Cells at Work CODE BLACK

(Welcome to Ani-time Ani-where, a regular column dedicated to helping the uninitiated understand and appreciate the world of anime.)

Last year, right before the world entered into lockdown, I wrote about the fun and violent Cells at Work!, an anime with tons of monster-killing and also some important biology lessons about the wonderful things your body does to keep you alive. Now, the show’s first spin-off, Cells at Work: CODE BLACK, takes a different approach by scaring the shit out of you for not taking care of your body.

The basic plot remains the same, taking us inside the human body with anthropomorphized body cells carrying out the tasks that keep you alive and fighting with onslaught of bacteria and other creatures that are constantly trying to invade. What’s different this time is that the host body is incredibly unhealthy and constantly on the verge of collapse, making this more of a disaster movie where something threatens the world every 20 minutes.

More than just a show about unhealthy habits, Code Black is a poignant exploration of “black companies” overworking their employees, and how that affects your mental health and then your physical health, making this arguably the timeliest anime to come out of 2021

What Makes It Great

Right out of the bat, Code Black shows off a much darker and serious tone compared to its predecessor. While the original was very optimistic about its portrayal of body overcoming almost any obstacle, this takes the opposite approach. Our main character, a red blood cell, starts out the show during orientation day, where he watches an introductory video explaining his tasks and the various colorful cells he will encounter along the way. The video is very upbeat and everyone is shown enjoying their job, but the reality is bleaker. The red blood cell encounters nothing but pessimistic and bitter old people who hate their job and just can’t wait to die so they can stop working. There’s no better indication of the difference in tone compared to the main series than the cute platelets now being portrayed as mean teenagers. Indeed, Code Black has huge horror vibes, with a bigger emphasis given to the way the cells die horrible deaths and are mutilated by bacteria or other substances. The first episode introduces the idea of carbon monoxide from smoking transforming blood cells into zombies, and the score for the show resembles something out of a John Carpenter movie.

Code Black also features a more serialized format that escalates the kind of problems the host body faces in the show, building up the idea that these are not just isolated incidents that happen all the time, but direct results of an unhealthy lifestyle that brings about increasingly deadly problems. In one episode, the entire body is put into double duty to counter the host body suffering from erectile dysfunction, which then leads into an invasion by gonorrhea in the next episode, which then causes a bunch of cells to die, leading to an overactive immune response that causes hair loss in the episode after that, all building up to a season finale that rivals Dinosaurs as one of the grimmest and most devastating conclusions in television.

What It Brings to the Conversation

What makes Code Black stand out is how its subtitle doesn’t just indicate a darker and more adult tone, but how it’s directly referring to the Japanese concept of a “Black Company” — basically a sweatshop-style working environment that exploits its workers and overworks them to the extreme. The show constantly juxtaposes the working conditions that lead the host body to be this unhealthy and the incredibly dangerous working conditions the cells face day-to-day.

Every episode, and nearly every scene, has a character hammering a “work until you die” mantra, with everyone just agreeing that’s the way things work around here. The Glomeruli — kidney cells — are portrayed as women who are expected to work in absolute silence, no matter what they see. Any sort of complaint is seen as shameful, and older cells are constantly encouraging the younger ones to just give up on their emotions and work until they die, with many a character’s last words being just “keep on working.” When a character is stricken with grief and is unable to do his job, he gets yelled at because he’s physically fine and can’t take a break.

More-so than the main series, Code Black deals with mental health issues and how they affect your physical health, like the aforementioned grief-stricken cell being unable to function as he struggles to cope with a heavy loss. This is a welcome addition to the show, especially during a time when it’s safe to say most people’s mental health is taking a hue toll due to…well, everything.

Make no mistake: this show has no sense of optimism. At most, it argues that you can maybe find small joys in your suffering, and the finale teases an incredibly cruel potential season 2. Is this necessary? Maybe not, but it’s definitely an effective wake-up call.

Why Non-Anime Fans Should Check It Out

Very few anime have managed to capture the horror of the work-life under late-stage capitalism as well as Code Black does. Not only is this an entertaining horror show with compelling characters you care about (but shouldn’t get attached to), it shines a light on both the horrifying effects an unhealthy lifestyle has on your body, and also on the real horrors of being overworked in a gig-economy that doesn’t give a single damn about your or your health. As we start to see a light at the end of this pandemic tunnel, it’s important to remember we are not completely out yet, and as some workers start returning to an office after working from home for the past year, remember to take care of yourselves.

Watch This If You Like: Osmosis Jones, Devilman Crybaby, Neon Genesis Evangelion, feeling bad about your health

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Cells at Work: CODE BLACK is streaming on Funimation.

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