Cells at Work

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

Whenever a piece of entertainment tries to be educational, it usually suffers from one of two things: either it shoves a bunch of facts down your throat to the point where it becomes overwhelming and dull, or it dumbs down the story to appeal to kids or complete newbies to a degree that it alienates the rest of its audience. 

Cells at Work! is different. This is an anime that takes the “edutaining” from Magic School Bus, the anthropomorphized cuteness of Inside Out, and the horror and gory violence of the “Anatomy Park” episode of Rick and Morty. The premise: we follow the inside of the human body, where cells are depicted as humans really dedicated to their jobs. Our main character is a red blood cell that always gets lost on her way to deliver boxes of oxygen to different locations, and a white blood cell that’s really good at slaughtering bacteria (and absolutely loves to kill them). It’s a godsend for nerds studying biology, and it basically confirms my belief that deep down, we’re all anime inside – an incredibly violent anime where cells are constantly on the edge of a gruesome and traumatic demise. Ahead of its second season, which is coming later this year, let’s revisit an anime that’s literally a story about you. Yes, you!

What Makes It Great

The first thing to note is that Cells at Work! really, really commits to its concept. It reimagines our bodies as a huge metropolis and every tiny cell as a person, which results in incredibly crowded open spaces, a lot of diverse landscapes, and unfathomable amounts of death and destruction. 

The cast of the show is huge, and the characterizations are very creative, from macrophages as hardworking cleaning workers (and occasionally brutal and jovial mass murderers), to T-cells as naïve young boys without battle experience, to white blood cells as elite combat units and red blood cells as food delivery people. Then there’s the show’s secret weapon: the platelets, imagined as cute little kindergarteners. Forget about Baby Yoda – platelets are not only real, they keep you from bleeding out whenever you get a paper cut, and they are precious babies.

Anime fans may recognize the animation in Cells at Work! as being made by the same studio that gave us Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure (yes, there are indeed Jojo references in the show). The show includes many, many scenes of gratuitous and colorful anime violence that’s not only visually stunning, but they make you appreciate the work your body does in keeping you alive while you spend your time reading this article. All pathogens look like monsters under a microscope, but Cells at Work! blows them out of proportion and imagines a wide variety of creatures that range from kind of cute to outright disturbing, as is the case of a virus looking like a pink hat that takes over cells and turns them into zombies, or a parasite that is depicted as a full-on kaiju.

And it is in this juxtaposition of cuteness and hyper-violence and horror that Cells at Work! thrives. The show has a very tongue-in-cheek tone throughout, fully acknowledging and diving into the ridiculousness of its premise and energetically playing with it. Not only does it manage to teach you about the different cells in your body and how different pathogens affect you, but it does so through goofy comedy that hides the gruesome seriousness of what it’s portraying, resulting in one of the most entertaining anime in recent years.

What It Brings to the Conversation

By presenting the smallest areas of the human body as massive cities, every single problem becomes an apocalyptic-level catastrophe. A sneeze becomes a rocked being launched into the sky, a cut becomes a nuclear blast that opens a huge hole in the ground, making every small event feel incredibly important. This serves to both educate you on how your body works and reacts to pathogens and to caution about how to prevent things like heatstrokes. It might make you actually care about what happens inside you and maybe even inspire you to take better care of yourself.

There’s no better example of this than episode 7, which deals with cancer. As controversial with some audiences as it was popular with other audiences and even doctors, the episode is perhaps the most somber of the season. Cells at Work! takes the horrible disease and characterizes it as a tragic boy who saw his entire family hunted down by white cells just for being born different, and grew to despise all cells as a result. Though some took issue with how sympathetic the cancer cell seemed to be, the show doesn’t try to say anything positive about the disease, but gives the character a tragic backstory in order to reflect the real tragedy that is cancer itself. Cells at Work! may have a very goofy sense of humor, but it isn’t afraid to slow down and reflect on how serious some of the threats to the human body really are, as it challenges the notion of what “edutainment” can be.

Why Non-Anime Fans Should Check It Out

Cells at Work! does what Osmosis Jones tried and failed to do: it makes you learn new things without it getting in the way of a fun and cute story of cells going about their day. The show manages to take all the action, blood, and cute little creatures typical in anime and mixes them with actual microbiology lessons. 

Whether you’re here to learn some basics about how cells work and how pathogens affect the body, or just in it for some very violent, visually inventive action (and also those platelets), Cells at Work! has something for you.

Watch This If You Like: The Magic School Bus, Osmosis Jones, Dr. Stone.

Cells At Work is now streaming on Netflix.

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