If you had told me before I started watching the show that I would become obsessed with the 2019 anime Given, I would not have believed you. It is definitely not my stereotypical anime. I usually shy away from slice of life dramas, preferring more action heavy shows. And I had never watched a boys love anime before (unless Banana Fish counts?) so seeing a drama/BL on the seasonal list didn’t stand out to me...until I read the premise. Given is about the formation of a rock band. As a musician for about twenty years, I was instantly intrigued.
Yes, I play the flute but I am a rocker at heart! My favorite band of all time is Coheed and Cambria, don’t forget!
But I digress, I decided to give the show a try to see how it would treat the music. Anime music is good, but it’s anime music. Usually there is nothing very unique about it; there’s a reason people listen to certain songs and say, “That sounds like an anime opening.” Most anime songs sound eerily similar. Not bad, per se, but nothing to dig deeply into musically. So going into Given, my expectations were “normal anime J-Rock.”
The music in Given is killer. I was completely surprised by the jam session in the first episode. Uenoyama (our MC), wanting to show Mafuyu the capabilities of the guitar, brings him to a band practice and rocks out to an awesome guitar lick in 5/4 (time signature). Did I ever think I'd hear a song like this in an anime? In 5/4? No way! Compositionally, this is a cool jam but not the reason why I’m here so I’m going to leave the clip below. Listen and enjoy my friends.
I want to break down the two major songs in Given, Fuyu no Hanashi from the 2019 anime series and Yoru ga Akeru from the 2020 movie. Both songs and anime sequences use music, lyrics, and imagery to send their messages home and accent the major beats in their individual story arcs (music puns appreciated). Am I qualified to do this? Probably not. Am I doing it anyway? This is my blog, after all. So let’s start in chronological order with 2019’s Fuyu no Hanashi.
Spoilers for the Given movie and series
Fuyu no Hanashi
After over half a season of discovering the truth behind Mafuyu’s guitar, he is finally able to cry out his pain in Fuyu no Hanashi, “A Winter’s Story.” The sequence is wonderfully directed and perfectly amplifies the intensity of this already emotionally cathartic song. Let’s begin with the song itself. The intro starts us off with an energetic riff in 7 (one bar of 3 into one bar of 4) before returning to a more comfortable 4/4 line. After this attention-grabbing riff, the one thing that the audience doesn’t expect happens; Mafuyu starts to sing.
Mafuyu's voice is beautiful and freezes the crowd as he sings of the loss of his first love. He uses his lyrics to paint the picture of his life with Yuki, how it was taken away from him, and how he will try to rise above it all to love again. He opens the song with the mention of snow (yuki=snow) and how it will always be winter in his heart (winter=fuyu->mafuyu). There's a lot of cool wordplay at work here, even though it's soul crushing to discover its meanings. The contrast between the first and second choruses is very satisfying; by only changing a few lines between the two, Mafuyu is able to show how is hopelessness transformed into healing and acceptance throughout the course of the song. It is the perfect way to end his character arc as he begins to reconnect with his family, friends, and new love.
Instrumentally, the song continues to stands out as more than just another “anime song” thanks to Uenoyama’s intricate guitar work in the chorus. The animation does a great job showing the amount of technique it takes to play these phrases, and the choice of giving Uenoyama the second spotlight in this piece is a great thematic choice-- a song about Mafuyu’s first love made extraordinary by his second. I could wax poetic about it for days.
The best part of Fuyu’s anime adaptation is its direction; it lets the song do all the talking. In the first half of the song, the visuals are sparse and there is no voiceover. You are left with the music and can hear every fiber of Mafuyu’s pain being released. You see the band members and audience react candidly. It makes the moment feel powerful, heavy and extremely satisfying.
The second half of the song is great storytelling, recapping Mafuyu and Yuki’s relationship through silent flashbacks before the first line spoken since the start of the song rings out-- the words Mafuyu said that triggered Yuki to take his own life. After that, Mafuyu lets out a beautiful and wild scream. It was a moment that took my breath away.
I may be a little biased to Fuyu. Watching Given weekly, I liked it but didn’t love it; I just watched it so I didn’t have to say I dropped it on my podcast. But when Fuyu no Hanashi played, I was standing in the audience listening to Mafuyu sing. I didn't realize Given was exponentially building its tension until it was finally being released on stage. It was one of the most cathartic moments I experienced in recent anime. When the episode ended, I immediately clicked replay; I had to see it again.
Yoru ga Akeru
Musically, this song does some cool things to strengthen the cast, but I don’t think it stands out as much as its predecessor. In the opening line, where Mafuyu starts belting accompanied by a few guitar chords before jumping into the main flow, I thought “this is an anime song.” And again, that is not a bad thing, but it doesn’t stand out as an intricate piece of work in the way Fuyu did. But I don't mean to be a downer; there are still some cool aspects to dig into there. I love the rushing drum solo in the second verse just as Mafuyu sings about spring and fall. Those are shoutouts to Akihiko (aki=fall) and Haruki (haru=spring), who are the main characters of this arc, and Akihiko recognizes the shoutout and makes himself known. It’s a good drum fill in a clever spot that adds to the personalization of the song. I also like the half-time feel in the first part of the chorus; I’m a sucker for dramatized musical choices and half-time always reads as “extra” to me.
Lyrically, Yoru is pretty on the nose. Mafuyu is very descriptive with his lyrics and tells the audience Akihiko’s entire situation, apartment and all, and tries to cement the thought in his mind that there is hope. It will be okay. The down will break (Yoru ga akeru). It’s the sentiment we would expect at this point in the story and it sticks its landing thanks to Mafuyu’s emphatic vocal delivery accompanied by Uenoyama’s once again slick guitar work. The pre-bridge is a personal standout for me. We’ve never heard Mafuyu go into his falsetto before and it’s a lovely surprise. Watching him grow and improve throughout the series is one of its joys; this vocal phrase is a victory for him.
Execution is where I feel Yoru really fails. Given is an anime about a lot of things, but one of the most important things is the music’s power to communicate with other people. The biggest issue of Yoru is that you cannot hear or appreciate the song; characters are monologuing over it the entire time. One of the most impactful parts of Fuyu no Hanashi is that the anime lets the song be heard, making its message more impactful. Akihiko is explaining what Mafuyu is singing while he is singing it. I’m sure we would be able to figure it out without the help, dude. The entire movie builds to this performance and the dramatic reveal of the song is completely squandered. How can I enjoy the song when I can barely hear it? During the bridge, when Mafuyu sings beautifully in his falsetto, someone is talking over him. I actually yelled at my computer while watching. For a music anime to throw away its major song like that, especially when it had given its music the respect and treatment it deserved in the past, was astounding to me.
In my eyes, the winner here (this is a competition now?) is Fuyu no Hanashi with its intricate guitar parts, haunting melody, and, most importantly, impact and importance in the context of the show. Yoru ga Akeru is a very good song, but falls short in my mind due to how it was presented. But both songs are still a victory for anime insert songs. Did I imagine that a quiet show like Given would gift me such layered and enjoyable rock music? No way. Did I imagine a show that I didn’t particularly like until episode 9 to move me so profoundly and cause me to write a huge post about it? Also no. There's a lot of things I learned from Given, but the biggest lesson may be to take a risk once in a while and try to watch a show you wouldn't pick from yourself. It may surprise you and give you something you won't forget.