In my times as an anime fan, I have moved in an out of different genres depending on where I was in life and what caught my interest at the time. But if there is one particular type of anime I have always gravitated towards, it’s those with touching, emotional stories. In particular, I have a fondness for bittersweet dramas. So, here’s an anime review about a film that, while not perfect, should fit the bill.
To start with, I should probably clear the air about the title. No, this is not a horror film, despite what the title may lead you to think. The title is explained almost in the first scene of the film. The short reason behind the title is the following:
In ancient times, some cultures believed that eating a certain body part will make the one who eats that body part feel better, such as eating a liver for a better liver. Additionally, in some religions, if you eat a part of someone, it’s believed that their soul will live on within you.
Even with that explanation, however, I can’t help but think that the cannibalism connotation undercuts the symbolic meaning of the metaphor. Just so we’re clear: no one eats human body parts in this film.
Okay, now that we’ve established that, it’s time for some backstory.
This film is actually the third adaptation of a novel by the same name that was published online. After hitting it big, the novel received a manga, a live-action film adaptation, and now an anime. I’ve never read the novel myself since I can’t read Japanese, nor have I read the manga nor seen the live-action film, so I went into this film without any expectations at all apart from the trailers like the one above. I figured it would be a bittersweet romance a la Your Lie in April (which is another anime I should probably review later); in fact, some reviewers have even compared this film to it, calling it a spiritual successor.
And while those comparisons are not entirely wrong, there are some key differences.
Sakura Yamauchi is a 17-year-old girl who seems cheerful but hides something terrible behind her smile: she suffers from a terminal pancreatic illness and has little time left to live. Her illness is unknown to everyone until our unnamed narrator (his name is purposefully kept a mystery until the end of the film) finds her diary, called “Living With Dying,” while on a routine visit to the hospital. He promises to keep her disease a secret, but their shared knowledge brings them closer together in Sakura’s final months of life.
Death’s shadow hangs over the entire plot of the film. The knowledge that Sakura will pass on well before the protagonist and her friends creates a sense of unease in every moment the two characters share together, making the whole story bittersweet. However, this is not to say the film is all doom and gloom; in fact, the audience and I got quite a few chuckles out of the film. The way Sakura’s bubbly personality contrasts with the subdued, reserved protagonist makes for some rather humorous moments.
When Sakura’s death does happen, however, it’s no less shocking as it comes from out of nowhere. There were audible gasps in the theater when her death was revealed simply because it did not come the way we expected it to. It’s a giant punch to the gut that leads us into the final act. I will admit: the concluding part of the story runs a little too long for my liking and I suspect some others. I think if 20 minutes were shaved off the end, the film would have had a much deeper impact on me and others than it did here. As a result, the conclusion might be more fatiguing than tragic.
I Want to Eat Your Pancreas‘ premise is a little well-worn, perhaps too much for some. We have a happy, energetic girl who is secretly dying making a friend of a quiet, socially-withdrawn boy and helps him see how life is beautiful; that alone led to the Your Lie in April comparisons, and for those who are seeking originality, you will be found wanting here. In addition, sometimes the delivery of the film’s message feels too heavy-handed, especially in the latter half when Sakura does eventually die. Sometimes the dialogue comes off as too direct for its subject matter, as well. However, for what it’s worth, the film makes good use of its concept to push character development not just for the protagonist, but for Sakura as well.
The film does not boast a large cast of characters, though since the film is focused almost solely on Sakura and the protagonist’s relationship, it doesn’t need one. And while the two characters are not perfect in their delivery, their interactions are ultimately what carry the film.
The entire story is told from the protagonist’s perspective, recounting about how he met Sakura and how his life changed by meeting her. Sakura is initially portrayed as almost cartoonishly obnoxious and overly bubbly, but it manages to capture how a person suffering from a terminal illness would cope with impending mortality. The protagonist, on the other hand, sometimes came off to me as wooden, since his is the well-tired trope of a mopey, quiet, anti-social loner who gradually opens up to the world. However, his development ultimately provides a good contrast to Sakura and it is he who comes to learn the value of relationships and making the most out of life.
I won’t lie: being someone who has suffered not one but two deaths in my family from terminal illnesses, the protagonist’s struggles and Sakura’s cheerful front struck a little too close to home for me.
Some people, and even the promotional artwork and materials, bill this anime film as a bittersweet romance, but I never got the sense of anything more than a platonic relationship between the two characters. Sakura does flirt with him from time to time, but near the end, she makes it clear that she doesn’t see him that way. Their relationship is close, but not that close. In fact, I find it rather unfair to classify I Want to Eat Your Pancreas as a romance; rather, it’s about the joys of interacting and being with others. Whether that’s as friends or as lovers comes down to individual interpretation.
ART AND ANIMATION
The film is produced by the relatively new animation studio VOLN, which up until now has mostly worked in joint productions on TV series. I Want to Eat Your Pancreas marks the studio’s first solo piece, and while the art direction at times is amazing, those moments are not the norm. It’s not terrible to look at by any means, but it lacks the polish one would expect of a feature-length animated film and comes off more as something one would find in a typical TV series or even a made-for-TV movie.
For a drama like this, animation needs to effectively convey the nuances in both character emotions and in setting the tone for important scenes. In this sense, animation is not just complementing the actors; it is an actor itself. The animation’s failings are particularly noticeable with the unnamed protagonist.
The protagonist is meant to be a stoic, enigmatic boy, but I think the animation director took this to mean a lack of facial expressions. He almost never changes his emotions throughout much of the story, which may have contributed to my fears that he came off as wooden rather than a boy “fighting with himself” as Sakura puts it in the latter half of the film. This means it can be hard to get behind the central relationship since the protagonist comes off as dull and lifeless. And when he does emote at the very end, it might come off as too little, too late.
While character designs are not particularly ugly, they are just unremarkable and even flat. Sakura is meant to be a chipper girl but one might never grasp that from her design. There are, however, plenty of good moments of animation, which are usually reserved for the film’s key emotional scenes. In those instances, every strand of hair is well-detailed and animated.
There is a general sense of artistic inconsistency in the film, though not so bad that it breaks the enjoyment of the film. For example, the fireworks scene (video below) is a perfect mix of good character and background animation, stunning visuals, and subtle emotional writing. This scene, more than any other, made me wish the film was heading in a happier direction, or that something might turn around for Sakura. It highlights not only the talents of the voice actors but of the animation and art staff. Then, later on in the film’s denouement, we are treated to still image montages of earlier scenes when character look back on their lives. It’s not bad to look at, but it’s easy to tell that this was a budgetary decision rather than an artistic one.
The background art and art direction in general, however, makes it easy to overlook the shortcomings in animation. Every background exudes color, using a wide, bright and varied array for each scene. Cherry blossom petals and clear running water streams reflect the life that still exists in Sakura, while softer palettes for a conversation on the beach reflect the underlying serious tone.
It’s not a visual tour de force like Your Name. or Princess Mononoke or Summer Wars, but it doesn’t need to be, either. While I wish the art direction was more consistent when it came to animation, it did the job well enough to carry the story.
MUSIC AND SOUND
While there are often times when the film has no background music at all, giving you a slight sense of unease, the times it does only stand out more for it. Much of the soundtrack consists of solemn piano or violin pieces. None of those tracks really stuck in my head with the exception of those played at the end, but it’s the OP and ED sung by the band sumika (who actually do voice work in the Japanese original) that stand out.
The OP song Fanfare, which plays over a Your Name.-esque opening credits scene, is really energetic and upbeat, which gives a false sense of security for the audience. This juxtaposition comes full circle when we reach the film’s credits with the ED Four Seasons (posted above) which is a melancholic eulogy to good times cut short with those we love. This song, as as well as an insert played over the fireworks scene, were the most memorable for me, as it really set the mood not just for the movie, but for its message.
I only listened to the English dub, and was surprised to see a small featurette before the film showing all the voice actors talking about their experience in the production. Erika Harlacher does a superb job as Sakura, providing both a boisterous tone and a soft, wispy voice for more dramatic scenes. Robbie Daymond comes off as almost deadpan as the protagonist throughout, and it’s not until the very end of the movie’s run do we get to see him shine. Most people complain about dubs, but I found this one more than serviceable. Plus, it’s a better experience rather than just reading the bottom subtitles, since you miss out on the fantastic art direction.
I Want to Eat your Pancreas is not the most visually stunning film, but it is no less emotional and full of surprises worth a watch. While the animation is sometimes inconsistent, the sound direction is rather muted, and the concluding section runs at least 20 minutes longer than it needs to be, it is a brilliant story that touched me if only from the personal connection I have to its concept.
It does not have the emotion of a Makoto Shinkai work, the imagination of a Mamoru Hosoda film, or as much heart as a Naoko Yamada piece, but it has enough of all those to move an audience to tears (most in the theater were either sniffing or crying before the credits rolled) and deliver its message. The message is heartfelt and all too familiar, to be sure, but no less important.
The film asks a deceptively simple question: what does it mean to be alive? It’s easy to say to be alive is to not be dead, but there is more to living than breathing, eating, drinking, and sleeping. It’s about making friends, apologizing, loving unconditionally, seeing everything the world has to offer, and finding something (or in the story’s case, someone) that makes you feel fulfilled.
I will leave you with a few choice words from Sakura, who best sums up the message thusly:
Being alive means reaching out to the hearts of all the people that affect ours.Sakura Yamauchi
Thank you so much for reading my review. Please leave a comment telling me what you think of the film if you saw it, and what some of your favorite tearjerker anime films are.
Until the next blog post,