I am a lucky guy. My wife counts herself as an anime fan, though choosing which anime to watch with her can be a fraught process. She doesn’t consent to watch weird Japanese cartoons with me as often as she used to. I guess when we were just dating, she was more invested in keeping me happy, so suppressed her negative opinions of the utter garbage I subjected her to. Now she doesn’t give a crap if she says she can’t stand the stuff I like. I guess honesty is the sign of a mature, healthy relationship... or something? Anyway, I want to pick something that’s worthwhile and well made, something we can have a meaningful conversation about afterwards. From the reviews, the recently-released, bizarrely-titled I Want to Eat Your Pancreas looked like the correct choice.
Oh dear Lord was I wrong.
Let’s back up a minute. My wife and I have been together since we were both 16, we met through mutual high school friends. When she discovered I intended to study medicine, she was devastated, because she said she hated doctors. Why would anyone hate doctors? Well, when you have a painful, humiliating chronic medical condition, you learn to despise the often arrogant, usually condescending doctors who, well-meaning as they might be, have probably never suffered a moment’s ill-health in their lives. Especially when their treatments come with debilitating complications, infuriating side effects, or fail to help. Funnily enough, her mother had always joked she’d end up marrying a doctor.
Fast forward multiple years, and she still hates doctors, but I like to think she’s kept a soft spot in her heart for one of them. I’m hoping that’s me. Anyway, if anyone could offer an educated opinion on a romantic film where one of the leads is suffering a severe, life-threatening illness, it would be my wife. And I feel that I’m well qualified to do so also.
INEVITABLE, UNAVOIDABLE SPOILERS FOLLOW:
I Want to Eat Your Pancreas is based on a novel originally published online on user-generated-content site Shōsetsuka ni Narō, a place best known for derivative isekai garbage with paragraph-long titles. (Though some fellow properties, like Re:Zero and Ascendance of a Bookworm turned out exceptionally well.) After being snapped up by Futabasha Publishers, it was adapted first into a 2016 manga and then a 2017 live-action movie. The following year, this anime was released. Why did they animate the story if they’d already produced a live action version? I’ve not seen it, though I believe it covers the exact same story, with only minor differences. So was there something about this particular approach to the material that demanded it be animated?
Our (initially) unnamed male POV character is a 17-year-old schoolkid who thinks that he is boring. His self-assessment is accurate because he is possibly the most boring main character in the history of anime. There is a reason for this - it’s so he can be saved from End-Stage Tedium-itis by the attentions of his classmate and terminally-ill Manic Pixie Dream Girl Sakura Yamauchi. Sakura is writing a diary titled “Living With Death” (which sounds like the sort of patronising leaflet one might find in an undertaker’s waiting room). Somehow, she leaves this lying on the floor of a hospital waiting area, only for him to pick it up and start reading. Instead of getting angry, Sakura sees this as an excuse to insert herself into his life and try to get this block-of-wood of a man to lighten up. Yep, this is a story of how one girl suffers and dies so that one boy can become a more rounded character. Seriously, he doesn’t even get to smile once in the film until a year after she dies. Oh yeah, sorry, SPOILERS. Terminally ill girl dies. Everyone is sad. This film wants to make you sad too. It will relentlessly manipulate you to try to make you cry.
So what’s wrong with Fated-To-Die-By-Plot-Girl? She has “Pancreatic Disease”, which the film is desperate to claim is A Thing. Apparently it will kill her at some point in the next year or two. But, you know, it’s ok, because it doesn’t seem to impair her function in any way, she can still hop and skip and bounce around, and eat whatever the hell she likes, you know, just like how no-one with any real terminal pancreatic disease can do. So first of all, Mr Writer sir, if you are going to hinge your entire plotline on the progression of a disease, DO SOME ACTUAL RESEARCH, MAN. What, exactly, does she have wrong with her? Her (vague) symptoms only randomly appear when it is convenient for the plot.
Your main pancreatic diseases are: 1) Diabetes, which, last time I checked, has not counted as a terminal illness since the advent of mass-produced insulin roughly a century ago. Unless you’re a hostage of the US Healthcare System and can’t afford medical insurance to pay for your life-saving drugs. (Sorry, that’s my unapologetically lefty UK socialised medicine politics spewing out onto the page. Actually, I’m not sorry. Free-at-the-point of-need social health care should be a universal human right.) At one point boredom-boy does find a bag of syringes and tablets in her bag, so I suppose that’s a half-hearted attempt at medical accuracy. Not once is she shown injecting insulin before a meal, or at any other time.
2) Cystic Fibrosis, which is an autosomal recessive genetic disease, therefore requiring defective genes from both parents, carried mainly by white Europeans. Sakura does not appear to have an at-risk heritage. Also it mainly affects the lungs, although pancreatic enzyme production is affected. The pancreatic aspect of CF does not kill people, damage from recurrent pneumonia does.
3) Acute/Chronic Pancreatitis. Unless Sakura is a raging alcoholic, has gallstones, been stung by a scorpion or ingested potentially fatal doses of anti-inflammatory painkillers, this seems unlikely. Also as this disease tends to cause The Worst Pain Known To Man and isn’t usually terminal, I think we can rule this one out.
4) Pancreatic Cancer, which is the End Game Boss of all cancers. It is EVIL. You do not get to bounce around all Manic Pixie Dream Girl-like with pancreatic cancer. You are too busy turning yellow or vomiting or enduring soul-burning chemotherapy or barely surviving multiple-hour open surgeries with enormous scars and tubes poking out of every orifice draining horrific-coloured liquid. You do NOT act like Sakura here. You cannot eat whatever the hell you like without swallowing handfuls of pancreatic enzymes and enduring crippling abdominal pain, nausea, constipation or diarrhoea. So I call bullshit. This lack of accuracy or effort in worldbuilding made it so hard for me to become at all invested in this film, when the premise was so transparently manipulative and ill-conceived. This isn’t a film about a girl coping with illness, this is a film about an author self-insert dealing with a plot device.
If you’re going to tell a story via the animated medium, you rely a lot on character movement and voice acting to carry emotion - the usual nuances of live action aren’t available. The character animation in this is not bad - at times it’s quite expressive, though the lower budget endemic to Japanese animation means these movements aren’t as fluid as they need to be and can be distracting. My wife in particular found the dub voices to be ridiculously overacted and overwrought. When I suggested switching to the sub instead, she said that would make no difference because “the movements were overacting too so it doesn’t matter what language they are shrieking in”. I suppose she had a point. Maybe we are getting too old to fully empathise with hyper-emotive teen girls? From the perspective of someone looking for emotional truth in a film about illness, pain and fear of death, this film has the depth of a puddle. I say this with great disappointment. I really wanted to like this movie, but with characters as thin as a slice of card, written by someone with clearly no firsthand experience of suffering or loss, surely the only people who will find this profound are those whose lives are also so far free of suffering.
My wife complained that the characters were one-dimensional. Main character boy’s primary character trait is his emotional suppression, with social awkwardness. Sakura’s primary character trait is excessively bouncy cheeriness with disdain for social taboos in the face of imminent death. I argued that we could be generous and admit that they’re at least two-dimensional. Boredom-boy does eventually start to come out of his shell and regard other human beings as worth his time and interaction. And in the epilogue, long after she has died, Sakura is allowed (in flashback) to be shown to have other emotions like fear and trepidation about her upcoming death. But those are their only defining characteristics. At no point do we feel Sakura is at all frustrated or hopeless, she doesn’t rail against the unfairness of her lot. This film whitewashes over all of the complicated, messy feelings associated with terminal illness and replaces them with shallow teen romantic angst.
Who is this film actually for? It doesn’t speak to my wife who spends every day in pain, nor does it speak to me as someone who has to powerlessly witness her suffering. If anything, it trivialises illness and death into becoming mere entertainment, something to feel momentarily sad about in order to feel better about one’s own life. My wife goes further in her criticism - much like some recent prominent YA novels/films with stories like this that run the risk of fetishising illness, she felt this film fetishised death.
I don’t want to come across like a totally negative, unfeeling bastard. Some scenes were very effective in evoking an appropriate emotional response. I found it hard to remain composed during the scene when boredom-boy, having avoided the funeral, 10 days later visits Sakura’s mother at home. His reaction to reading Sakura’s diary is very human and relatable, as he’s unable to contain his tears any longer and bursts out sobbing. It reminded me of the time at the age of 16 when I was unable to contain my grief during my best friend’s burial. He’d fallen 200 feet down a mountain cliff, his body presumably so mangled they couldn’t have an open casket at the funeral. As they lowered him down into the ground, I could hold it in no longer and suddenly broke the graveside silence with my loud, shuddering sobs. I remember feeling disgusted with myself, though also so comforted by my other friend who put his arm around me while I buried my sodden face in his shoulder.
One thing I must discuss before I finish is the twist in regards to the mode of Sakura’s death. I understand why the author chose to “shock” their readers by having her die via stabbing rather than via slow decline due to illness... But it feels incredibly cheap, and robs the narrative of any meaning. If anything, the author took the easy way out, without having to explore the feelings Sakura and boredom-boy would have around her eventual, slow, inevitable decline in health and function. I imagine that would have made a much more uncomfortable film, a lot less glossy and marketable. In pursuing sudden tragedy and shock value, this film fails to say anything about terminal illness or coping with the pain of extended suffering and loss. It comes up empty.
Apparently the animators’ main motivation for animating the story was to do justice to the fireworks scene. This scene is indeed gorgeous and emotional, but also fleeting and superficial, much like the overall impression left by the entire film itself. My heart feels heavy, not because of any profound emotion provoked by I Want to Eat Your Pancreas, but because I cannot in good conscience recommend this as a good movie. Believe me, I really wanted to.
I Want to Eat Your Pancreas
Written and directed by: Shinichirō Ushijima
Producer: Keiji Mita (Studio VOLN)
Music: Hiroko Sebu
Based on the novel by: Yoru Sumino (web novel 2014, retail 2015)
UK Blu-ray/DVD release: 24th Feb 2020 (Region 2/B)
Distributor: Manga Entertainment
Rating: BBFC PG
Runtime: 108 mins
Original Japanese cinematic release: 1st September 2018
Previous live action Japanese film released 28th July 2017
Manga adaptation 2016-2017, illustrated by Idumi Kirihara
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