Kay’s Library: Book Club Pick #4, I Want to Eat Your Pancreas

There are few things more familiar and instinctual to me than heading to the manga shelves on a trip to one of my favorite bookstores. As a Millenial, I grew up during the global popularity explosion of manga and anime franchises like Dragonball, Pokemon, Sailor Moon, Fruits Basket, and Bleach, as well as the feature films of Hayao Miyazaki. My friends listened to J-rock artists like Gackt and anime theme songs on imported CDs. However, on a recent trip I saw a new development amongst the familiar covers of manga comics. What, at first glance, looked like more comics on display, were upon closer inspection a shelf of light novels. After decades of manga being the dominant Japanese export known by readers, light novels have exploded in popularity.

What Are Light Novels?

Light novels are paperback novels targeted at a young adult reading audience. Many light novels start out as web novels, online serialized novels published for free on story sharing sites like Shosetsuka Ni Naro, a popular Japanese site. Many light novels are also adapted into manga and anime. The publishing company Seven Seas Entertainment publishes translated versions of Japanese and Chinese light novels, which has led to their growth in popularity all over the world.

I Want to Eat Your Pancreas

This month’s book club selection is the light novel I Want to Eat Your Pancreas by novelist Yoru Sumino. Sumino, and her story, started out on Shosetsuka Ni Naro. Not only was her webnovel published as a light novel, but it has been adapted into a manga,  an anime, and a live action feature film, as well.

The plot of IWtEYP concerns two Japanese teenagers, Haruki Shiga and Sakura Yamauchi. Although they have been classmates all throughout their school career, they run with very different sets and don’t know each other well. In fact, Haruki doesn’t really have a ‘set’: he is a loner who prefers spending his time reading. Sakura, on the other hand, is a social butterfly, perhaps the most popular girl in their class. During a checkup at the local hospital, he finds what he thinks at first is Sakura’s journal. However, it turns out to be a book she is writing called Living With Dying. When he returns the book, Sakura confides her secret to him: she is dying of a pancreas ailment, and only has one year to live.

Readers who pick up I Want to Eat Your Pancreas may feel reminiscent of John Green’s young adult classic The Fault in Our Stars, which took pop culture by storm in the 2010s. Both books concern young people living with a terminal diagnosis who are trying to define themselves and meaning in their lives in the limited time they have left. However, there are key differences. Both of Green’s protagonists were dealing with the same fatal illness, cancer. Haruki, on the other hand, is healthy and Sakura is ill, one of many ways the book highlights that they are parallel opposites. The details of cancer treatment were not shied away from in The Fault in Our Stars, while details about Sakura’s illness are left vague-which only belies Haruki’s frequent ruminations that Sakura, who is mischievous, spontaneous, vivacious, and upbeat does not fit the stereotypical mold of someone who is dying. Haruki is the only person who knows her secret, and no one in the student body would, or does guess. Haruki is very serious, quiet, and introverted. Sakura, on the other hand, loves to tease Haruki and get under his skin.   

While they were not close before their chance encounter at the hospital, Sakura chooses him to accompany her on seemingly spontaneous trips out of town, mostly to restaurants. With her last days, Sakura has chosen to enjoy life, even if her wishes are capricious and  whimsical like booking a train trip and a hotel stay to visit  a food stall miles away just to sample a bun that is only prepared in that town. Haruki’s more straight-laced nature balks at these trips, but gradually he begins to loosen up, begrudgingly have some fun,  and to care for his new friend.


What caught my eye about the novel was its cover, and its depiction of Sakura and Haruki standing on a bridge beneath billowy, soft pink cherry trees in bloom with Japan’s famous cherry blossoms, sakurae. Sakura season in Japan is renowned. It is a time honored tradition for friends, loved ones, and couples to stroll under the pink blossoms and admire not only their iconic color, but the brevity of their bloom. The blossoms, which fall when they are in full bloom, have long been a symbol of the ephemeral nature of life itself.

Sakura’s name is symbolic, that she, like the blossoms, is destined to die at the ‘peak’ of life. However, in one of the many spirited conversations with Haruki that highlight their very different personalities, and make the book such a joy, she gives her own spin on her name. She recounts to Haruki that sakura blossoms choose a certain temperature to bloom, waiting for the precise moment of spring to do so every year. This, she says, reaffirms to her that life is defined by the choices one makes.

A Chance to Ponder

John Green’s Hazel argues with Shakespeare’s assertion that ‘the fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves’. She, and Augustus, didn’t ask for their diagnosis, for the disease that will inevitably end their lives. This quirk of random fate, to her, is very much at fault, and this passage gives the novel  its name. Sakura, another literary teenager living on borrowed time, sees life quite differently. She thinks that choices have led she and Haruki where they end up, as unlikely friends. His decision to return her book, Living With Dying, and their decision to get to know one another. Despite living with something she can’t control, her fatal pancreas ailment, Sakura sees life deterministically.

I think stories about those living with terminal illnesses strike a chord with readers because we contemplate how we would feel if we were in the characters’ shoes. Would we rail at fate, or seize the day? Would we turn to others, or become solitary? These questions give us a chance to ponder how we feel about life and how we have been living it, whether we take our days for granted or are living in line with the values, goals, dreams, passions and priorities we believe define us. 

My Verdict

Much of the book is a dialogue between two people with very different personalities, which is always a recipe for an enjoyable rom-com. I am a little bit Haruki and a little bit Sakura: I can be a bookworm who likes my own company in some settings, but I also share Sakura’s passionate belief that our relationships with other people help us feel alive and learn more about ourselves. She is a complex character, who is silly and mischievous, almost vexingly so at times, but also has strong opinions and convictions. After she dies in an unexpected way not related to her illness, the reader really sees how much she has changed Haruki’s life and brought him out of his shell. For the questions it raises about life and death, and  for its two well defined, relatable, and charming protagonists, I found this book a very beautiful reading experience!

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