1 Litre of Tears: Heartwarming, Tearjerking,
but Somehow Still Fun

by mo on 12/19/2009

You need to cry. This is so sad. Cry now, dammit. Are you seriously that heartless a bastard? If you don’t cry during this episode, *I’m* going to cry. This music cue should make you cry. I see those tears welling up. No? Please cry? Pretty please? With cherries on top? I’ll be your best friend if you cry… I’ll give you a foot massage…? Fine, be that way.

I felt like the drama 1 Litre of Tears was taunting me as such, every time I watched an episode.

But this show has reason to make you cry: based on the 1986 book by Aya Kito, 1 Litre of Tears tells the story of a 15-year old girl, Aya, diagnosed with 脊髄小脳変性症 (sekizui shounou henseishou, or Spinocerebellar ataxia), a neurological disease that leaves her mind intact but gradually robs her body of the physical ability to walk, talk, and eat by herself. The show focuses on Aya’s family and close friends, and how the disease affects their lives. Aya writes a diary for the entire duration of her illness, which helps her come to terms with the illness and reach out to her friends, family, and eventually a following of readers when her diary is published.


By the time we meet Aya (played by Sawajiri Erika) and her adorable, wholesome family, her body is already acting up a bit. She drops things too much, she falls on her face, she spaces out during basketball games and loses her depth perception. Aya is supposed to be a typical 1st year high school student with good grades, two BFFs, and a senpai-love interest. She helps out in her dad’s tofu shop, makes peace between her rebellious younger sister, Ako, and the parents, and helps look after her younger two siblings. Mom starts noticing Aya’s acting funny, takes her to the doctor (Fujiki Naohito) and finds out what’s wrong before anyone else has begun to catch onto the fact that Aya isn’t just a klutz.

And then there’s Asou-kun. Played by Nishikido Ryo, this boy is the son of a doctor at the local hospital, and, to his father’s dismay, Asou-kun has no aspirations of becoming a doctor himself. Traumatized by his older brother’s death, Asou-kun spends his time in bio club tending to the turtles, avoiding human relationships. People all die anyway, he says, and he doesn’t care. However, he seems to keep ending up in the right place at the right time to help Aya out, and gradually a bond forms between them. He helps her up when she falls, knocking over a whole rack of bicycles. He runs to get her in the rain after she’s stood up for a date by a guy (basketball-senpai) who can’t handle the whole “girl in the hospital” thing. Eventually, Asou-kun’s attachment to Aya helps him overcome the death of his brother. His dad, however, is vehemently opposed to their romance as he doesn’t want his son to get attached, as it will inevitably lead to pain — Asou-kun’s dad goes as far as blatantly telling Aya’s mom that he doesn’t want his son anywhere near her daughter. Of course, Asou-kun’s relationship with Aya does finally inspire him to study medicine like dad always wanted.

Asou-kun, telling Aya how he has a deadly disease. Not long to live. HA JUST KIDDING. What an ass. Good use of foreshadowing though, 1-Litre.

What I like about the pace of this show is that once Aya gets sick, her condition doesn’t deteriorate very quickly. They choose not to focus on watching her get very sick, and instead to center the show around the psychological impact of the disease.

Here were a couple of things that kept creeping up on you throughout 1-Litre (some people would call these “themes” I suppose):

You can’t actually keep this disease under wraps.
The number of characters who had to “figure out” what was wrong with Aya was kind of astounding. Aside from her neurologist (who should really be the only one who has to diagnose her), Aya herself isn’t told about the disease for weeks. Why does she have to take these strange pills every day, she wonders. She bets it’s not just for her dizziness. Mom also keeps the news from Dad, Aya doesn’t tell anyone at school, no one ever tells Asou-kun (but luckily he has a full library of medical books at home so he can figure out exactly what’s going on by himself). Possibly worst of all, Aya and her parents don’t tell her other siblings for an extremely long time, leaving Ako especially feeling even more hurt, annoyed, and untrusted in her family than usual. Pretty bad dynamics going on with all this secrecy.

The illness is not Aya’s fault. Or her mom’s fault.
This kind of should go without saying, but the show spent an incredible amount of time, effort, and metaphor showing us that no one in Aya’s family is responsible for her illness. She was an otherwise healthy girl, Mom always put plenty of effort into her daughter’s health and nutrition, etc etc. However, there was this subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) implication coming from everyone in the community that the disease was Mom’s fault, or at the very least, Aya was getting worse because Mom was holding a job, instead of being a housewife and looking after her children full-time (side note: the two-parent income in this family seemed to be mostly possible because Aya’s dad ran the tofu shop out of their home, and generally was far more involved in his kid’s lives than the average household.) 1 Litre of Tears certainly tried to emphasize that Aya was not, in fact, sick because Mom works.

Meiwaku is kinda bullshit.
Once Aya gets sick, she has to rely on others a lot more than she is used to – causing them a lot of meiwaku (basically “trouble” or “inconvenience”). Her friends help her walk to class, her parents drive her up to the school building (which virtually never happens at Japanese high schools), she has to borrow her friend’s notes, etc. etc. She starts to see her life as a big inconvenience to other people, and constantly keeps saying that she doesn’t want to trouble them (meiwaku kakechau to omou kedo…) but can’t get by without help with this and that. Aya suffers some massive guilt, and criticism from the community (especially the PTA at school) that she is just causing a lot of meiwaku and the school shouldn’t be expected to deal with it. Mom begs the other parents to give Aya a break for a little while longer, because she loves her school, but soon even the kids turn on Aya as well in a classroom-wide bitchfest behind Aya’s back, led by a girl who is jealous of Aya’s relationship with Asou-kun. She interrogates Aya’s two bffs, one who has undying loyalty to Aya, but the second cracks under the pressure, saying that she does things for Aya because they’re friends, but sometimes it’s so stressful, and… while everyone else (including the teacher) sits with downward-cast eyes, Asou-kun hits the desk, stands up, and tells them to stop being such hypocrites. If you’re so bothered by Aya’s condition, stop going out of your way to help her. If she’s just meiwaku like you say behind her back, don’t go on pretending and telling her it’s okay day after day. You people make Asou-kun sick.

It was an epic speech. Bravo.

Asou-kun and Aya

All the actors did a fab job, and most of them are incredibly famous today (the parents, the kids, the doctor, etc.) Nishikido Ryo is a smashing success doing the jdrama/popstar thing, and then there’s always Sawajiri Erika (Aya), who went onto play another sick girl in Taiyo no Uta, and, in later years, became the center of the infamous “betsu-ni” PR incident (Japanese girl celebs looking pissed and “whatever”-ing the interviewers don’t go over so well!)

Overall, I’m not sure this drama deserves quite the credit it is always given. It was touching, it was sad, it was fun, it always made me want to watch another episode, but it’s not one of the top 5 shows I have seen. What gives? It’s near the top of almost all drama lists I’ve seen. Hmm. Perhaps it’s the fact that it’s a true story? Or perhaps the fans are just especially vocal? To those of you who enjoyed this drama over almost all others, what made it so moving for you?

Oh yeah, and about the crying…
In the end, it wasn’t the disease, it wasn’t the wonderfully portrayed tragic family that got me. It was a badly-scrawled love letter, breaking Asou-kun’s well-protected-yet-unmistakably-soft heart. A litre of tears all around!