Kodansha USA’s Cells at Work! has become one of the more popular, science-driven shows in the English-dubbed anime world of 2021, owing to the quirky characterization of several types of human cells and how the stories logically progress from one episode to another. Cells at Work! has two seasons and a spin-off (Code Black) that features human cells trying to survive what the show terms’ BLACK conditions.’ Code Black has a much grimmer storyline and showcases multiple diseases like athlete’s foot, gonorrhea, kidney stones, gout, and eventually concluding in a myocardial infarct. The charm of Cells at Work! lies not only in the anthropomorphism of the human cell types, but also the moral dilemmas apparent in some of the episodes.
Seasons one and two of Cells at Work! feature medical conditions that are mostly unavoidable, such as getting a bump on the head or getting mumps. Code Black however, takes a completely different route and veers away from unavoidable conditions to avoidable ones. Of particular interest in Code Black is the codification of contemporary health virtues such as avoiding alcohol and tobacco, and the fatalistic work ethic of “working until the end,” which is typical of the ideological discipline of modern Japanese society. Owing to the fact that the anime is textually dense, we shall attempt to shine a light on some of its more interesting aspects by analyzing the vehicles used in the show to convey its logos, or at the very least, the ideological mapping that allows us to understand why it ‘makes sense’ to represent the human body not merely as a body with organs and their subordinate units, but as a collection of cities and towns that serve as oases of organic mechas.
In the beginning was the Body
Not surprisingly, there is nothing beyond the human body in Cells at Work! The human body is its Universe – the source of all truth, motion, mission and the raison d’être of the cells. The anthropomorphic cells exist to keep the body alive, and in turn, they remain alive. Their sole purpose is to exist, in order to work. To not work is death. The universe of the cells makes it easier to drive home the message that work is literally life, the true oxygen to starved cells and the larger metropolises of tissues and organs. The age of the cells alludes to the age of the body.
In the first and second seasons, the shōjo, Red Blood Cell AE3803 is not exactly tabula rasa, but is clumsy and lost enough in the clinical precision required of red blood cells to function ‘like other adult red blood cells.’ Other red blood cells are often featured as a group or unit. Only Red Blood Cell AE3803 is given any real airtime, and of course, White Blood Cell U-1146. Her youth necessitated the presence of another cell who was more mature and knowing – White Blood Cell U-1146, from the Neutrophil Division. White Blood Cell U-1146’s “tall and quiet” demeanor makes Red Blood Cell AE3803 blush at times, which appears to be simply a convenient thing to do, since the characters are human-like, but never truly and fully human, despite their origins.
Of shōjos and femme fatales
For the purpose of a closer examination, perhaps there is no better contrast than some of the shōjo that Studio Ghibli’s Miyazaki Hayao helped create. Spirited Away’s Chihiro Ogino is just as inquisitive as Red Blood Cell AE3803, but as a red blood cell, she can only witness various events and functions of other cells, specifically the work of defense cells such as white blood cells and macrophages. Chihiro Ogino literally travels between worlds in search for her parents, and risks everything (bodily and spiritually) to finish her mission. Red blood cells on the other hand, are concerned only with the natural machineries that make trillions of cells a working body and the role of oxygen. This is one of the narrative limitations of the first two seasons of the show, which changes in the spin-off.
The great advantage of red blood cells, at least in the scope of the show’s narrative/s, is they get to see everything from the brain to the big toe. They are needed everywhere as they carry oxygen and therefore, they are also ideal vessels for the show’s plot. Since cells are functionally rigid, season one and two present monotonous personalities for everyone. The show presents a series of sketches in each episode to make medical concepts more digestible and to reinforce the idea that any deviations from the primal design will immediately result in chaos. What’s fascinating however, is still the choice of presenting the characters as teenage and adult humans that are capable of conversing and expressing human emotions.
Therefore, Cells at Work! was creating a direct association between the society of humans and the cellular societies driven by nature’s grand design. This puts Cells at Work! at a conundrum—are these cellular societies ideal representations of human society at large, or is the text a caricature of human interactions with one another, and the world they are thrown into? Much like people, the main characters of the show exhibit moments of existential dread.
In Code Black, the spinoff leaves the shōjo behind and instead opts for a young male red blood cell, AA2153. Again, it is not surprising that the second protagonist, White Blood Cell U-1196 is a samurai-wielding femme fatale with a most generous bosom, which, according to this universe, will cause red blood cells to blush and stutter.
Cells at Work! Code Black is more focused on the idea of a body demanding the best work from its cells despite horrendous working conditions—clogged arteries, smoking, lack of sleep, caffeine addiction, among other things. Code Black no longer focuses on the wonders of physiological organization and nature’s grand design. The spin-off focuses on themes that would have otherwise been ‘inappropriate’ for a show that was viewed as being light, fascinating and educational. Textually, Code Black is far grittier. While Code Black does not relinquish the scientific backdrop, its sketches are more concentrated on the after-effects of a life being lived. The show avoids direct/overt references to the owner of the body, but eventually AA2153 loses it in CODE BLACK: E11, where he picks up a piece of plumbing to strike the crumbling tissue: “Please do something about this hellish environment!” AA2153 presumably knows that doing so will send pain to the body, and perhaps that would make the body improve the working conditions.
The mechas inside
Neither Code Black or the original two seasons of Cells at Work! would be possible without science fiction themes and the inversion of the concept of mecha. (Napier 2016) Instead of lending strength to the human body through the fusion of organic tissue and technology, the Body-Universe is transformed into a boundless source of miraculous mecha systems, where each cell corresponds to a much larger network of organic machinery that relies solely on oxygen, nutrients and other organic compounds and substances. It is this idealization of the human body that creates the necessity for the ‘altar of health,’ where the show preaches about the risks of caffeine, nicotine and alcohol, and cites ‘acts for naught’ like masturbation for libidinal management.
The theme of “tiny mechas” is extended numerous times whenever medical interventions become necessary. Antibiotics and steroids are represented as cycloptic robots with precision weapons that identify targets quickly.
In season two of Cells at Work!, the mecha universe is enriched with the fusion of fantasy and science fiction. In S2:E6, lactic acid bacteria are depicted as fluffy and adorable creatures—similar to the creatures that serve as pets in manga, anime and now widespread online RPG games. As tradition states, the lactic acid bacteria are viewed as an essential good (but they are still bacteria) and they help return the digestive system to its normal state after battling with both pathogenic bacteria and ‘neutral’ or opportunistic bacteria ‘who side with whichever side is winning.’ The show’s swipe at opportunistic people is quite visible, which makes the tales more endearing and understandable to viewers.
What’s a more essential reading of the mecha theme in Cells at Work! is the vulnerability of the characters as they struggle to operate the complex organic machineries that make the Body so perfect and ideal in the first place. The Sisyphean complex of AA2153 in Code Black, as well as other red blood cells, puts into question the necessity of labor and questions of free will in a universe where free will does considerably apply to the protagonists and the supporting characters. There is a memorable scene in Code Black S1:E8 where a large ball of dead red blood cells moves at deadly speed upon the reactivation of the muscles in the calves. The premise is certainly flawed insofar as we look at how red blood cells have so far been moving within venous and arterial systems.
Since the first season, red blood cells have always been walking like humans, and they struggle against gravity and the conditions of the blood vessels all day long. However, in the eight episode (Calves, Pulmonary Embolism and Quick Thinking), a massive and heavy ball of red blood cells moves on its own, without the need for anyone to transport them—and these are supposedly dead red blood cells, too. If increased blood pressure can convey a massive clot to the lungs in record time, then why do individual red blood cells and other cells like Killer T-Cells and White Blood Cells have to walk all the time at human pace?
Ultimately, Cells at Work! explosively crashes together the concepts of universal order and human survival—that everything is guided by a disembodied voice (ideology) and there can be no life with this source of logos. Whether people accept the virtues of a healthy Body or not, matters little to the Platonic intent of Cells at Work!, which is to present the shadow of an ideal Body-Universe, where everyone can live for as long as they can, while fulfilling other rules of existence.
Napier, S. (2016). Anime From Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle (p. 86). New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Marius D. Carlos, Jr.
Marius D. Carlos, Jr. is a storyteller, essayist, and journalist. He is an independent researcher focused on transnational capitalism, neocolonialism, empire, and pop culture. Contact him for writing projects. Visit Marius’ profile on Minds, MeWe, and Twitter. Email Marius: email@example.com.