Saturday 13 March 2021

Anime REVIEW: Cells at Work!!

Cells at Work!! (Season 2)
Cells at Work!! is available in streaming form on Crunchyroll and Funimation

Anime was probably the last place people expected to get a decent biology lesson in 2018, but then Cells at Work! came along and surprised everyone. The anime adaptation of the manga series by Akane Shimizu (which completed its original run earlier this year) captured the hearts of people across the world, with real doctors even taking the time to comment on its accuracy. Since then it’s been a rather lengthy wait for more, but 2021 saw the show finally return for a second season - this time (and in typical anime second season fashion) adopting the name Cells at Work!!. David Production are once again handling animation duties, and interestingly the show is also running concurrently with the “unhealthy body” spin-off Cells at Work! CODE BLACK.

Red blood cell AE3803Neutrophil U-1146

Inside the human body our cells are working hard to ensure that everything runs smoothly, and it’s time for further adventures with the ones we met last time around. Red blood cell AE3803 is still frantically delivering oxygen to wherever needs it, while Neutrophil U-1146 continues to defend it from any invading threat. Also aiding the body all the other cells they’ve befriended - the Platelets, Killer T-Cell, the Macrophages, NK Cell and many many more.

This time around their adventures include stopping an internal haemorrhage alongside the platelets, the Mumps virus, acne, the “invasion” of some friendly Lactic Acid Bacteria and the return of the deadly Cancer cell.

Normal CellCancer returns

One of the advantages of a series like Cells at Work! is the vast wealth of content it can draw from for stories. The fact this one quirky little manga has now also spun off into multiple titles focusing everything from unhealthy bodies and bacteria to platelets, babies and women goes to show how complicated the human body is and how no body is actually the same. But while the body we see the inside of here might not necessarily be the “ideal” one, it’s also one where we can feel safely assured by now nothing bad is going to happen to it. A lot of the things the cells seem to face are minor ailments, but the few times something series has popped up everything has been wrapped up without any ongoing effects. So this season definitely required a bit of a shakeup to keep things interesting, which it managed to do rather well without diverging too far from its beaten track. Whilst the first few episodes continue the format of issues broken down into smaller vignettes, the back half of the series switches to an ongoing story - promoting a more action/adventure vibe rather than continuing to just focus on the sheer whimsy of it all.

Previously the story had mostly focused around AE3803’s travels around the body, and that wherever she happened to be at the time that’s usually where trouble coincidentally brewed. But everyone’s favourite red blood cell takes a bit of a back seat in season two - still popping up from time to time but certainly not as the centre point she was before. This time it’s U-1146 that feels more like the central character, which makes sense given the predominant focus on fighting off threats this season has. It’s also a better counterpoint to CODE BLACK in this respect, since that’s mainly focusing on a red blood cell. The earlier episodes of this season might be business as usual, but the differing focus is a nice change of pace. Especially when there’s even time to give focus to supporting characters like the Platelets, Memory Cell or Dendritic Cell, who all get great stories. Whether it be by coincidence or design the format as a whole seems far more refined too, with far less emphasis on repeating the same narration over and over again.

Megakaryocyte and the PlateletsDendritic Cell

The show takes a slightly more interesting turn however when the point of focus becomes a normal cell, one who wishes he could be more like the ones we’ve been following over the course of the previous episodes. Normal Cell is an interesting character because he isn’t presented as being particularly special - his only job is to copy himself, and his appearance is completely nondescript. However being the “average Joe” of the human body makes him a lot more relatable to the audience as a character, or at least as relatable as any anthropomorphic cell can be in this weird and wonderful show. His story starts when he discovers four cute bacteria, which he immediately takes a shine to. When they’re discovered by U-1146 he initially wants to destroy them because he views them as a threat, but after various hi-jinx it’s discovered that they’re actually benevolent lactic acid bacteria. We’ve seen outside forces enter the body to aid the cells before (antibiotics being represented as efficient robots being a particular highlight), but Cells at Work!! getting its own cute mascot characters is a new one. With Normal Cell eventually having to say goodbye to each one as they find their place around the body its a heartwarming story of friendship as well as a valuable lesson about not judging a book by its cover.

This all culminates towards a showdown with Cells at Work!’s biggest villain, as the Cancer cell returns once more to put the body into disarray. Cancer cell’s appearance on the previous series proved a bit of talking point as it took the approach of presenting the aberration as “misunderstood”, which isn’t exactly wrong biologically speaking but could prove a sore point to anyone who may have ever been affected by the disease in the past. Season two however drops this pretence altogether though, and this version of the Cancer cell is undeniably a villain - particularly seeking revenge against U-1146 and the other cells he faced off against previously. There are some interesting politics going on with Cancer’s motivations here as he plans to make every cell equal by killing the body, and the action develops a real sense of scale as he becomes this winged tentacled monstrosity. But despite being more action-orientated there’s still learning to be had here, as the introduction of the Regulatory T-Cell offers some insight into how cancer is often able to thrive in the body unchallenged. The whole arc feels like a big moment for Cells at Work!, so it’s no surprise that this was the content that made up the movie.

The Lactic Acid BacteriaCancer Cell and Regulatory T-Cell

But just as the series really hits its stride with the cancer cell arc, suddenly it’s all over. At only eight episodes in total, Cells at Work!! is a shockingly short series even by one-cour anime standards, and it’s hard not to feel disappointed by the fact when it ends just after it had gotten so good. If David Production were the ones behind CODE BLACK as well there would be an argument for stretching themselves too thinly, but since this doesn't appear to be the case maybe there just wasn’t enough content to warrant a full second season? The cancer cell arc had already been previously released as a feature film in Japan in 2020, and from my understanding this season also borrows content from the Bacteria at Work! spin-off manga as well. It seems strange because surely there are still plenty of things that the series could cover, but on the other hand maybe it’s better that the series go out on a high. Either way the ending definitely feels abrupt, and will almost certainly leave you wanting more.

Despite it’s disappointingly short running time, Cells at Work!! is just as much a joy as the first season was. Arguably more so in some ways, as the break away from AE3803’s perspective offers both a slightly alternate take on the setting and the chance to focus on some of the other characters that help our bodies tick. While naturally an anime will never be a proper replacement for picking up a biology textbook or taking a class, Cells at Work! as a whole has been brilliantly constructed and you’ll almost certainly come away having learned a thing or two.

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