I want to get something out of the way. I Want to Eat Your Pancreas is not a zombie film, but it doesn’t really sound like a romantic drama either. The film is based on Yoru Sumino’s novel of the same name, which was also adapted into a serialized manga and a live-action film last year. Apparently, Sumino came up with the title first and wanted to use the line to make people cry. Let me tell you right now, he succeeds.
I Want to Eat Your Pancreas has as much in common with A Silent Voice as it does with the live-action Hollywood film The Fault in Our Stars. In the broadest sense, the film deals with a girl with a terminal illness, a boy who keeps her secret, and the unnamed relationship they create. At first glance it looks like another sappy melodramatic romance meant to make you cry your eyes out. Yet first-time director Shinichiro Ushijima (who also wrote the film) has more in mind than just a downer film about death, and instead makes a beautiful celebration of life with some interesting ideas about fate.
The film starts with an unnamed boy being bothered by a girl in their high school library. She is fascinated by a supposed Japanese custom of eating a body part from a loved one to cure a disease afflicting the same body part.
Our nameless protagonist is an oddball loner, withdrawn and unpopular by choice, according to him. He spends his time working at the school library because he believes books are better than people. It doesn’t take long to notice that he isn’t as stoic as he thinks he is, and he’s just a guy fighting against himself and against his own self-professed beliefs. One day, he happens to find a diary in a hospital. The diary belongs to his classmate Sakura, the girl from the library.
Sakura is an exuberant, cheerful and popular girl from his school; the only problem is that she has a terminal pancreatic illness and only a few months left to live. Once our silent main guy discovers this fact, Sakura explains that he is the only person other than her family who knows about her condition, as she wants to maintain a regular school life for as long as she can. So, the boy promises to keep her secret. The film then deals with Sakura as she decides to spend her last few months latched onto our loner protagonist, whose point of view carries the story forward.
The biggest surprise in I Want To Eat Your Pancreas is how funny it is. Sakura is well aware of her impending death, so she copes with it with deadpan gallows humor that may make some audience members uncomfortable. There’s also the not-so-typical relationship between Sakura and our protagonist (I swear they say his name before the film ends, but it’s a thing that he won’t say it at first). Their initial misjudgments are quite funny, as Sakura keeps forcing her nameless friend to help her check crazier and crazier things off her bucket list, but their banter and dynamic becomes quite sweet to see and the dialogue feels natural. When Sakura can’t understand why her new friend won’t talk to anyone at school, the resulting tension between them also rings true to our own struggles in relating to and engaging with people.
The very young Studio VOLN handles the film’s animation, which is pretty to look at but never distracts from the plot. Pastel colors dominate I Want to Eat Your Pancreas, especially the color pink which dominates Sakura’s world and parallels the cherry blossoms that follow wherever the camera goes, a key part of the film’s themes. Sakura’s journey takes her through sunshine-soaked outdoor scenes and brightly lit interiors as her backlit figure contemplates the eternal light of the world she will soon stop being a part of. This is all contrasted with the dark and rainy streets our protagonist is often walking down, the wet ground reflecting headlights from night-time traffic. There are even a couple of scenes where the animation enhances the film, particularly a night-time scene with fireworks that will both make your jaw drop and your tear ducts work overtime.
There’s also the theme of “chance versus fate” that runs through I Want to Eat Your Pancreas, the idea that fate is nothing but the result of thousands of choices we make though life. It’s a sentiment that makes you look at certain characters in a different light, and one that makes the “girl wants a boy to enjoy life” part of the story more profound than you’d think coming from a film with a title like this one.
I Want to Eat Your Pancreas may look like a traditional romantic drama about a dying character, but it is a heartfelt celebration of life and friendships with a tight script and round characters. It is honestly amazing that this film works as well as it does, and that it still manages to surprise you with a few twists and turns that will have theatrical audiences crying in their seats.