If you thought the body the cells inhabit in Cells at Work! had problems, that was nothing compared to the health issues experienced in Code Black, the darker, more adult spin-off series. The basic premise is the same, with anthropomorphised cells in the human body working hard to keep it alive and well, but this body is doing nothing to help himself. It’s a bleak work environment for the cells.
The first thing I noticed was the genders of the main characters are flipped, with male red blood cells delivering the oxygen and female white blood cells fighting the bacteria and viruses. The white blood cells wear revealing outfits, but otherwise this series is still mercifully free from fanservice, which would have been an odd fit for the subject matter. Our focus character is again a red blood cell who frequently meets the same white blood cell, and he is another rookie learning how to do his job, but he graduates to find a very different work environment to the one he was expecting. There aren’t enough workers, and nearly everyone is mean and unfriendly, simply because they are exhausted and realise they are fighting a losing battle, with things getting steadily worse and worse. Even the chief platelet is a grump. If you enjoyed the cuteness and fun of the parent series, you’ll find little of that here, but that doesn’t mean there’s an absence of hope altogether, because this is about doing your best. These cells can’t change what the body is doing to himself, but they can keep doing their jobs to the best of their abilities. While there’s life, there’s hope, and one day things might change. The tone is at times overwhelmingly bleak, but that glimmer of light is never completely lost.
The cells have to go through some horrific stuff though, and this is definitely not a series for the faint-hearted. A pulmonary embolism, for example, is represented by a huge ball of twisted bodies of dead red blood cells, and not all the main characters make it to the final episode. Coping with tragedy is a big part of the series, and it’s impressive how compellingly life’s challenges are represented by the lives of these anthropomorphised cells. Their hopeless working conditions could be seen as an exploration of the darker side of capitalism in poorer societies, and there is also a very uncomfortable sense of a broken generation passing on a broken world to their descendants, in the desperate hope that they will be able to make something of their fragile environment, which could be seen as a metaphor for the environmental problems we all face. The way people deal with overwork and stress is also a major theme, and we see the whole gamut of human responses to that kind of a situation, everything from the hepatocyte in the liver who puts on a brave face, to the gastric chief who snaps angrily at newcomers, but whose respect can still be earned by a resilient and hard-working cell.
The problems faced by the cells range from addictive substances such as alcohol and caffeine, to life-threatening events, culminating in a gripping finale with the body suffering a heart attack. The series does not shy away from adult-themed storylines, including erectile dysfunction, which is inevitably played for laughs to a certain extent, but never gratuitously, and we then see the consequences of the body overcoming the problem and going on to contract an STD. However, it’s the immediately life-threatening issues where this series really excels, as it’s an apocalypse scenario for the cells in the body, which makes for some very strong drama, if a little too bleak at times to make for enjoyable viewing. That is more than made up for by the excellent conclusion to the season at the end of a whirlwind couple of episodes, and the twist ending that allows for a possible continuation. I’m not sure I’m keen for another season, though. It feels like this premise has run its course, and there are other Cells at Work! spin-off manga that would be a better use of the studio’s time. An anime based on Cells at Work! Platelets! is a tantalising prospect, but the one I would most love to see would be Cells at Work! Baby!, which sounds like a huge amount of fun. This series and its spin-offs could run and run, and I think it should. It might be an odd concept, but it manages to be educational, while exploring all sorts of human dramas. We learn while being entertained and moved emotionally. How many shows can boast that? RP