Tuesday 23 March 2021

Anime REVIEW: Cells at Work! CODE BLACK

Cells at Work! CODE BLACK
Cells at Work! CODE BLACK is available in streaming form on Crunchyroll and Funimation

Cells at Work!
did a wonderful job of showing anime fans how the human body works, but of course bodies are not a “one size fits all” subject. We’re all different and how we choose to live affects what goes on inside us, which has allowed Cells at Work! to branch into a number of different manga spin-offs. There are ones centred around both a women and babies’ bodies, as well as titles that focus on specific cells such as platelets, white blood cells and even red bloods that don’t want to work. However there’s one spin-off that stands out from the rest of them, the one that was undoubtedly most deserving of an anime adaptation. Cells at Work! CODE BLACK is about what happens if you don’t treat your body right, and as a result is quite a different experience to the educational whimsy of its parent series. Released alongside Cells at Work!!, CODE BLACK instead sees Liden Films handling animation duties and ran for a total of 13 episodes.

White Blood Cell U-1196 and Red Blood Cell AA2153The Platelets

Inside the human body billions of cells are working hard to ensure everything works properly, but the lifestyles we live and outside influences we put into our body can have a huge effect on that. Whether it’s alcohol, smoking or the effects brought on by stress, these things put a huge strain on the body - making the cells’ jobs even harder. This is what the cells know as a “Code Black” environment.

Rookie red blood cell AA2153 is naive and idealist, ready to work hard and do his best for his body. But it isn’t long before he witnesses first-hand the harsh environment he will have to endure. Arteries clogged with cholesterol, carbon monoxide clouds from smoking, the constant threat of invading bacteria…these are just some of the obstacles he faces on an every day basis. Meanwhile white blood cell U-1196 fights to keep the body safe, but it’s beginning to feel like a losing battle. As more and more cells suffer and fall around them, what can these cells do to keep the body running?

Carbon Monoxide PoisoningGonococci infection

Even in the face of some of the worst things a human body could face, there’s a certain positivity to the original Cells at Work!. It’s colourful, fairly relaxed and the viewer constantly feels comfortably in the knowledge that nothing really bad will happen to our heroes. It’s an idealised picture of the human body, the most straightforward route to take when teaching about its biology. Cells at Work! CODE BLACK is none of these things. This is a hard-hitting series which doesn’t just try to teach viewers to take better care of their bodies, it actively tries to scare you into it. Scenarios are often presented at their very worst, with the cells we follow only narrowly saving the day by the end of the episode. But of course, the day isn’t saved because it isn’t long before another problem appears. These issues just constantly build up over the course of CODE BLACK, and so by the end of the series you have no idea whether it’s going to have a happy ending or not. Basic functions of the human body feel like a war the cells are fighting on a daily basis, and not one that they’re winning either.

Despite this stark change in tone CODE BLACK still functionally works like the original Cells at Work! though, albeit with a few tweaks. Each episode sees the body faced with a new problem, each of which can be seen as fairly episodic but build upon each other as the body begins to reach its breaking point. CODE BLACK also indulges in a number of gender swaps compared to the original series, perhaps in an attempt to further separate the two. AA2153 is presented as a male red blood cell, whilst U-1196 is a female neutrophil. Even the narrator, who frequently interjects to provide context and cold hard facts about the body, is male as opposed to female. It isn’t a straightforward gender swap in every aspect (the Platelets are still presented as young schoolgirls and the Killer T-Cells burly men), but it’s enough to give the show a slightly different flavour.

A Clogged ArteryA Killer T-Cell

That of course comes on top of the personality changes that come with living in such a harsh environment. The cells’ optimism and love for their work has gone, performing under such harsh conditions. CODE BLACK works effectively both as a harsh biology lesson and a not-too-subtle commentary on the capitalist market and its disregard for its workers. The message about looking after your body may still be at the forefront, but it’s a show with a lot of other things to say as well. Using liver functions as a way to prop up sex workers and respect it as a legitimate work stream is another aspect you don’t expect it to go down. CODE BLACK may be a “fun” bit of edutainment much like its parent show, but there are layers here that make it a considerably more intricate series overall.

Much like the first season of the main show, CODE BLACK centres around the day to day life of an average red blood cell. But whereas the main show mostly used her simply as a view point, CODE BLACK is careful to treat AA2153 as an actual character. When we first meet him he’s optimistic and incredibly dedicated to his work, admired by some but chastised by others. But as the series goes on we see this optimism slowly chipped away by everything going on around him. This is where the capitalism allegory really comes into play, as AA2153 works hard for little to no reward in a body that has no respect for him. When he finally reaches breaking point, the viewer really feels the severity of the situation as he’s the one character that’s remained positive throughout. Even as he’s abused by the cells he delivers oxygen to or repeatedly told the direness of the situation, previously he never gave up hope.

There’s also a much greater focus on the friendships AA2153 because of his more developed character. On top of the admiration and respect he has for U-1196, one of the most significant relationships in CODE BLACK is the one he has with fellow red blood cell AC1677. He might not be quite as diligent or dedicated to the work, but they rely on each other to get through this harsh environment and their friendship is the backbone of the show. Another key character to this is Gastric Chief Cell, a cell who once wanted to know the name of each and every cell he worked with but has become ill-tempered and aggressive after seeing so many cells die because of the body’s bad habits. When AA2153 is the cell he finally chooses to remember and recognise again, it’s a huge symbol of how this one red blood cell acts as a symbol of hope for so many others.

Red Blood Cell AC1677Gastric Chief Cell

CODE BLACK’s attempts to be an “edgier” version of the main show do have its negatives though, particularly in how over-sexualised this version feels in comparison. Whereas there’s nothing overly sexual about the character designs in the standard Cells at Work!, CODE BLACK chooses to portray its white blood cells as huge-breasted action girls and makes their cleavage very much the focal point of the majority of their scenes. In the interest of fairness the Killer T-Cells are also been made more muscle-bound (with equally bare chests) than their main series counterparts, but the camera gaze certainly isn’t on them like it is the Neutrophils. While I’m not one to object to fan service, it does feel a little out of place here when the tone is so serious.

Visually CODE BLACK isn’t quite as sharp as the main show but Liden Films certainly aren't slouching on this either, keeping the style extremely similar but giving it a darker edge which highlights the severity of the situation. Even little touches like making these red blood cells a darker shade of red speak volumes on the difference between the two bodies. The various tunnels and pathways throughout the body are littered with disgusting substances, whilst key organs are presented as urbanised nightmares rather than the smooth-working machines they are in the main series. It’s a bleak environment that’s the last place you’d want to live, and that’s what the show is presenting as being inside of you if you indulge in too many of these bad habits.

Another somewhat contentious point is the ending, which throws a curveball too many and inadvertently leaves the series on a sour note rather than the sequel hook it thinks it has. Both the penultimate and final episodes would have made the perfect conclusions to the show - the former a massive cliffhanger fitting to tone of the series and a shock that would stay with the viewer, and the latter a more positive ending that reminds you that it’s never too late to make a change for the better. If you’re opting for the latter, to then add to the characters’ suffering even more with a post-credits sequence feels like overkill. Not to mention there’s an element of implausibility to the scene (a heart-attack survivor who’s previously lived a seriously unhealthy lifestyle giving blood) that breaks the realism of the setting. “Realism” is an odd phrase to use about a series starring anthropomorphic cells, but it doesn’t feel in the same realms of believability the rest of CODE BLACK has.

The NeutrophilsA Hepatocyte

From beginning to end Cells at Work! CODE BLACK doesn’t hold anything back in telling you why you should be looking after your body, and the result is a masterful series that leaves one hell of an impact. Despite it’s positioning as Cells at Work!’s edgier spin-off, it arguably exceeds the qualities of main series when it comes to teaching its audience something - although arguably that message only hits as hard as it does after seeing the idyllic utopia that is the main Cells at Work! body. Airing this alongside the main show’s second season was a stroke of genius, because it really does highlight just how different our insides can be even if they do function the same way. If you’ve ever wanted an anime series to scare you into changing your life for the better, then Cells at Work! CODE BLACK is a lesson you won’t forget.

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