I want to eat your pancreas
Through Fathom Events previews online and in theaters, I’ve been hearing about this film constantly for around four or five months. And during that entire time, I was probably- like many of you- very confused about what this film was. The title’s implication brings to mind immediately concepts like cannibalism and horror, while the previews show a seemingly innocent high school romance between two kids with no violence or guro aspects at all. The film’s theme song seems cheerful, inspirational, but with a solemnity hidden deeper therein and the tears that abound throughout the trailers demonstrate this darker side of the romance hinted at therein to be true. So when I went in to watch the film a few days ago, I was definitely in for a surprise.
But first, the specs. The film was released in September 2018, so the American theatrical audience is getting this film pretty quickly for an anime. It is based on a 2014 novel by Japanese writer Yoru Sumino and has hitherto been adapted into two other mediums before becoming an animated film. These include a long-running manga adaptation from 2016-2017 and a live-action feature film in late 2017. The property proved popular and lucrative, so Studio VOLN bought the anime adaptation rights and set studio director Shinichiro Ushijima as head director on the project.
If you haven’t heard of VOLN, or ‘Visiting Old Learn New’ (a sentiment that reflects the studio’s desire to simultaneously create work within a larger tradition of anime classics while also experimenting and embracing new technology), then you’re not alone. They are a very new studio, which was founded in late 2014 by Mita Keiji, an ex-Studio Madhouse director and producer. And thus far, most of their projects were financially assisted by brother ex-Madhouse Studio MAPPA and Masao Maruyama. VOLN is just getting its legs fiscally, but with I want to eat your pancreas, they have a good first international hit critically and financially that should bode well for the studio’s future if they can keep up the quality of work and their commitment to both the future and the past of anime history.
As for the film itself, it begins in the manner any art film adaptation of the source novel might: with a funeral. By beginning in this manner, the audience is primed toward a solemn, reflective, and emotional frame of mind that carries on throughout the remainder of the film. From here, the events flash back to the time our two young protagonists first meet. The boy, whose name will not be revealed until close to end of the film for certain dramatic, thematic, and narrative reasons (a trifecta of considerations this film really nails) is at the hospital getting stitches removed from a previous surgery: an appendectomy. There, this quiet, introverted, bookish young man finds a handwritten book abandoned on a nearby seat. He picks it up and leafs through the pages of the self-titled tome ‘Living with Dying’. These are the thoughts of a terminally ill person that he has managed to accidentally enter into.
A girl flags him down and tells him that the book is hers. The two just so happen to be classmates and the girl is not known to be ill by her fellows at school. The boy originally thinks this to be some elaborate kind of prank, but she ensures him that it is not. She has a terminal pancreatic condition, a disease of the pancreas that will inevitably lead to her untimely death in a few short years from now. Only her parents, close family, and physician know about her illness, but now the boy knows and the girl feels somewhat relieved. She asks him if he will keep her secret and he agrees, especially since he has no one to tell the secret to anyway. The boy has no friends and has never had a girlfriend. He is a loner, but now this girl has entered his life.
It begins when she visits him in the library where he works part time. She bugs him all constantly to learn more about him. She even starts coming by all the time and eventually tells him the fable at the heart of the film’s title: In the past, it was said that eating the heart of an animal would help someone with a weak heart. Eating a liver would help someone with liver disease. The girl practices this ethos by consuming organ meat like hearts, livers, and offal at her favorite yakiniku, or skewered meat, restaurants in town. Playfully, she tells the boy that she wants to eat his pancreas, of course being tongue-in-cheek, but also reflecting her vitality and will to live. The friendship begins to expand as she drags the boy along with her from place to place and date to date before it eventually becomes a heartfelt friendship that transcends labels like best friend or boyfriend and girlfriend.
They enjoy each other’s company and help to build each other up. The boy by being there for her and doing things with her without an ulterior motive like sexual attraction or the more romantic view towards planning a future together. The girl by bringing the boy out of his shell and making him more outgoing, by seeing him for who he truly is and learning to love him despite his flaws. Events unfold unexpectedly time and again, before the final event which neither saw coming despite the girl’s illness and the boy is left alone once again.
I want to eat your pancreas is a beautiful little uplifting film with large-scale implications about our default modes of behavior toward other people based on the situation. It’s a portrait of love in its many vicissitudes that leaves you feeling emotionally drained, but stronger in your convictions to go forward bravely into this new world where the nexus of social relations and connections is shifting so rapidly that it can lead many to social inertia, to just dropping out of the social game (something I arguably did for around three years until late last year). And it pressures us to treasure all our benign relationships with others, no matter how fleeting, even by design (such as terminal illness, or meeting friends in a foreign country even if your stay is short, or at a local school even if you are moving soon). I loved the film, and I hope you do too.