I Want to Eat Your Pancreas
2018, PG-13, 120 min. Directed by Shin'ichirô Ushijima. Voices by Mahiro Takasugi, Yûma Uchida, Yukiyo Fujii, Lynn, Robbie Daymond, Erika Harlacher, Dorah Fine.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Feb. 8, 2019
Sakura is a high schooler. She’s chirpy, a little annoying, and constantly bugging Me. When I Want to Eat Your Pancreas begins, she’s already dead, and Me – the school outsider, a boy with a carefully curated list of no friends – is too heartbroken to attend her funeral.
Ushijima’s anime adaptation of Yoru Sumino’s coming-of-age novel (already adapted into a manga and a live-action feature) starts from a bleak place. After all, high schoolers are supposed to be immortal, and their deaths are immediate tragedies. Yet that’s not how Sakura (voiced by Lynn in the Japanese original, and Harlacher in the US dub) sees it. As Me (Takasugi/Daymond) narrates from his place of mourning, she had come to terms with her terminal pancreatic disease, and the flashback narrative explores their unlikely friendship, and why she chooses him as the only person, outside of her immediate family, who knows that she’s dying.
Visually, this is very much of the pastel-tinged palate of similar recent releases like Liz and the Blue Bird. What sets this story apart is that the stakes are literally life-or-death, but it’s not handled in an over-the-top way. The title itself isn't ghoulish, but an odd proclamation of love, spinning from the old superstition that if you have a disease it can be cured by eating the same organ from an animal. There's a strange beauty in the way that Me and Sakura exchange this off-kilter phrase, the awkwardness of teenagers dealing with a new reality.
I Want to Eat Your Pancreas could be morbid, and veers closer to mawkishness than a lot of contemporary Western audiences may be used to seeing on-screen. What that really translates into is a refreshing emotional honesty in how Sakura knows what’s happening – she even has a diary she’s been writing called Living With Death – and the moments when the cracks in her optimistic demeanor show through carry a quiet weight. There’s no simplistic “five stages of grief” narrative, but instead the real process of dying, of good days and bad days, of her quest for intimacy and fight to squeeze in a few days of being a young adult. At the same time, there’s Me’s (initially begrudging) shift from the Morrissey-wannabe solipsist role he has taken, into someone who’s prepared to have someone in his life to lose.
The risk, of course, is that this is really about a teen girl’s death being used to teach a teen boy important life lessons. Instead, this feels much more like an inadvertent document for the death positive movement – the developing field of study and advocacy that wants us to be more honest and open in discussing our own mortality. Sakura and Me represent the two sides of loss – when we grief for ourselves, and for others – and that’s an important conversation to be had, even (maybe especially) within the digitally painted lines of modern anime.
Even though this is in many ways a chronicle of a death foretold, I Want To Eat Your Pancreas has some nasty loops to throw the audience’s way, adding a degree of unpredictability that verges on the capricious. But then, that’s really the point. Life has no definites, no guarantees. There’s only the compassion we can show along the way that give it any meaning, and that’s the real message of this tender, touching story.