I can’t help but feel like this show is also an allegory to the kinds of working conditions that a typical white-collar worker in Japan experiences and reflects upon Japanese society as a whole as some kind of social commentary on how toxic work culture can be detrimental to not only one’s own health, but also how it can impact society to an almost unhealthy degree. Eh, it’s probably just my imagination.
While the regular Cells at Work has a generally…brighter atmosphere with the soothing voice of Mamiko Noto to educate the audience on how the biology of the human body works, Black is for the most part, quite the opposite. Now with Tsuda Kenjirou as our much gruffer sounding narrator instead. Much like the original, we follow the adventures of a rookie red blood cell as he carries nutrients and oxygen around the body. But instead of dealing with comparatively more harmless things like allergies, the common cold, and…hemorrhaging, our newbie must combat substance abuse, STDs, and various dangerous blood clots to vital parts of the human body. Which in turn makes this work environment, a Code Black situation.
When comparing Black to the original, there’s very little if any true difference between the two in terms of presentation. Black has much of the same storytelling, focusing primarily on episodic problems that offer a new challenge to our protagonist and related cells working with the current problem. All wrapped up with a thin chronology that leads from one episode to another. To me, the ‘Cells at Work’ formula is one that works with very few drawbacks to the kind of show that this is. It’s an educational show that teaches something new each episode, and the representative hijinks that our characters get up to are how the show presents these materials or situations that our bodies deal with every day. But of course because this is a ‘black’ situation, everything is a lot serious and darker than the original.
As expected, the subject matter and especially the state of the body presented in this series is in a more dire state. The story of Black thrives in its darker subject matter of substance abuse and other more dangerous illnesses or ailments that can damage our body. And the grim nature of everything gives off a much more serious tone compared to the relatively jokey and carefree nature of the original. Almost as a kind of warning of how much damage having too much of one thing can have on a person. But if you strip that away, there aren’t really many other things to talk about. Cells at Work kind of thrives on the novelty of its concept, so what you see is what you get with little else to drive the show forward.
At least that’s what has typically happened with the Cells at Work series thus far. In addition to dealing with a new ailment of the week, Black is also something of a character arc as we watch our resident red blood cell slowly go insane from watching the mass genocide of his coworkers, mass invasion of pathogens, and a failing workplace that doesn’t provide any form of safety to the cells that try and keeping running. All while being yelled at to ‘keep working’ despite the hazardous environment. It’s certainly a thread that gives the story a form of chronology, but by contrast demands a bigger suspension of disbelief than usual as he and other cells question the decisions of the person who owns the body they work in. Which kind of starts a revolt in one episode, leading me to believe that these representations of cells have their own conscience and sentience, but try not to think about it too hard or else everything’s just gonna end up seeming weird.
All of that is to say that Black is just a little more than just a tonal shift to the original. While I do have some personal gripes with how the series is essentially just beating the audience over the head with the exact same message over and over again, the presentation and representation of a whole host of different bodily issues, functions, and ailments proved to be very…interesting to watch, and the kinds of effects it has on the body visualized is still a treat regardless.
While AA2153 and AE3083 both start out as similar characters being that both of them are bright-eyed red blood cells who’re both ready for the line of duty, the paths that both of them lead couldn’t be any different from each other. Due to the severity of the body, much of AA2153’s character is like that of a soldier changing throughout a war. Much of his character exists because of his environment, making him more of the resulting effect or product of everything around him instead of the cause. Because of this, AA2153 doesn’t really have a lot of autonomy as a character save for the few instances where he puts his life on the line for his job because he still needs to make his deliveries. If anything, he’s a PSA for those who put their body through the wringer as a kind of weird empathetic effigy that reminds us that whatever we do to our body affects the things that keep us running.
On the same vein, U1196 and U1146 are also similar characters. But compared to their red blood counterparts, they don’t actually have much deviance in character despite their different working conditions. U1196 is still believes in her duty to protect the body, and does so full well knowing that the body isn’t strong enough to fight off the horrifying amount of pathogens she has to deal with on a daily basis. But because she’s not really at the forefront of the story, she kind of just serves as the series’ deuteragonist and provides helpful insight for our main character through all of the trials and tribulations that he faces coming to terms with the fact that everything just kind of sucks but you still have to work anyway.
The variety of cells that we get this time are for the most part, different to what we see in the parent story. We still have the main floaters in the bloodstream (i.e. platelets, T-cells, and macrophages), but everyone else that’s presented range from stomach cells, kidney cells, and liver cells; cell types and related organs that weren’t or haven’t been covered by the original series at the time of writing this. Much like the parent story, their appearances are mostly one-off showings that explain how one function of the body works and showcase what happens when X organ or function is being inhibited.
Taken the reins by LIDENFILMS this time, Black has an understandably darker and less saturated color scheme to its parent with a much more industrial and toxic-looking world/body that’s being showcased. I personally like the change since the original Cells at work always seemed too bright for me, so it’s nice to have something that’s a little easier on the eyes. To add to the darker tone too, Black has a much, much higher body count and is overall a much more gruesome show as cells are murdered at such an alarming rate that the show even goes to the lengths of putting a massive pile of bodies in the center of the frame to show the audience how hazardous of a work environment this is. Which to an extent almost feels comical because the show really emphasizes how crappy everything is, and really doesn’t let that go since there’re so many shots of other cells grabbing AA2153’s collar and shouting in his face.
I also want to mention character design briefly since the representation of everything in Cells at Work has always been my favorite parts of the show. Everything from how the cells themselves are designed in order to represent the designated job or function they’re given, as well as the whole host of manmade things like drugs and other physiological problems are really some of my favorite aspects of the show since I never know how a given body part of cell is going to be represented. Now, did all of the neutrophil cells really have to be very chesty women who have their shirts open down to the base of their cleavage? No, but hey, it’s an aesthetic choice.
“Hashire!” by Hiroyuki Hayashi is a song I’m personally not that much of a fan of. It’s an energetic rock song that uses way too much autotune in a way that makes it not too much fun to listen to. Of course it doesn’t really match up with the rest of the show’s tone anyway, but the autotune is really the kicker for me due to how much it distorts the singer’s voice without adding much to the song’s value in return. By comparison, “Ue wo Muite Hakabou” is much more cheerful. Almost worryingly cheerful because while it doesn’t use any autotune, the song appears completely out of left field sometimes and is such a massive tension breaker that it makes it all feel so ill fitting for this show. Had it been used for a different show, I’d give it a pass for being something that’s fun to listen to, but for Black? It feels almost comical to attach it to this show.
While Black was advertised to be the ‘darker’ version of Cells at work, truth be told the only real difference between the two is their respective topic matter. In an attempt to be dark, Black feels like it tries too hard to be the more serious of the two, resulting in a show that feels more edgy than anything else and falls on a few shonen tropes in order to carry its storytelling. True, Black deals with more life-threatening problems than its parent does, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s much different or ‘better’ than the original; it’s just a slightly different flavor of the exact same show.
As such, my feelings and rating for Black are about the same as the original Cells at Work. The novelty is what really carries the show, and the representation of the body, its cells, and its various organ functions are the heart and soul of the show that keep it as a fun watch if one is looking for something a little more unique to watch.
That being said I really do wonder if this show was meant to be a social commentary in any way. Especially given how this particular body in the show is afflicted with sleep deprivation, poor diet, high alcohol and caffeine consumption, blood clots in very specific areas of the body, and hair loss due to stress. All of which are factors that either contribute to Karoshi or are the result of Japan’s specific work culture. That and he fact that the cells are all basically working a lot of overtime with little if any time to themselves and exhaust themselves to death in order to keep the body running. You know, food for thought.