I Want to Eat Your Pancreas and Heroine Narratives

That isn’t to say I want to eat your heroine. I don’t want to eat your narratives focused on them either.
It’s just that this week’s subject doesn’t quite work with my usual title format, you see.
Dang light novel authors and their silly-long titles.
*ahem*

Kimi no Suizō o Tabetai, or “I Want to Eat Your Pancreas”, is currently available in novel and manga form.

You don’t need to be overly-familiar with anime or manga to know that they tend to fawn over their female characters. Like, a lot.

They’re typically front-and-center on any marketing material and merchandise, they usually outnumber their male counterparts, and even or especially when the lead, viewpoint character is a guy, stories still tend to revolve around them.

This tendency gets especially pronounced in games with so-called “life simulation” elements, like Tokimeki Memorial or a number of visual novels, which rarely ever feature any male characters on their boxart (Harvest-Moon-like games used to be slightly guilty of this, albeit they aim their gaze at men as much as women nowadays). It even pops up in more insidious ways such as in Persona 5, where levels with male antagonists take on a harsher tone, whereas both levels focused on female characters are more deferential, with the player trying to “save” the woman in question.

And manga-based narratives (which I’m going to use as an imperfect catch-all here for anime, visual novels, light novels, and other stories in Japanese pop culture) are far from the only culprits of women as the focus – but not the perspective character – of a story. There’s such a strain of this in popular American fiction that there’s a pet name attached to a character that only exists in this kind of narrative: the so-called “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”. And I don’t even need to mention how many centuries the damsel-in-need-of-saving archetype has been prevalent for. For better or for worse, modern stories have an observable habit of leveraging “damaged” characters – typically girls and women – rather than letting them speak for themselves, and even stories that make a run at deconstructing this structure can still hit pitfalls.

And guess what’s a shining example of this exact problem?

(Hint: It’s in the ding-dang page title.)

I Want to Eat Your Pancreas – which, much like The Night is Short, Walk On Girl, I will be shortening because its title is a nightmare to write and to read at length – revolves around a central heroine who absolutely falls into a wealth of tropes that define the leads of a certain brand of stories:

  • Doomed to a melodramatic fate
  • Arbitrarily drags an idle protagonist into her wacky antics
  • A “quirky charm” and youthful energy to endear her to the audience
  • A penchant for mixed messages and cryptic hints that give her an air of mystery

…as well as a much more problematic point, which technically qualifies as a spoiler. Nonetheless, all of these are elements that toe the line of reasonable behavior, but when read together like that it becomes increasingly clear that leading lady Sakura is purpose-designed to facilitate the plot of a movie by her simple presence.

And that can be a running problem for a lot of narratives like Pancreas. Manga-based stories dramatize “doomed” characters like the terminally-ill Sakura with dependable regularity, but rarely do so using those characters’ own voices. Instead, we’re dropped in the shoes of an everyman protagonist who either invades or is pulled into their personal problems and takes all the agency in actually upsetting the status quo.

Which, to be fair, Pancreas isn’t the worst example of by a long shot. Sakura actually drives the majority of the direction and changes in her own life, with the somewhat-nameless male lead having little more input into Sakura’s life than the audience themselves for the bulk of the story. And unlike more wish-fulfilling dramas, the movie (or book) regularly lays out how Sakura comes across as annoying or even socially-harmful to the nameless protagonist.

But Pancreas still stumbles a bit with how it balances the two halves of the relationship at its center, especially given what happens in its third act; and that frames the story (and the paragraphs that follow) to such an extent that I highly suggest that you read or watch it first if you’re the spoiler-sensitive sort.

Spoilers follow the image below.

pancreascover
By the way, the cover art for the novel and character design for the movie are by digital artist loundraw, who is blessedly active on twitter.

There’s one plot convention in particular that has a very nasty connotation, and one that reflects very strongly on male leads being the “default” in fiction. It’s referred to as “fridging”, and in brief, it captures a wide range of stories where the death of a female character is used primarily to advance the character development of a male character.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the cancer-ridden Sakura dies in the course of Pancreas’ story, and it motivates her own action dang near every moment we see her on screen. But the way in which her death and its fallout are handled places her uncomfortably close to being a “device” character in what is ostensibly her own story. There’s a good twenty minutes / sixty pages of the story that only takes place after her death, and she gets an extended motivational monologue aimed at the protagonist by way of her diary that serves chiefly to motivate him while victimizing her in a way that the story didn’t do while she was alive.

Sakura’s coy attitude is a sly benefit to how the audience views her, letting the script keep the most personal aspects of her life close to her chest and out of view. Both her and the male lead give the impression of hidden depths, between her discreetly keeping her guard up around everyone, and him just being deeply introverted. You can’t really understand either fully, but you can’t fully understand almost anyone in real life, either, which makes them feel more rounded and “real”. Unfortunately, Sakura’s extended spilling of her guts at the end fills in the gaps in her story by framing her as a victim, whereas protagonist Haruki is allowed to maintain his aloofness while benefitting from her posthumous insight. It’s an unfortunate hook on the end of a story that had otherwise played the two as relative equals in their relationship – one that is blessedly not played for romance, where that would be all-too-easy of a route to take in an emotional drama.

But it’s not all a downer. Manga-based narratives like Pancreas have their strengths, too – chiefly among them a penchant for an earnest approach that wears its heart on its sleeve. And for its troublesome effects, Sakura’s monologue is just that, pouring out a full range of emotion and speaking without reservation. The epilogue directly takes its more optimistic ending from here, showing a more gradual and internally-driven change in multiple characters that takes inspiration from Sakura more than turning her into a martyr. And despite the myriad differences between the two protagonists, the two are shown to benefit mutually just from being around each other in a way that suggests a basic, encouraging belief that people are good to and for each other.

It’s a mixed bag, to be sure. But it’s a bit further down the road to a balanced take on the female-focused narrative while maintaining the mold. It’s not the form itself that’s broken; it’s in how we use it.

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