga of the same name, and it is quite literally a masterful symbolic analogy. I could spend hours breaking down each episode, but instead, I will talk about the drama as a whole and why the way Given expresses love through guitars, lyrics, and music moves people.

There are many happy, sad, and bittersweet love stories out there. Given combines them all in one story. It is about falling in love while grieving a lost love. It is about suicide, self-blame, depression, and being inspired by locked away feelings on the verge of snapping. Throughout the entire drama, viewers get the sense that there’s a scream building inside Mafuyu Sato (actor Sanari). He’s a quiet character with strange quirks. When our other male lead, Ritsuka Uenoyama (actor Jin Suzuki), stumbles into Mafuyu, he is drawn to him despite Ritsuka’s usual friendly but aloof personality. Ritsuka prefers sleep over socializing, and Mafuyu has taken up residence in Ritsuka’s favorite “sleeping” stairwell.

Sleep brings me to the first thing that drew my attention in Given. If you’ve ever been depressed or know someone who has, then you are well aware that sleep is often one of the ways the body deals with it. Getting up and staying awake requires a Herculean effort. Ritsuka’s need for rest and Mafuya’s presence in his favorite sleeping spot was the first indication that depression played a significant role in both the anime and the drama. Ritsuka and Mafuyu are both depressed for different reasons. They’ve both become disconnected from their lives, leaving them stranded in a tangle of feelings they can’t express. Ritsuka’s lost his passion for playing music while Mafuyu is trapped in a vicious cycle of self-blame and grief.

What makes Given so potent and intimate is that Mafuyu and Ritsuka become each other’s muses. They take a musical journey together that returns Ritsuka’s passion for playing while helping Mafuyu come to terms with his past. As the drama progresses, we see less of Ritsuka sleeping and more of Ritsuka doing, a symbolic shift from the depression that sapped him of energy to the drive that pulled him free from the pit.

Mafuyu is a more complex case. There’s a lot of uncertainty in Mafuyu’s actions. He wants to move forward, but it’s with small steps. One literal music note at a time. Early on, it becomes apparent from rumors that Mafuyu once loved a boy at the school he attended before. The rumors are dark, expressly blaming Mafuyu for his former lover, Yuki’s, death. Later, we discover that Yuki took his own life after Mafuyu says, “Are you willing to die for me?”

Although Mafuyu never intended for Yuki to commit suicide, these words haunt Mafuyu, leaving him burdened by the grief he feels over losing the boy he loved while also shouldering the guilt of believing he’s part of the cause.

This depression connects our leads through music. Mafuyu wants to play the guitar Yuki left behind, and he needs Ritsuka to teach him. Mafuyu then joins the band Ritsuka is a part of. Their shared music and Mafuyu’s surprise vocal talents take Mafuyu back to the past he needs to make amends with while propelling Ritsuka out of the musical slump he’d fallen into.

During this shared journey, Mafuyu and Ritsuka fall in love. It’s not an obvious love. It’s subtle. The viewers are clued into their growing feelings by vital plot points: a rooftop talk about liking the same sex Ritsuka has with Akihiko, a talk Mafuyu has with Akihiko about letting go of the past to allow someone else in, Ritsuka’s loyalty to Mafuyu even after the rumors, and their joint need for each other.

“The heart is like the strings. They can’t make a sound when they are too loose. Only when you tighten them up to the point they are about to snap can they burst out that amazing sound.”

~Ritsuka Uenoyama, Given

Like the music this drama is centered around, the story starts slow, builds, and then intensifies into a burgeoning crescendo before finally exploding with emotions, giving us a finale that stays with viewers far past the closing edits.

At the end of the drama, a figurative curtain rises on Mafuyu singing, his voice shouting out all of his repressed pain to the audience, his song full of his desire to move beyond his past while cherishing the memories. At the end, when he walks off stage and into Ritsuka’s embrace, the viewers are left with a beautiful moment of kindred need between two boys with two different realities who have fallen deeply in love. Their kiss, while short, holds an entire six episodes of feeling. And then when Mafuyu collapses to the floor sobbing while Ritsuka returns to the stage to play his heart out, we’re given the moment when each of them breaks free from the chains depression has trapped them in. Mafuyu cries out all of his grief while Ritsuka revels in the music he’d grown apart from.

Given is a masterful analogy because it is a painful and beautiful six-episode song. Given, the anime and the live-action, has a unique way of taking love and grief, confessions and depression, and expressing it through music in a powerful building crescendo that screams at the end.

I highly recommend both the anime and the drama to anyone who has ever used music (playing or listening) to escape the darkness. This story will speak to you.

The only thing this drama was missing is more of Akihiko Kaji’s (actor Kai Inowaki) and Haruki Nakayama’s (actor Shuntaro Yanagi) stories. They received less screen time than the anime, but if past Japanese projects are any indication, I would not be surprised if this drama is followed by a movie devoted to these two.

Given is a soulful song, and it’s entirely worth the listen.

You can watch Given on WeTV (VPN required for some regions) and Crunchyroll.

Rating- 4 out of 5

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