The Winter 2021 Preview Guide
Cells at Work! Code Black
How would you rate episode 1 of
Cells at Work! Code Black ?
What is this?
A newbie Red Blood Cell is one of 37 trillion working to keep this body running. But something's wrong! Stress hormones keep yelling at him to go faster. The blood vessels are crusted over with cholesterol. Ulcers, fatty liver, trouble (ahem) downstairs... It's hard for a cell to keep working when every day is a CODE BLACK!
How was the first episode?
Cells at Work! is a charming little edutainment series that I feel everyone that's “in the know” about anime has heard of by this point, and for good reason: It's great! When I first heard about the Cells at Work! Code Black spinoff, I was at once curious about and wary of what the formula would gain from getting all grimdark by focusing on the innerworkings of an unhealthy body. Would the show lose its identity in the pursuit of shocking gore and titillation? Or would it find a way to take its premise to delightfully schlocky new heights by boldy going to all of the nasty places that Osmosis Jones wished it could have gone back in its day?
The answer, at least so far as this premiere goes, feels like “A little of Column A, a little of Column B”, though I'd say the scales ultimately fall in CODE BLACK's favor. I think some of the pure, fun energy of the show is lost in translation, not necessarily because of all the boobies n' bloodshed, but because of how bleak the setting of this new human host is. Red Blood Cell AA2153 just want to do his dang job and deliver some oxygen to the body, but the ill-effects brought on by their hosts' incredibly poor lifestyle choices have turned the Cells at Workiverse into a dystopian backwater. Everyone is miserable, disillusioned, exhausted, and most of the extras we meet die horribly at the hands of carbon monoxide poisoning and other beasties. The one noble sacrifice comes when the senior Red Blood Cell transforms himself into his Ultimate Hemoglobin Form to get the oxygen to the brain, and it's a bittersweet end indeed. As pro-health propaganda, I'd say it's pretty darned effective, and the story mines the tropes of bloody action anime well enough. It's just kind of a bummer, you know?
If anything, I think the series would benefit from committing even more to its M-for-Mature excess. I was kind of disappointed to see that the series is apparently rated TV-14. The White Blood Cell's absurdly explosive bust feels more out-of-place when the rest of the characters still come off as relatively normal, and while there was plenty of blood and carnage to be had, I was hoping for some straight-up 80s-OVA levels of ultraviolence. If we cranked the dial up to the “Genocyber” or “Devilman” ranges, I think I would personally be able to revel in the camp a lot more. As it is, CODE BLACK's still looks to be an interesting companion piece to the main series, but I don't think it will be supplanting the original Cells at Work! any time soon.
The body where the original Cells at Work! takes place may have been accident-prone, getting food poisoning, heatstroke, and bonking their head so severely that they need a blood transfusion, but at least they were healthy. Everything was in working order, making it possible for everyone to do their jobs comfortably, fight off infection, and recover from injuries.
Not everyone lives like that; in fact, one could argue that relatively few do. Most people have a vice or two, and live under the kind of stress that can take a toll on how the body functions. Some people live under conditions that seriously threaten their health on a daily basis. For those people, perhaps Cells at Work! Code Black is a more accurate representation of their cellular functions.
It's a fascinating visualization of an unhealthy body as opposed to a healthy one. There's an implication that the poor cells here are struggling to survive in the body of an employee at a “black” company known for overwork, and the effects of their unhealthy lifestyle ripples through every one of their systems. Chronic lack of sleep, heavy drinking, poor diet, and smoking make every day a struggle just to survive in this world. The wear-and-tear comes through not just in how stressed the cells are, but in small things like how run-down the city is, and the ordinary cells complaining about not getting enough oxygen. The animation, this time by LIDEN FILMS instead of David Production, is a bit grittier and textured, as suits the setting, and the action is strong as always.
At least in my corner of anime fandom, Cells at Work! Code Black kind of has a negative reputation. Its embrace of a darker, more adult tone means it indulges in a lot of skeezier, more sexualized imagery in a way that's not exactly… tasteful. There's not actually a whole lot of that in this episode, other than the white blood cells having their sizable tits on display, so I'm not going to dock it points on that this time. However, it's probably worth being ready because I don't doubt it's coming sooner or later, and probably sooner rather than later.
Okay, time to come clean here: I never finished the first season of Cells at Work!. I know, I know, it was a big highlight from the summer it aired that a lot of people liked, but something about its particular mix of edutainment and comedy just didn't mesh with me. Maybe it's just lingering disdain for Ozzy & Drix, who knows? But despite my apathy towards its older sister series, I was pretty excited when CODE BLACK was announced for an anime adaptation. Taking all the biological and anatomical trivia of the franchise, but mixing it with a darker and more cynical humor sounded like exactly the formula for getting these cells to work for me.
As for this episode, it looks like I was right on the money. While both shows are playing in the same wheelhouse of anthropomorphizing bodily processes, CODE BLACK adds the swerve that instead of the relatively functional and healthy body of the original, it takes place in a stress-riddled, slowly collapsing wreck of a person that has been on a steady decline for years. Thus the normally straightforward and rewarding work of even a single Red Blood Cell turns into a dangerous, exhausting ordeal that not all of them survive. The comparison the show invites the most is to that of “Black” companies, a term used to denote notoriously exploitative and unhealthy workplaces that can drive their employees to the brink through sheer overwork.
That's a pretty dark turn, even before you get to all the smoke-poisoned zombie cells and murderous bacteria in the back half of the episode, and that particular bent is honestly what makes this work for me. Just turning a body into a warzone is the obvious way to make a “dark” version of Cells at Work!, but CODE BLACK's take creates a meaningful parallel between our protagonist Red Blood Cell and the body he works to keep running. The ending punchline that this episode's crisis is caused by the body going back to smoking after a decade on the wagon is particularly bleak, and the way the episode fades out without even the semblance of a silver lining is probably the best way it could have ended.
Obviously this particular take won't be for everybody, and I'm sure it'll come off as at least a little too grimdark for people smitten with the original dynamic of CaW, but sometimes you're just in the mood for some pitch-black humor, and that's where I'm at right now. That said there are a few jokes and changes that don't really work for me, like the sheer amount of boob jiggle given to this body's White Blood Cell. Maybe the body's in such bad shape they can't afford proper sports bras, but that cannot be comfortable in a fight. Though any misgivings are forgiven for the brilliant stroke of casting Kenjiro Tsuda and his gravelly cadence as the informative narrator this time. If you also would like to experience the voice of a grizzly yakuza teaching you middle-school biology, then CODE BLACK is the show for you.
Cells at Work! is all grown up, and it seems to have picked up some bad habits. Cells at Work! Code Black is a much grimmer show than the one it's spun-off from – taking place in the body of an adult (man, as we later find out in the source manga), the cells are no longer happy worker bees in a beautifully maintained body. Instead there are obvious signs of corrosion and deterioration, and all of the cells are stressed and unhappy, well aware that they're fighting a losing battle to keep the body alive. I'm not sure if it was brilliant or unfortunate to have this debut in the year of COVID-19, but either way, it's here to make a point.
It's definitely not subtle on that front, but it does play with the meaning of its title in a good way. In Japanese, a “black company” is one that operates rather like a sweatshop, with punishing conditions, abusive employers, and an all-around unhealthy work environment. Black is also a color not often associated with healthy tissue or things that are in a safe condition to be around – black mold, for example, or the color of lungs damaged by smoking. Therefore the “Code Black” in the title refers to both the unhealthy condition of the body our cells find themselves in and the work culture they're forced to labor under, with the implication being that an unhealthy body leads to unhealthy other habits.
We can see that demonstrated throughout the episode, which opens with a deceptively rosy picture being painted for newly fledged red blood cells. The Red of this series, AA-2153, is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and the difference between what he was led to expect from the training video he was shown and the reality of his situation hits him hard. His character design paints him as young and naïve, especially when we see his senpais on the job – they're older, more haggard, and paler than any of the red blood cells in the main series. They're clearly run down by their lives, angry or actively repressing their feelings…possibly like the owner of the body they work in.
As a scare tactic, I could see this being pretty effective – there are definitely PSA overtones to the whole episode. It doesn't feel right to say that that's the series' sole purpose, but there's definitely an older intended audience here, with the sunny female narration eschewed in favor of a grim male voice and white blood cells now represented as busty women barely fitting in their uniforms. I can't see this being as universally appealing as plain old Cells at Work!, but it is an interesting twist on the core concept, provided the pandemic hasn't sapped your taste for medical horror.
First off, unlike the sequel series, Code Black is standalone. While clearly meant to stand in contrast to the main series, this spinoff does not require any familiarity with the main series in order to be fully understood and appreciated.
While the original Cells at Work! did deal with many crises to the body, all of its events were based on the functioning of a normally-healthy body that went awry. Thus I sometimes felt that it was missing a golden opportunity to explore what happens when the body is unhealthy in base form. This spin-off fills that gap. Rather than a properly-functioning body, new Red Blood Cell AA2153 finds himself working in one that is likely overweight, definitely stressed, and plagued by both a bad diet and a return to smoking after several years off. In other words, it's a body that is overall on a decline, with no end to the decline in sight. And that makes for a world of difference.
One of the things I most loved about the original series was how creative it was in interpreting the realities of the body into the form of a large factory town. That creativity shows equally well here. The first signs of trouble are the worn spots in the hallway as AA2153 and his fellow new recruits are leaving the training room, and this just goes downhill. Signs of wear and tear are everywhere, corridors are being clogged by clumps of bad cholesterol, the fans and vents in the lungs are filthy, and everyone seems to be irritable – except for the guy with the empty smile on his face because he's locked down his emotions to get through the day. Even the sweet little platelets have a crabby leader. This is a beautiful representation of how the stress of the body is affecting each of the body's components, while also effectively equating the conditions in the body to working for a so-called “black” company. Overall, this presents a stark contrast to the main series, which was doubtless the intent. To further that contrast, the genders of the central characters are reversed here; Red Blood Cell is male and the White Blood Cell whom he encounters is a quite busty female who wears her overalls in cleavage-baring fashion. It is also at least as bloodily graphic as the original, if not more so. Technical merits are every bit as solid as the original as well.
The attitude here may be much darker, but that's fine. This is a solid complement to the original series.
discuss this in the forum (324 posts) |
this article has been modified since it was originally posted; see change history