I didn’t have high expectations for Cells at Work: CODE BLACK. The original Cells is an earnest edutainment series about the anthropomorphized workings of the human body, where the invasive germs look like Power Rangers monsters and the characters deal with ailments like “allergies” or “sunstroke.” CODE BLACK, meanwhile, was a spinoff penned by a manga author best known for writing horny comedies about, for example, a guy who can’t jack off because there’s an evil demon held captive in his balls. As anyone who sat through Torchwood can tell you, darker and edgier spinoffs of all-ages media frequently embarrass themselves trying to prove how grown up they are. That’s why it came as a shock that the CODE BLACK anime was one of my favorite titles of the Winter season.
The series works from the same basic premise as the original, following a rookie Red Blood Cell (a plucky boy this time rather than a girl) as he delivers oxygen around the body and runs across various other cells doing their job, with a crisis inevitably breaking out. The major difference is that this Red Blood Cell inhabits the body of a middle-aged man working a grueling job. The title, you see, is a reference to a “black company,” a Japanese term for a business that abuses its laborers. So rather than dealing with scrapes or nosebleeds, this body’s cells get stuck with deep vein thrombosis and fatty liver. And through it all runs a genuine vein of worker anguish that makes the show captivating.
Anyone who’s been an anime fan for a while knows that the industry is broken. Beginning animators make as little as $200 a month. Veterans die at their desks from overwork. Grueling schedules punish workers at every step in the process. And even a production team that does its best to carefully plot a schedule and protect their team can have their project derailed by factors completely outside their control. It’s hard not to see the influence of those facts reflected in the choices that Liden Films — which was producing three other anime for air at the same time as CODE BLACK last season — made for their adaptation.
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The final product is a to-its-bones sincere project about how the cogs of overwork and exploitation grind down and eventually kill people. Sometimes this makes for an odd sit when you remember that the source material was penned by a dude who writes sex farce, and early episodes carry awkward vestiges of what might have once worked as overwrought satire, like a twenty-minute boner joke or an STI episode full of tentacle monster bullshit — though as a tradeoff, the show otherwise draws minimal attention to the more boobs-out designs it inherited. The dialogue teeters on the edge of being overwrought, pulled taut by how plainly sincere its anger is.
From ageism to the denigration of service workers (especially women), CODE BLACK’s stories surprised me with the many variations on its theme. The capitalism/company as body metaphor holds it back in some places, since calling for a full tearing down of the system would kill everyone off. But even that makes a grim sort of sense in the context of the animation industry, which banks on the love for the art form that often draws people to it. It makes the hopeful ending a cathartic one, though it’s undermined somewhat by a 30-second epilogue that cynically leaves the door open for another season (and was no doubt originally written to prolong the manga from two volumes to its ultimate ten). While it’s a bit too grim to call a soothing watch, it captures the experience of getting together to vent about a terrible job. On that front, its relevancy is unlikely to decrease.