It’s funny the things that stick in your head. The medical edutainment manga and anime Cells at Work! anthropomorphises the biological systems of the human body as people living their working lives in a massive city. It’s remained a popular series even if a story about how the body properly functions ironically only caused a spike in tooth decay and heart attacks as the internet positively melted with glee at the adorable sugar-sweetness of its loli kindergarten platelets. Elliot here at the UK Anime Network identified Cells at Work! as a modern-day Japanese spin on the 1980s French cartoon Once Upon a Time… Life: I never watched the show myself (maybe only half an episode once or twice, as primary-school me could never work out what obscure satellite channel it was being shown on) but I still have strong memories of it via the children’s educational magazine How My Body Works. This series licensed Once Upon A Time… Life’s colourful and weirdly alien artwork which ensured that it was something I regularly pulled back down off the shelf to leaf through for several years back then.
It’s also funny to try and feel out the edges of the absence of things that drop out of your head, too. I never remember dreams – even if I recall them making strong impressions on waking they’ve usually dispersed like the morning mist as soon as I’m out of bed – but there are a handful of vivid childhood dreams and nightmares alike, from the happier days before I got old and slow and my imagination died off, that have etched themselves onto the inside of my skull. One of them actually involves Once Upon a Time… Life. A lot of the connective tissue holding the dream together has decayed over the years but I recall being shrunk down to wander inside a dead body (not mine… at least, I think not), flashing a torch down still, silent, shadowy blood vessels while the walking red blood cells who were your tour guides in the cartoon whimpered frightened behind me. Eventually we turned a corner and came out into a massive chamber with a large tower-sized map of the body’s burned-out nervous system – more torches from somewhere started being turned on it while some plinky-plonky electronic music played behind my ears… then I woke up.
I’d not thought about that dream for decades but Cells at Work!: Code BLACK got the neurones firing and sparked it up out of the depths of deep memory, so before I settle down on the psychoanalyst’s couch to work out any repressed issues - it might take a while - I probably ought to get on with telling you about the actual manga. Is Cells at Work!: Code BLACK a revitalising pick-me-up that will get a tired old body moving again or is it some debilitating drug rotting my brain that I’m going to need a nepenthe to send to oblivion?
Cells at Work!: Code BLACK is a spin-off to Cells at Work! that is currently only a manga but also has its own anime adaptation currently in production. Code BLACK is simply and unapologetically the direct Star Trek Mirror Universe-style evil counterpart to the original Cells at Work!, almost right down to the goatee beards The original Cells at Work! showed you the ordinary functions of a healthy body going through its regular homeostatic routines, but in Cells at Work!: Code BLACK we are following the lives of new cells in a new body… and this one is breaking down. The body is living unhealthily – overeating, smoking, drinking alcohol – and for the put-upon red blood cells still rushing around the body to deliver oxygen and nutrients their job is only getting harder and harder, as cholesterol detritus piles up in the blood-vessel corridors, the white blood cells start thinning out, and organs start packing in. The body is beset by fungal infections, stomach ulcers, hair loss, blood clots, gout, and more besides… and it’s not letting up. The hapless red blood cells just can’t catch a break (the manga title itself is a pun, as a "black company" or "burakku kigyo" is a Japanese term for a hostile work environment or sweatshop), unfeeling orders from the brain still heedlessly rushing the poor fellows from pillar to post even as it crumbles around them. Something’s got to give…
Cells at Work!: Code BLACK is not written or drawn by the original mangaka (although she gives it her blessing with a piece of artwork at the end of the first volume) but the new team have made a fair and faithful emulation of Akane Shimizu’s style. Artist Issei Hatsuyoshiya has maintained a consistent visual theme with the original Cells at Work! represented by the body’s internal architecture and the uniforms of the cells while changes are incremental enough like a natural and organic evolution. Some of these changes are obvious – Cells at Work! had a female red blood cell and a male white blood cell as point-of-view characters, so in the mirror universe of Code BLACK they’re flipped around to a male red blood cell and a female white blood cell – but there are subtler differences too. The platelets are still here and they’re still the little lolis we all know and love and they still have plastic toy gardening implements in their satchels, but whereas in the original Cells at Work! the platelets were heart-warmingly cute squeaky bundles of impeccable moé which the story took considerable time to focus on as they marched together in sing-song school groups as they laid out their vessel-protecting mats, in Code Black they’re all business, mostly background characters that have limited direct focus given to them and can be seen yelling harried instructions at each other, rushing to rope-off blood clots and brusquely pushing and chivvying along rubber-necking red blood cells to get on down the narrowing lanes. When the Cells at Work! anime came out it’s fair to say that the loveable platelets absolutely stole the show, and in any other manga the publisher would probably have eagerly seized on that and pushed them front-and-centre and flooded the market with them like Despicable Me’s yellow-pill Minions. That Code BLACK defies expectations and is willing to treat its star platelets so diffidently really rams home the dilapidated state of this body and the rickety running repairs that are barely keeping it wheezing along another day.
I might even be so bold to suggest that there are a few things that Code BLACK actually does better and realises the series concept more fully than even the original Cells at Work! if there’s one criticism you could make of Cells at Work! is that large tranches of it were given over to a sort of shonen battle manga with wars against invading germs – that’s still part of Code BLACK too but as this manga is about a malfunctioning body greater attention is given over to the functionality of the actual organs themselves, even if only to better show all the ways that the unhealthy, diseased, poorly-treated tissues are falling apart. I know that I've criticised over-exaggerated 'Explicit Content' labels in other reviews but Code BLACK definitely deserves its cover warning this time: don't give this to a younger relative as a substitute for a biology textbook because it does linger on the less salubrious parts of the internal plumbing - an early chapter focuses on erectile dysfunction. Despite what seems to be a lowbrow fixation with naughty bits though there’s still actually a fair amount of imagination here on display: in Cells at Work! a lot of the germs came across as Dragonball Z knock-offs but in Code BLACK their designs are more impressive: even if gonorrhoea are tentacle monsters engulfing female blood cells in a mess of clothes-tearing boob-fondling tendrils (because it’s an STD, of course they do), the toothy snapping appendages still make them actively uncomfortable and unpleasant so it’s not just plain fanservice; the bug-like stomach bacteria look outright alien; and making the unknown gout crystal a play on Neon Genesis Evangelion polyhedric Angel Ramiel is also quiet genius. This continues into the wider organs: in particular visualising the liver as a red-light district where toxified red blood cells go to hostess bars to drown their sorrows in pitchers of hydrogenase was imaginative… and as someone who’s old enough to be nervous about how hard I use the comb during my morning ablutions, seeing detached hairs awfully and inexorably ascend into the ceiling made me wince!
Even the unhealthiest body can only have so much go wrong with it at once though, and Code BLACK has a clever trick to stop the multi-car pileup of medical calamities from getting too absurdly high - when it looks like the host body is turning a corner and getting his life back on track, our blood cell heroes get sucked up in a transfusion in volume three and deposited in a new body (with a few alterations to the cells’ uniforms) with a whole raft of different problems instead! The multi-car pileup is also Code BLACK’s secret weapon… this manga is actually hilariously funny!
This is almost certainly unintentional. Code BLACK is presented in the same edutainment style as the original Cells at Work!, complete with expository dialogue from the cells and caption boxes telling you about the operation of drugs and enzymes in the body. However… do any of you remember the “Loonatics”? Classic Looney Tunes getting reimagined as black-suited superheroes came in for universal derision when they were first introduced, and I’m reminded of them here – from the title onwards Code BLACK is the DARK and EDGY and SERIOUS and MATURE and ADULT and TOUGH version of Cells at Work! – and it’s wonderfully, uproariously absurd.
Take the aforementioned fight against the clap. After the battle is done, the white blood cells who have perished are commended to eternity with a river burial. Their funeral barges are sent down the channel as the massed ranks of their comrades solemnly salute their passing and our red blood cell tearfully forces himself to watch so he can bear witness to the courage of their sacrifice. For your tomorrow, they gave their today. It’s so moving… erm, until the dialogue tells you that this ceremony is actually the act of pus getting discharged from the urethra. I mean, just, wow. All you need is Scottie murdering “Amazing Grace” with his bagpipes and it’d be a perfect picture.
Another willie chapter is also stupendously silly – our red blood cell throws himself against the walls to dilate the erectile tissue with shining, happy, glorious enthusiasm – he has hopeful open pride in his task, because helping to create new life is the absolute highest calling to which any cell can aspire and a complete fulfilment of his purpose, to which he applies himself with as much hard-work-and-guts as any shonen hero… until another cell remarks that he's just helping his host body jack off.
The deadly earnestness with which Code BLACK applies itself to its non-stop cascade of calamity is what ultimately sells this manga. I’m not sure if it’s self-aware enough to be “deadpan”, but intentional or not the end effect of entertainingly overwrought overblown overcooked melodrama is something that you can enjoy if you approach with an irreverent attitude. And you might still learn something… those poor bridge bunnies in the brain control centre look so rushed off their feet, after seeing them talk about the chemical effects of sleep deprivation maybe I could go to bed an hour earlier and give them a bit more recovery time, and help out the poor girls…!