Animations depicting the inner workings of the human body – sometimes in very fanciful fashion – have been around nearly as long as animation itself has, and the anthropomorphizing of cells is probably not new to this 13 episode series and its source manga. However, I don’t believe any previous effort has hit as successfully at this franchise has. Original manga-ka Akane Shimizu‘s concept was a simple but effective one: depict the functions of the body as if the body was one giant factory and living complex and the cells are the people living and working in it. Director Kenichi Suzuki (JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure 2010s edition, Drifters) and studio David Production have taken that source material and brought it to the screen in a form that is nearly as educational as it is entertaining.
For the concept to work, the production has to succeed at three factors: how it depicts the interior of the body, how it portrays the cells and gives them personalities and duties based on their functions, and how it generates suitable crises. Each factor is, thankfully, a resounding success. The setting design is sufficiently imaginative in how it envisions the structure of the body, whether it’s the factory-like structure of the lungs (complete with fans, air compressors, and bottling stations for draining CO2 and filling up oxygen), the temple-like portrayal of the heart, or the school-like portrayal of bone marrow, all the parts and locations are extrapolated wonderfully from their actual structures and functions. Major arteries might be paved thoroughfares, veins might be tubes, and the smallest capillaries might be cracks between buildings. Manholes, sewer grates, and secret doors allow for transmigration (i.e., the ability of white blood cells to move through tissues rather than just the circulatory system), while much of the structure of the body is made up of apartments housing generic cells.
The creative depictions of the cells are also a delight. Red blood cells – which can be male or female – all wear red jackets and hats over black shirts and blue shorts (for female ones) or trousers (for male ones). They either carry or cart around boxes of canisters containing oxygen or carbon dioxide, depending on where they’re headed. White blood cells have varying appearance depending on exact role; neutrophils (the most common type) are always male, use knives, and have both white skin and a white combat uniform, whereas macrophages dress like 19th century-era nurses wielding cleavers or spiked clubs, killer T cells wear black uniforms and act like Marines, and a helper T cell (which in the body directs other T cells) are dressed as military commanders. Several other less common specialized cells also appear, while generic cells are just guys in white T-shirts that say “cell” in Japanese. The highlight is definitely the platelets; in reality they are only 20% of the size of red blood cells, so here they are depicted as adorably cute kindergarteners in light blue smocks and white hats and take on the roles of construction workers. By comparison, invading allergens and bacteria appear as monsters, viruses commonly attach to cells to transmute them into zombies, and cancer cells are deformed regular cells.
Though the personalities involved are largely secondary to the conceptualization, they still help carry the series. The primary focus is on a female red blood cell (typically called just Red Blood Cell, here RBC for short) and a neutrophil (typically called just White Blood Cell, here WBC for short) she improbably keeps encountering. Though RBC is somewhat of a space cadet, her fierce resolve to carry through her job becomes important late in the series and she is endearing in her incompetence. WBC is a bloodthirsty maniac when confronting invaders but a nice guy during downtime and takes to specifically looking out for RBC after a while; the series has no hint of romance, but shipping the two as a couple would not be a stretch. Most other named cells also have colorful personalities, whether it’s the memory cell who is always freaking out over legends, the Dendrite who facilitates communication but also has a sly side, or the marcrophages who remain mild-manners even while bloodily slaughtering germs.
With no real ongoing plot, the series is entirely divided into 1-2 episode vignettes. Each spends at least some time showing the cells going about their daily business before focusing either on the calamity of the day or a flashback to when the prominent characters were up-and-coming cells, with regular (and sometimes repetitive) narration throughout explaining what each cell type is and what they do in an actual human body. Crisis scenarios vary just enough to avoid seeming too repetitive, ranging from infections to a scrape wound to food poisoning to allergies to the most serious incident: hemorrhagic shock. Bits of humor freely mix in where appropriate and cute moments (mostly involving the platelets) are about evenly balanced with violent, often very bloody action sequences – and yes, that is meant both literally and as a pun. Those scenes are much more graphic than they need to be for content age-rated at 10+ and otherwise accessible to upper elementary or middle school-aged kids, so I am curious about the creative intent there.
Beyond the quality design features, the visual technical merits are not especially impressive. The animation cuts a lot of corners, with freeze scenes used during narration, few sustained action sequences, and several instances of recycled footage. More complicated movements are generally reserved for the oft-repeated episode intros, although those can show an impressive array of independent animated bits. Contrarily, the full symphonic orchestration of the soundtrack consistently supports the content well in both lighter-hearted and more dramatic moments. Opener “Mission! Health First,” which is sung by four of the most prominent seiyuu, is a lively number which establishes the series’ premise, while the simpler sound and animation of closer “CheerS” by ClariS caps each episode.
The English dub provided by Bang Zoom! Entertainment is outstanding, maybe even one of their best in recent years. Cherami Leigh and Billy Kametz fit perfectly in the lead roles, and Xenthe Huynh does a wonderful cutesy-child impression as Platelet, but they are hardly alone; not a single casting choice or performances sounds the slightest bit off or even mediocre, and the enthusiasm of the actors is evident across the board. Even the dubbed version of the opener was handled unusually well.
Aniplex of America put at least some effort into justifying the nearly $170 price point for the series set, though for that price something sturdier than the plastic box-like slipcover would have been expected. The 13 normal and one OVA episode included here are spread across three Blu-Ray disks, with extra scattered across all three disks. These include standard fare like clean opener and closer and assorted series teasers and trailers, but they also include five chibi shorts averaging about 5 minutes each and a collection of English “Bloopers;” I used the quotes there because only a fraction of them are true bloopers while the rest sound like the voice actors are just goofing around with alternate dialogue (such as playfully cursing out fellow voice actors). Each episode also retains original Japanese credits, with translated credits offered separately. Also included is a 34 page booklet which contains assorted setting and character profiles, the lyrics to the English version of the opener, and translated Japanese and English credits.
Overall, Cells at Work! is a series which excels at finding a good balance between being fun and educational; why a second season has been greenlit is no mystery.