Relationships, both romantic and platonic, have their difficulties; they experience timing and tension issues, can suffer from differing personal development needs, or never form because of a fear of how our interactions with others will turn out. Studio VOLN’s 2018 film I Want to Eat Your Pancreas explores the challenges of relationships as we try to live out our best lives.
Sakura Yamauichi is a terminally ill highschooler whose pancreas has stopped working. She writes about her day to day experiences living with her illness in a diary she’s named “Living With Dying”. One day, while at the hospital, she accidentally leaves Living with Dying behind in a waiting-room. Haruki Shiga, an aloof young man in Sakura’s graduating class, finds and picks it up. Sakura rushes back for it to find him reading it. She tells him about her condition, but he isn’t phased by it. She loves that he doesn’t care and sets off to build a relationship with him… one that will last until the day she dies.
An Outstanding Film on par with A Silent Voice and Your Name
Predicting the story’s trajectory in I Want to Eat Your Pancreas’ narrative is easy-peasy lemon- squeezy, but Sakura and Shiga’s interactions are themselves shockingly unpredictable. You might think you know what to expect walking into this film from watching other anime dramas featuring two highschoolers of the opposite sex, but I Want to Eat Your Pancreas stands apart. The scenarios between Sakura and Shiga play out naturally. This makes their interactions refreshingly authentic and therefore believable.
In terms of tropes, we’re used to seeing the first fated encounter, convenient coincidences, embarrassing girly clumsiness, the anime-specific hug from behind (glomp), and the jealous friend, but I Want to Eat Your Pancreas takes it a step beyond. The hug from behind doesn’t come from a place of passion. The jealous friend isn’t jealous just because a new romantic prospect is eating up precious hang-out time with the female protagonist, or from being secretly in love with her all along. When the film talks about encounters, it doesn’t chalk them up to fate or coincidences, and it doesn’t label its relationships.
Most relationships in dramas lack a certain veracity that neglect to include the underlying complexities of real-world ones. Dramas tend to paint relationships in a digestible, shallow way, which removes honesty and relatability. These 2D relationships lack the emotional landscape of tension, reluctance, vulnerability, desperation, and frankly, torrents more emotion; but the point is that there are many influencing factors behind characters’ thoughts and actions, which makes subtext so much more important for dramas. Most fail to properly portray that. This is when most dramas opt for fantasied relationships instead of addressing real emotional issues that actually threaten regression when developing authentic, healthy relationships. Those issues get expressed during times where we’re afraid—afraid to give something of ourselves to others for the first time, to let our walls break down; and because of fear, it’s easier to act in a way that prevents both parties from providing positive input into the relationship and growing. Then it’s definitely no longer a party!
2D on the Outside, 3D on the Inside
Sakura and Shiga both have trouble constructing an authentic, healthy relationship with each other. Shiga is the only one who knows about her condition besides her family. Furthermore, he’s a guy, and her history with guys isn’t the healthiest. As for Shiga, he’s never wanted friends because he’s always been afraid of getting hurt, especially because he’s afraid of how others perceive him. Unfortunately, it’s trickier for Sakura. Her condition complicates her disposition.
Sakura’s failing pancreas means not only her quickly approaching death, but also the blight of her family shifting their dynamic, knowing time with her is limited. They pretend they are acting normally despite being overly prostrate with her wishes instead of treating her as they always have. This is a real-world response begotten by sympathy and pity to prioritize the dying ahead of our own feelings. In other words, our true feelings get withheld from the dying person.
If she hadn’t been dying, perhaps Sakura’s parents wouldn’t have allowed her to go on that overnight trip to Hakata (with Shiga) because she had school the following week. No one said dying doesn’t come with its perks, but why treat her any differently? In other words, by letting her take that trip, Sakura’s parents relinquish a certain amount of accountability they would have otherwise held her to. That’s why she doesn’t want to tell anyone she is dying. The feelings her family withholds from her, though naively intended to be caring, produces the opposite effect and creates distance between them. She doesn’t want to risk that with the friends she already has, and she definitely doesn’t want anyone to dote over her. The only way Sakura can avoid that is through a relationship with someone who only knows her in the context of her pancreatic condition.
However, she still can’t avoid her demons; neither can Shiga. Both have, to their detriment, internalized beliefs regarding what people will think and behave like toward them. This leads Shiga to recede into himself and Sakura to act desperately.
Trial and Tribulation
Two-thirds of the way through the film, Sakura invites Shiga to come to her house without her parents home. She’s lending him a book, or so she says, except she has him sit down to play games with her instead. He gets frustrated and gets up to leave. As he’s scanning her shelf for the book on his way out, she hugs him from behind. She wants to cross an item off her bucket list: “Do something naughty with someone who’s not my boyfriend and who I’m not in love with.”
The expectation of her promise to lend him her book becomes sexual, tantalizing him while at the same time betraying his trust. What she says and what she wants don’t match, validating his fear of people having ulterior motives because they’re not direct about what they want from him.
Yet, this isn’t the first time the atmosphere has been sexual, although this is the first time Sakura has acted this brazenly on her emotions. The very first time is in the hotel room on her overnight vacation with him; but only in her room do we see the distraught, self-destructive tendencies hidden behind Sakura’s mischievous personality.
Her eyes betray her and we get a glimpse into Sakura’s life before pancreatic failure. It’s
spent around guys with half-baked feelings, who lack self-restraint against her provocations
rooted in insecurity, hence Kyoko’s not entirely misplaced indignation toward Shiga.
And how do we reinforce our insecurities? Making reality match with the version in our heads so we can prove to ourselves that our way of seeing things is true. Shiga would not let her do that. Instead of being the kind of guy who feeds into superficial notions of who people are, he lives without forming quick ideas about who Sakura is. He’s refreshing in that regard. That’s why in her diary Sakura says he’s fun and interesting.
Shiga is the only one who gives her the space to explore her needs of her own accord without deciding what’s best for her. That’s not his place; he knows it. So, she feels safe around him, trusts him, can be herself without worry, and constructively fail at confronting her flaws in order to successfully define her own personal growth.
Shiga does not let her feed into her self- destructive tendencies as others might. He does not misinterpret why she’s making advances despite her open invitation to let him misinterpret. She’s playing out her own emotional abuse and projecting it onto him.
It’s a sick joke and perhaps a desperate response in order to combat emptiness, but the action in and of itself is empty, likely a learned expectation to be disappointed by guys, one that comes from previous relationships. However, it’s unlikely she really ever wants to be disappointed. Emotionally, she wants a genuine relationship even though her actions express otherwise.
She later apologizes by letting Shiga know the person she presented herself as is not who
she wants to be but probably who she has convinced herself she has to be. As far as we
can interpret, she’s not used to a boy truly caring about her, it’s unfamiliar, so she turns
that discomfort and confusion into the actions other boys have shown her.
That’s why next time she hugs him it’s different.
With the first hug, Sakura gaslights herself, and should Shiga have validated her insecurities, that would have further debilitated her self-esteem. Shiga chooses not to enable her insecurities, thus she can deny them power in order to have more faith in herself, and in guys. The burden of proof in betrayed faith is immediately determinable through her ex- boyfriend’s violence against Shiga. He’s the kind of guy who can’t take no for an answer, nor does he really understand Sakura. His shallow views of others exude the kind of egotistic toxicity that explodes physically.
That’s why we’re glad Sakura finds Shiga before dying.
It Takes One Person…
Again, what makes I Want to Eat Your Pancreas worthy of full praise is the way it addresses relationships. The moment the film puts the last nail in the coffin laying any lingering possibilities of mediocrity to rest is the moment Sakura says she met Shiga because of the choices they made, not because of fate or chance or coincidence. Indeed, while viewing the film it’s too easy to ask, why choose Shiga? What is it about him? It could have been anyone who picked up her book. The film is not afraid to remind you of that. It just takes one, one person to change someone’s life at the right place at the right time, but it’s the choices that lead us there and nothing else.
Characters in most romance films often meet by chance, coincidence, or fate, and read as one-dimensional, sometimes two-dimensional, but never fully three-dimensional. Their thoughts and actions end up being one and the same. I Want to Eat Your Pancreas does not present such linear characters. It’s the kind of story that knows the true difficulties of love should never be cheapened by fantasy. Sakura and Shiga are dynamic characters, and that’s what separates this drama from most.
I Want to Eat Your Pancreas hosts a sincere confrontation with death and personal growth, accurately portraying a character delicately cupping sanity while pursuing happiness for the remainder of her life, sending an important message to every viewer. You may fall apart in the face of misfortune, but put yourself in the company of the right person, picking yourself up and pushing forward is never so hard.
I Want to Eat Your Pancreas is about a boy learning to make the most of each day around people and a girl learning to love herself without depending on others to show her her worth. That’s why it is genuinely enjoyable. It’ll give you chills, make you cry, and remind you acting on your feelings by doing what’s best for yourself is the best thing you can do. So don’t wait. Take action! Live your life to the fullest! Because the worst action you can take is none at all.
A Final Shoutout to…
Lastly, I’d really like to give a shout out to Gum Guy. He’s such an effective measurement of Shiga’s growth. At first, Shiga thought this dude was vying for some thicc school gossip every time he offered up gum, but Shiga came to realize not all people have ulterior motives. Some of them are just good people who want to get to know you.