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Can Anime Teach You Science?

by The Cartoon Cipher,

With 2021 coming close to the home stretch it's time to start reminiscing on the year as a whole. Back in winter, fans received three helpings of anime that made science a big part of their appeal: the second season of Cells at Work!, the spin-off season Code Black, and Dr. Stone's second season called Stone Wars. Anime that include some kind of educational or informative bent are nothing new, and it's down to their creators to do the research on the necessary topics to keep things at least somewhat immersive. Various series revolve around specific professions, periods of history, cultural movements, sports and yes, branches of science, that you're bound to learn anywhere from a little to a lot by the time you've finished watching. The three series we'll be discussing today in particular put science front-and-center in their branding. Cells at Work! anthropomorphizes the individual cells to give us an entertaining look at human biology, while Dr. Stone sets us on a long journey to resurrect civilization from scratch using The Power of Science. Obviously with things like the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for vaccination being a prominent part of everyone's lives (which one of these shows does indeed touch on), now might be a good time to compare how each of these anime gets you excited for science in its own unique way.

Continuing from where season 1 of Cells at Work! left off, season 2 tackles even more illnesses and how the cells work together to stop them. This anime presents these situations with some scientific accuracy, but then tries to work a conventional story around it. Some of these story structures are pretty recognizable, episode 4 begins with a Normal Cell who realizes he's never the one to save the day, getting none of the glory that the Immune Cells get. However he stumbles across some cute, pet-like bacteria that he can't help but hide and protect. In the end it turns out that these cute bacteria were lactic acid bacteria (what most of us call “good bacteria'') that are actually beneficial to the body. So in the end Normal Cell's dream of becoming a hero came true.

You can probably think of several other shows where this kind of scenario has played out for a character, but by tying these familiar stories to something as niche as microbiology, you might be more likely to remember the science if you can remember the characters' moments. And yes the series really does use conventional character development on these individual cells, whether it be a platelet who wants to become stronger, or white blood cells who give up their pride to lure some dangerous bacteria into a Peyer's Patch. Even in the episode where the show explains how vaccines work, it's just as much about the Memory Cell character and his comedic forgetfulness as it is about the science of acquired immunity. It's essentially putting a face to the name of a cell so you're more likely to remember it. Credit is also due to the exciting ways the anime visualizes these microscopic processes, with the aforementioned vaccines being showcased as an alien invasion followed by an intense shootout. The final battle itself sports some exciting animation and is treated about as seriously and epically as a scene from an action anime, which will no doubt pique the interest of fans of those shows, potentially getting them to take an interest in the science too.

However, something that kept popping up in the back of my mind while writing this piece was that these “edutainment” shows can only teach you so much. A show can only ever go so deep into any given subject without dragging on and detracting from the character drama that keeps people engaged to begin with. Sadly, learning science isn't always dissecting frogs and Bunsen burners: there's also a lot of formulae, atomic masses, and molecular structures to memorize. And to an extent that is true; at the end of the day the most complete way to learn about these topics is to do your own research or try it yourself. However, maybe there's some other things science anime can put into perspective.

Cells at Work! Code Black has the exact same premise as its parent series, however this time the body the cells inhabit is notably less healthy. As a result there's more dangerous malfunctions, opportunities for enemy bacteria to invade, and urgency to get any given job done. The subjects it tackles as well are more relevant to adults; there's alcoholism, sexually transmitted diseases, smoking, hair loss, caffeine addiction, and some desperate life-threatening situations. And it isn't simply the topics that take on this darker tone but the overall storytelling itself; while the original show features an almost idealized workplace, Code Black stars an initially bright-eyed Red Blood Cell who must come to grips with how unforgiving the world of work is.

The original manga author tried mapping the failings of the body onto real-world adult-life issues that you're more likely to relate to if, again, you are older and had to endure the grind yourself: having a tough job that offers little in return, having others take their anger out on you while you're working, smiling through the pain, drinking the stress away, jealousy at the career progress of others, having to go on as friends pass away, and generally having to live and work in an absurd world with no true light at the end of the tunnel. There's probably some social commentary on how the stresses and problems of the real world will replicate themselves within the adult human body itself. However the relative morbidity of Code Black might be able to inspire people to think about how they treat their body, though that's not to say it's just a guilt trip and nothing more. This is still Cells at Work! after all and the absurdity of personifying individual cells stops things from getting too nihilistic, while the narrator reins things in by clarifying the science in detached, plain language. The action, drama, and character relations offer an exciting way to imagine how our own bodies fight for our wellbeing.

Meanwhile, Dr. Stone has a slightly different way of getting you excited about science and the scientific method. All of humanity was spontaneously turned to stone one day, and it's only thousands of years later that boy-genius Senku Ishigami awakens to a world where civilization has long since crumbled away. The series follows Senku and his friends slowly reviving the inventions of modern civilization while also having to fight against the Tsukasa Empire, an anti-science faction that believes the science-driven world of old was full of corruption.

A big appeal of the series comes from seeing the characters construct modern inventions ranging from soap to ramen to gunpowder from the most basic natural resources. So the first question is: are they doing it accurately? According to former MythBusters member Kari Byron, Senku's science is actually solid for the most part, although there is a lot of convenience and hyperbole involved. The lightning rod they constructed in Season 1 was ridiculously lucky, the car's construction from Season 2 was greatly accelerated, and such a primitive battery could only hold so much electrical charge, to name a few. However I think a lot of Dr. Stone fans are willing to accept some of these inaccuracies, and in fact the series itself only has momentum because Senku seemingly has access to every scientific fact known to man in his brain, to the point that you could liken it to a superpower. However, while it has a lot of unrealistic elements, what makes Dr. Stone a compelling “science” anime is the philosophy behind it.

The main antagonist of the anime (so far) Tsukasa Shishio is dead-set on stopping the return of modern civilization and to that end, wants Senku dead. However in this season he explains that scientific advancement by itself is not his problem; he's fully aware that the tools he and his empire make use of involve science to some degree. What he wants is restraint; an image of a warzone appears on-screen during this speech, and its clear he sees these tools of science as indefensible and corrupt. In the previous season we've seen Senku use his scientific knowledge to help those suffering right in front of him and without going into spoilers, he does the same in Stone Wars. Despite that, it's very clear there's also a selfish side to his passion for science; he likes cool inventions and that's all there is to it. Even his hair is somewhat evocative of “mad scientists” but it's clear from the characters around him that science can also empower people or allow them to live better. This season in particular is the climax in this war of ideals between Senku and Tsukasa that's been building up since season 1. So while Dr. Stone may not be as directly informative with its factoids as Cells at Work!, the overall story is more about what scientific progress can mean to people on an emotional level, and I feel like that's an equally necessary part of appreciating why science is so important. It injects some of the slower, more tedious experiments with shōnen hype, and maybe that could get more people interested in them.

But those are just a few anime, there are many others from past years including the RailDex series which has an element of quantum physics to it. Not to mention zoology in Kemono Friends or Heaven's Design Team, bacteria in Moyashimon and others. As for the future of scientific edutainment anime, who can say, really? I remember when I was a kid finding out for the first time that the moon controls the tide, when Yugi told Giant Soldier of Stone to destroy the moon. Any adult could have explained it to me themselves but it's the power of anime that really got me interested! Some anime can teach you about sport, history, mind games, or even about yourself if you really think about it. I believe that anyone who loves an anime enough is bound to learn something from it, so there's plenty of possibilities for how the great science anime of the future will appeal to us.

(EDITORIAL NOTE: apologies, it appears I forgot to cover Heaven's Design Team which also aired that season, check it out if you want to learn about animals).

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