Back around the turn of the century, a new kind of melodrama was taking the Japanese box office by storm. “junai” or “pure love” was not exactly new in terms of genre but began to grow in popularity in the early 2000s thanks to growing interest in Korean television drama, finally hitting its zenith in 2004 with Crying Out Love in the Centre of the World. The junai boom lasted only a couple of years, but Japanese cinema has never been able to get enough of tragic stories of first love destroyed by cruel fate and, ironically enough, returns with the improbably titled Let Me Eat Your Pancreas (君の膵臓をたべたい, Kimi no Suizo wo Tabetai) which sets its fictional past in 2003 – exactly the same time as the contemporary presents of the junai classics.
In 2012, Haruki Shiga (Shun Oguri) is a melancholy high school teacher who can’t decide if teaching is really his vocation and has a resignation letter sitting in his desk. Meanwhile, he is handed a slightly upsetting task by his boss – the school library has become too rundown to consider renovating and so it’s going to have to close. When Shiga was a high school student at this very school, he also ran the library club (he now has a qualification in librarianship) and so he seems to be the perfect person to ensure everything gets packed up and dealt with in the proper fashion. The library, however, holds some painful memories for him – of a girl he grew close to for only a few months while she battled a terminal illness and changed his life forever.
12 years previously, Sakura (Minami Hamabe), a popular young woman, drops her sickness diary on leaving the hospital, whereupon Shiga picks it up and unwittingly becomes the only person outside of Sakura’s family to know that she is suffering from a degenerative pancreatic illness and has only a couple of years at most to live. She knows her case her is hopeless and the treatment she receives will only prolong her life temporarily while easing her symptoms, but is determined to live out the rest of her days to the fullest.
Unlike Sakura, Shiga (Takumi Kitamura) describes himself as a loner who isn’t good with people. He spends his days with a book in his hand and is thought of by most of his classmates (if they think of him at all) as the creepy silent boy. Thus his unexpected friendship with Sakura raises more than a few eyebrows with the other kids, especially Sakura’s best friend Kyoko (Karen Otomo) who is both jealous and confused as to why her friend has suddenly started hanging out with the loser boy. Then again it’s precisely because of this aloofness that Sakura first believes she can entrust her final days to Shiga – as virtual strangers it’s much easier to process the idea of an ending, if Sakura had tried to confide in Kyoko about her illness it would only have marred the end of their friendship. Shiga is detached, he doesn’t get emotionally involved, but despite himself still cares which makes him the ideal point of support for a girl longing to escape a carefully ordered life to get a taste of everything she knows she will miss.
Let Me Eat Your Pancreas may situate itself in the junai era of the early 2000s, but owes an undeniable debt to Shunji Iwai’s seminal 1995 romantic melodrama Love Letter and even borrows its central library conceit with a hidden message which eventually reaches its destination much later than intended. Like Love Letter, in which one of the heroines is perpetually worried about the possible repercussions of minor illnesses, Pancreas is keen to remind us that the truth is we are all dying and illness or not today might be our last day – it’s best to make the most of it without sitting around worrying about what the future might hold.
Sakura, dying yet so full of life and energy, is keen to impart her life philosophy to the introverted Shiga. For Sakura life is about connection, sharing experiences with others be they joy or pain. Shiga, though loathed to admit it, is in his own way desperately lonely but has resolved himself to surviving alone, believing that he lacks the ability connect meaningfully with other people. His nascent connection with Sakura is destined to end in tragedy but does at least begin to release something in him which had long been suppressed. Even so, as an adult he’s just as withdrawn and isolated as he’d been as a teen and it’s not until he’s forced to revisit this traumatic incident in his early life that he learns the full value of its lessons. Let Me Eat Your Pancreas, though wilfully embracing some of the genre’s more problematic elements, is a beautifully affecting return to the world of junai which manages to turn a story of death and tragedy into a celebration of life and love as its isolationist hero begins to find the strength to embrace the art of being alive no matter how painful it may turn out to be.
Original trailer (no subtitles)