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Given The Movie pushes the envelope of Boys’ Love stories

Natsuki Kizu’s teen musicians are a modern manga love story

Characters promo art for Given the Movie. Image: Blue Lynx

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Ritsuka Uenoyama and Mafuyu Sato fell in love in an unlikely place: a high school stairwell. It wasn’t love at first sight. Rather, it was a gradual fall, just a couple of boys fumbling with their feelings while plucking their guitar strings and humming unfinished melodies.

That, in essence, is the plot of Natsuki Kizu’s Given, the story of four young men in an amateur band who learn to love and be loved over the course of six volumes (so far). The manga was adapted into a 11-episode anime of the same name in 2019, and a sequel film, aptly titled Given The Movie, recently premiered on Crunchyroll.

The movie, like the manga and anime that came before it, puts romance second to its characters. But that doesn’t make it any less intimate. In Given, the queerness of male leads is never questioned or fetishized. The story is a chaste entry into the Boys’ Love canon, but one that is part of the genre’s modern evolution. And in the context of its genre, Given becomes practically radical.

Given is partially the story of Mafuyu finding his voice — both literally, as the band’s frontman and main lyricist, and figuratively, as a young man who shut himself off from everyone following the death of his boyfriend Yuki, whose guitar he carries with him every day. Mafuyu doesn’t talk much, which makes him a natural foil to hot-headed Ritsuka, who teaches him how to play the instrument, albeit reluctantly, and invites him to join the band he started with bassist Haruki and drummer Akihiko, two college students who are dancing around their own sexual tension. Kizu creates a world that feels lived in, and her characters seem real. It’s a slow burn, yes, but it’s also simple in a way that BL, or “Boys’ Love,” isn’t often depicted. Confessions aren’t always explosive or volatile; sometimes, they’re quiet realizations and clumsy kisses.

“I wanted it to have a suitable realistic feel,” writer and illustrator Kizu told Pash! in 2019. Kizu herself had gained recognition for her doujinshis, or erotic fan works. “Because BL itself is very much a fantasy, let’s support it with a realistic foundation.”

The fantasy of BL begins with its inception. “Boys’ Love” is a genre of Japanese manga, anime, and media that centers on romantic relationships between young men. In the West, it’s popularly called yaoi, a name that actually started as a joke among mangaka in the late 1970s as a portmanteau of yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi (“no climax, no point, no meaning”) — a reference to works that focused on sex over substance. However, yaoi is categorized as a more explicit subgenre of Boys’ Love, which was coined in the 1990s.

The second collection of The Heart of Thomas.
Image: Moto Hagio/Shogakukan

While these works focus on men, they’re told through the female gaze, as BL is predominantly written and consumed by women. It all started in the pages of shōjo manga, comics targeted to teenage girls. These stories emphasized romance and intimacy, and they also featured beautiful boys (known as bishōnen) with sparkling doe eyes, floppy hair, and lithe, willowy frames. In the 1970s, shōjo manga experienced a creative boom led by women artists like Moto Hagio and Keiko Takemiya, who emerged at the forefront of homoerotic storytelling. Takemiya’s short story In The Sunroom, published in December 1970, depicted the genre’s first kiss between two men; Hagio’s 1974 manga series The Heart of Thomas is oft-regarded as one of the era’s most seminal works. The story itself revolves around the death of a teenage boy and the others who carry on without him, not completely unlike Mafuyu’s own struggles. But The Heart of Thomas isn’t a love story; it’s a portrait of pain steeped in violence, resentment, and melodrama.

There is a dark whimsy, even tragedy, that permeates these earlier Boys’ Love stories, as the female artists rejected heteronormative gender dynamics and subverted misogynistic views of masculinity. Yet, these relationships weren’t explicitly gay; there was an air of homoerotic ambiguity, a general queerness, to the characters and their interactions. These boys were more than friends but less than lovers. That is, until Takemiya’s long-running 1976 manga Kaze to Ki no Uta.

The sexually explicit series took nine years to go to print due to its controversial content, which included themes sexual assault, pedophilia, drug abuse, and homosexuality. Serge and Gilbert’s tragic love story was undoubtedly a hit with teen girls, and its popularity not only helped establish Boys’ Love as a financially viable genre but it also continued to influence BL storytelling, becoming a precursor to more modern tales like 2006’s Sakura-Gari and 2016’s psychological thriller Killing Stalking. However, these depictions of sexual aggression and non-consensual intimacy are still contentious among Boys’ Love fans and critics, who say such imagery proliferates harmful stereotypes of gay men and the fetishization of queerness.

But for the women at the creative helm, the fantasy of homosexual relationships is moreso a projection of their own sexual desires — a manifestation of their liberation and self-expression. While the common thread throughout works of Boys’ Love is that of characters grappling with their burgeoning sexualities, the very best titles of the genre have something to say about the human experience, too.

In Given, for instance, the first thing that Ritsuka teaches Mafuyu is how to repair a broken guitar string. At first, it seems like a heavy-handed metaphor for how Mafuyu and Ritsuka fix each other; Mafuyu helps Ritsuka find his passion for music again, and in return Ritsuka gives Mafuyu the creative tools to help him move on from past trauma. But it’s even more simple than that: strings connect people. Later, in the show’s climactic ninth episode, Ritsuka once again replaces Mafuyu’s broken string, not as a symbol of mending broken parts but as a symbol of connection.

With this new foundation in his life, Mafuyu is able to confront the loss of Yuki and find some sense of closure. His catharsis comes in the form of a song; Risuka finishes Yuki’s melody and Mafuyu pours his heartache into the lyrics. “Even though I couldn’t say goodbye to you,” he wails on stage, the original Japanese lyrics translated to English. “I’ll carry on, because I know you’ll always be with me.” It’s only after that moment that Ritsuka, a teenage boy who’s so oblivious to his feelings, is able to confess to Mafuyu.

The strings that tie Mafuyu and Ritsuka together also connect their bandmates Haruki and Akihiko, whose own will-they-won’t-they tension is examined in Given The Movie. Akihiko’s toxic relationship with his moody ex-boyfriend Ugetsu Murata has destroyed his confidence, and he takes it out on the people around him, including the affable Haruki, who harbors a not-so-secret crush on his bandmate. As Akihiko accepts that he needs to sever some strings in order to grow into a better musician and a better person, Haruki begins to find his own confidence in the feeling that comes from being completely untethered. Until, of course, they meet somewhere in the middle.

“I love you,” Akihiko tells Haruki in the film’s final moments. “Please go out with me.” It’s simple and direct, maybe even a bit basic, but still intimate in the way it connects one heart to another — not unlike Given itself. It’s not completely devoid of sex, but those moments aren’t at the core of this story, which is largely about boys who play music and sometimes, though not always, talk about their feelings. It’s purposefully slow, as characters meander through their emotions, subverting the old joke of “no climax, no point, no meaning” into a new adage of real, everyday life.

This, of course, speaks to a larger trend within the Boys’ Love genre: stories that appeal to the desires of women and queer audiences looking for more mainstream representaton. Fumi Yoshinaga’s What Did You Eat Yesterday? is a serialized manga that follows the very average lives of a middle-aged gay couple living in Tokyo. It was adapted into a live-action miniseries in 2019. Meanwhile, the massive global popularity of Yuri!!! On Ice, a 2016 sports anime that culminated in a (confirmed) kiss between main characters Yuri and Victor, proved the influence of BL across genres. And the success of Japanese drama Ossan’s Love in 2018, about a man unknowingly in the middle of an office love triangle between his boss and coworker, has led to even more interest in BL storytelling across the entertainment sphere.

As Boys’ Love continues to grow, so will the breadth and diversity of its stories. What began as a way for women to explore gender dynamics, to place themselves in the role of the aggressor, is now evolving with the times. BL stories are becoming more grounded and more character-driven in the process, as the gap between fantasy and reality narrows. In many ways, it feels dishonest to describe Given as groundbreaking, because there’s really nothing special about it. And that’s the point.

Perhaps tender-hearted Haruki said it best: “This is an ordinary love story that took place one ordinary spring.”