This Week in Anime
The Sick, Sad World of Cells at Work: CODE BLACK

by Jean-Karlo Lemus & Monique Thomas,

It's a hard life out there for a cell, especially when the body is breaking down around it! Cells at Work! Code Black takes the edutainment angle of the original and ramps up the drama when the host isn't isn't in peak condition. It's every cell for itself in This Week in Anime!

This series are streaming on Funimation

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network.
Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.

@Lossthief @mouse_inhouse @NickyEnchilada @vestenet

Nicky, this weekend wasn't great for me. I had to go to the hospital this Saturday because I came down with Shingles. See, Shingles is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox. If you had chickenpox as a kid, you're inoculated against getting it a second time, but the virus is still in you, laying dormant somewhere in your nervous system. Once you hit your sixties—or if you're an adult living under a particular amount of stress—you are vulnerable to an outbreak of the virus, which causes painful, itchy blisters to break out somewhere on your body that corresponds to where the virus is housed in your nervous system. There's a vaccine, but no real cure if you're younger than 60. So I've got this thing on my face and I have to be careful to not spread this virus that can cause chickenpox to other people.

So, let's talk about an anime about anthropomorphized cells struggling to carry out their biological functions in an overtaxed human's body. This is Cells at Work! Code Black.

As the title suggest, this is a spin-off series of Cells at Work!, the series where we use anime monster-of-the-week and disasters to teach people about the functions of the human body. While the original focuses on the basic functions of an average healthy body, this series focuses on what happens when the working conditions are less than ideal. Code Black isn't just used to indicate the darker and more adult tone though, it's actually referring to what is called a "Black Company" which is a working environment that exploits its workers to the extreme. We open to a rookie red blood cell's inauguration and quickly fall into horror at how bad the situation really is compared to what they were sold.
The mantra of "work until you die" is hammered in time and again as the series introduces cells of all stripes. It doesn't help that the entire body is in dire straights: fat buildup in the hallways/capillaries makes using handcarts tricky, smoking horrifyingly kills off other red blood cells, and the White Blood Cells are stretched as thin as their jackets.

Also, yeah, all of the White Blood Cells are depicted as buxom sword-carrying women. Anime™️.
Yeah, unlike Cells at Work! (Vanilla), the red blood cell and white blood cell's genders are totally reversed where all the RBC (for short) are male and all the WBC are female. The host body is also explicitly an adult male which isn't the case in the main series. But, all of this is to show the horror of working a terrible job under Late Capitalism and the toll it takes on not only our minds but also our bodies. While the main series is presented as all bright and optimistic, here we immediately descend into this kind of heavy tone. Everyone is tired and unfriendly to the point of hostility. Heck, even the Platelets are mean!
Ordinary cells constantly badger the RBCs because their oxygen supplies are too little, too late for their needs, and the cells tasked with helping the RBCs are stretched extremely thin. Where there would be class commentary over how the elite "organ" cells are better off than your rank-and-file types, even they don't have any kind of relief. If anything, theirs is a gilded cage.
Yeah, I really liked some of the creative licensing in this series with the different organs! The liver is portrayed as a red-light district host club where, after getting doused with alcohol, RBCs go to blow off steam to detox. AKA, we watch them drink to get sober.

But I also found it neat because, as Jean-Karlo stated, it's about how under capitalism, people in different industries still feel the same toll and that we should have empathy for others who work different jobs than us.
This toll can manifest in a lot of different ways, too. Some folks like the RBCs just mask their feelings and dive into their work until they self-destruct. Others like the Hepatocytes just put on a brave face and hope for the best. The Glomeruli, who filter toxins from the bloodstream (depicted here as a Japanese bathhouse where talking is strictly prohibited), bear their struggle in silence with the knowledge that nothing awaits them but death. The episode bitterly reminds us that glomeruli cannot be regenerated by the body.
Code Black often deals with a lot of adult subjects that the main series can't address but are still useful, and death is one of them. Ever wonder what happens when Red Blood Cells kick the bucket? Apparently, they get vored by this pretty lady!

So I guess that's something to look forward to after years of overwork.
Full credit to the Killer T Cell episode, where an executive order from a Helper T Cell sends the KTC into a murderous overdrive that devastates the hair follicles. When the KTC are forcibly subdued and informed that they are relieved of their duties... you'll have to forgive me, I don't know what to say in the face of someone breaking down in exhaustion like that.
While the show can seem like an exercise in misery at times, it's also why stuff like that is really cathartic. I think it has a pretty good understanding of the stress many people face when they don't have control of their environment anymore. But it's not all serious either, it also totes the line of being a Black Comedy.

The erection episode is probably the most an anime has made me laugh all year!
Oh boy. The erection episode.

I remember when Cells at Work! was airing, many people theorized one of the later episodes would reveal that the human body was female and undergo a pregnancy. It never happened, but Code Black shows us the other side of the equation: the body undergoes arousal and the RBCs have to help the corpus cavernosum expand in order to ensure an erection.
Aka, all the red blood cells have to clown-car their way down this metal vault representing the shaft in order to achieve sexy times. Our main RBC is nervous because of his inexperience but soon comes to the conclusion that he's doing the Lord's Work because all the effort is worth it if it's in the service of making sweet babies, right?
"Won't someone please think of the poor children floating around a pool in sperm-themed floaties?" asks 57th Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe, with tears in his eyes.
The whole episode is playing this completely seriously but it's definitely meant to be tongue-in-cheek as we, the audience, know that most people use sex for recreation rather than reproductive purposes. But it's a pretty fun way to show something as mundane as a boner.

We also get to see neat versions of common medicines, like this little blue pill meant to help with erectile dysfunction.
We should point out that Cells at Work! Code Black's mangaka has experience with writing stories based around the groin-ular area: writer Shigemitsu Harada was best known for that enduring classic, Ore Tama, about a man who has a demon lord sealed into his testicles and has to refrain from ejaculating for a month lest he cause the end of the world.
Translator Note: "Ore Tama" means "My Balls!"

It's actually an ecchi series I have lingering fondness for as it's about as funny and weird as it sounds. I didn't actually know he worked on Code Black until the anime came out but it definitely makes sense. Though knowing that background and the WBC's umm....character design.... also made me feel pretty weary as well.
It doesn't help that the very next episode after The Boner Episode™️ (an episode archetype I quickly expect to become a hallowed institution similar to The Beach Episode™️ and The Hot Springs Episode™️), the WBCs have to deal with Gonorrhea.

Which. Y'know. Of course. As you do.
When the first volume of the manga came out in English, I heard all kinds of content warnings from folks who had bought it expecting a fun time. So naturally when this got announced everyone was dreading the animated version of the Gonorrhea chapter. As bad as some of these stills are though, I'm actually relieved to say that this is a more "toned-down" version of events.
This episode manages to have a degree of dignity. But if it's meant to demonstrate the main RBC's growth of a backbone, as well as the main WBC's interest in him, it definitely does help. And the pus speech is even kinda poignant.
I feel like it has kind of the same conceit as the liver episode, in that other people judge the WBCs without understanding what it is that they do or what they sacrifice for the sake of everyone else, and in return they're offered very little emotional support. WBC has given RBC emotional support in her own stoic way, so this is the time where he really returns the favor.
It turns out basic empathy towards your fellows is the one thing that makes living in late capitalism worth it.
Also he causes a distraction just long enough for outside reinforcements aka PENICILLIN to kick in and defeat the enemy by taking away their shielding.

Seems like this body would be pretty toast if it weren't for the invention of that good ol' modern medicine, eh?
Steroids to keep the Killer T Cells in check, Viagra to ensure 57th Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe's will be done, penicillin to cure gonorrhea—come to think of it, isn't there an increase of penicillin-resistant gonococci? How interesting would it be to see a case where antibiotics didn't work because overuse has lead to bacteria gaining resistance against them, but then the body tries bacteriophage and the WBCs have to work with bacteria-killing bacteria because as it turns out, bacteria can have protection against phages or antibiotics but not both?

...I watched a lot of Discovery Channel as a kid, shut up.
Though, likewise, we also see a lot of cell-solidarity in times of crisis or turmoil. Particularly interesting are the sacrifices from older cells—the old generation giving their everything for the sake of the new generation finding a better future. Even in the first episode RBC's sempai sacrifices himself to a smoke-filled room for the sake of the rookie, much to our protagonist's dismay.
It's definitely a tragic way to start the series: an older generation, passing on a ruined world they couldn't have saved if they tried, knowing that all they can really do is hope their descendants can somehow make the best of it.
Well, I don't really think the situation is for lack of trying on the part of anyone, it's just that they don't know anything other than to just tough it out, even if it's ultimately a self-destructive way to be.

After all, even if all the cells in your body scream at you, they're not necessarily going to stop you from eating junk, drinking, and smoking. It's extreme even compared to people at the top unable to hear the voices of the workers at the bottom.
Speaking of the bottom!

The kidney stones was a good showcase episode for me, demonstrating Code Black's use of CG. It applies a sketch filter over some of the characters to make it look like they have pencil shading, and some crowd shots use CGI models in what is an increasingly common practice in the industry. Also: ow. Ow. OW. This episode hurts to look at.
I've never had a kidney stone but I totally believe that it HURTS BAD and this ep made me feel it. Also yeah, the production has been pretty good so far. I enjoy the sketchy-filter making everything feel denser, and they make a lot of the bacterium look extra scary!!

Even villains we see from the previous series feel MUCH more of a threat.

The kidney episode is also neat because it's an example of modern medicine backfiring and putting the body at risk after a medical procedure leads the way to infection.
It's poignant because after showing what happens to the WBCs who fall in the line of duty (courtesy of the Gonococci), it shows us what happens to RBCs who are lost to calamity.
I think it helps that the direction has also been generally pretty good; the premiere and the erection episode are particularly strong, which helped shake off some of my apprehensions about the Osmosis Jones Anime being made extra edgy.
The subject matter definitely could have been handled really, really badly. But as said with the Gonorrhea episode—a phrase I never thought I'd say in my life—the show has a degree of dignity about itself.
There are certainly a lot of aspects to this show that aren't for everyone. The STI episode still has the WBCs brutalized in a somewhat sexual manner that I wouldn't jump to call tasteful, but the pans were quick enough that it didn't bother me and the writing succeeded in making me feel bad for them in a way that's not just about watching the poor microscopic anime girls in your blood suffer.
The show is also only halfway through, so who knows if it'll decide to go turbo-gross in the latter half. Knock on wood, it doesn't.
That's true, but I was also touched by some of the other forms of humanity presented in the show. Even though none of the characters have a true solution to their problem, we see them finding ways to relieve stress simply by allowing themselves to be emotionally honest. Because the biggest problem isn't just the stress, but the lack of healthy outlets to release it. Everything the body does is just another way of trying to take the edge off, though, at a price.
I appreciate that even though the main RBC's mentors impress upon him that his best course of action is to just deny his emotions and work until he drops, he... does the opposite, encourages others to do the same, and manages to handle things well enough to earn the respect of his peers.
The story can also be a much-needed wake-up call to some. I've known lots of people who've worked tiring dead-end jobs, fallen to addiction, or otherwise just stopped taking care of themselves. As someone with a disability, I'm not always the healthiest person myself, but I know the consequences when you stop paying attention to the needs of your body. I hope seeing all the little guys scramble around like it's a post-apocalypse will help inspire some to make an effort to acknowledge that.
Considering how many people took to improving their diet for the sake of the cute little platelets in their blood, someone somewhere must have thought that an army of buxom white blood cells would work better for the other crowd. So there's that, too.
There's a big reason why the first episode deals with the effects of smoking. Smoking in Japan, and most of other parts of Asia, is so widespread that the Japanese hadn't even banned smoking inside restaurants until last year! It's especially common among businessmen. But like, I wonder how many people would even consider taking a whiff of their favorite tobacco after seeing stuff like this?
Our batch of episodes ended with the next one being about caffeine, apparently—I can only imagine what horrors await our poor cells in that one.
Hopefully, it's not something that is going to keep you up at night! Ba Dum Tssh

Bad puns aside, make sure to eat well and rest well, everyone. We're cheering for you!

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