Did you know?
- Red blood cells carry oxygen throughout our body, working relentlessly throughout their life cycle (about 120 days), after which they are replaced with new cells.
- White blood cells protect our body against diseases and foreign invaders. There are several subtypes, including macrophages, which destroy bacteria, as well as T-cells that destroy infected cells.
- I learned all this from an anime.
Okay, so that’s not 100% true. I learned it in biology class. But that was 15 years ago, and I’ve long since forgotten everything but the most basic facts about the human body. So watching Cells at Work: Code Black was a fun (albeit dark) refresher.
Seriously, if we had shows like this back in the day instead of boring ol’ textbooks, everyone would have aced their biology exams. It has everything that a good anime should have: beautiful art, interesting characters, a great plot, awesome action. But most of all, it’s educational, and it carries an important message beyond just entertainment: Take. Better. Care. Of. Our. Bodies.
Based on a popular manga series, the first anime season of Cells at Work! details how a body functions through the eyes of anthropomorphised cells, ie a red blood cell and a white blood cell. I haven’t watched the original, but I’ve heard it’s light and fun, with a focus on comedy. Code Black, however, is much darker – and shines the spotlight on what happens to an unhealthy body caused by bad lifestyle habits and stress.
The series opens with our ‘hero’ AA2153, a rookie red blood cell. Somewhat naive in character, he starts off enthusiastic and pumped (ha!) for work, but soon discovers that there are plenty of problems with his work environment, from angry, overworked cells to pathways clogged with cholesterol and plaque, hindering oxygen deliveries — a reflection of the body’s unhealthy state. The environment is also hostile: AA2153 often gets verbally abused by other cells, as they are all stretched to their limit and often have to prioritise certain functions over others.
During a delivery run, our protagonist is saved by white blood cell U1196 from an invading Pneumonia Coccus, and a friendship blossoms despite their different roles. The two characters will continue running into each other throughout the course of the series, as they both try to fulfil their duties to keep the body running.
AA2153 does his best under terrible working conditions and tries to keep his optimism up. In the first episode, he witnesses a terrible scene: his co-workers turning into zombies (carboxyhemoglobin) after coming into contact with carbon monoxide (from smoking). Although initially terrified, he hardens his resolve to deliver oxygen after his senpai sacrifices himself by running through the gas, so that AA2153 could deliver oxygen through a safer route. However, this is just the beginning of the body’s troubles.
Throughout the course of the anime, our characters will have to overcome various situations, some of which are self-inflicted by the body, from heavy drinking and a bad diet to consumption of caffeine and energy drinks, which in turn cause the body to weaken further, making it prone to disease. After battling conditions such as hair loss, kidney stones, gout, erectile dysfunction, gonococci and pulmonary embolism, AA2153 starts to lose hope that the hellish environment will change…
I absolutely love this anime. Pretty art style aside, I think it’s brilliant how the writers have managed to turn somewhat complicated concepts into easy-to-digest (pun intended) stories— and they’ve also done an excellent job depicting the anthropomorphised cells and the various organs creatively.
The kidney, for example, is shown as a traditional bathhouse, and the glomeruli (the filtering unit) as bath girls who help clean up the red blood cells. When bacteria invades one kidney, threatening to destroy it, AA2153 urges the girls to evacuate – but they are prevented from doing so by the matriarch Glomeruli, who tells them that the kidney is a ‘silent organ’ — always working, never complaining. This hit me hard because I know that kidney failure is often called a silent killer, and it isn’t until they are failing that we realise something is very wrong. The kidney is eventually saved after the body ingests antibiotics, which help the white blood cells defeat the invading bacteria.
Another good example of the anime’s creativity is the liver, represented as a red light district with hostess clubs, where the red blood cells go to ‘unwind’ and detoxify, especially after alcohol consumption. But as the body continues drinking excessively, the once bright and colourful district becomes a dark and gloomy place, with exhausted and sickly hostesses (hepatocytes). I think it’s just great how they used real-life scenarios and applied them to the anime in such a way that is easy to understand.
But more than just spitting facts, the anime manages to depict the emotions of the anthropomorphised cells and the seemingly hopeless state they are living in. The characters aren’t just there to tell you about how the body works: they have their own hopes and dreams and feelings. The main character is your typical anime hero: bright, cheerful and enthusiastic, always trying to inspire others — and while it’s nothing original as far as animes go (think Naruto, or Luffy), AA2153 is endearing in his own way.
The side characters are equally well developed. In episode 7, our hero’s best friend, a fellow red blood cell designated as AC1677, becomes jealous of AA2153’s achievements, having always been overshadowed by the former’s achievements. He also feels somewhat guilty at AA2153’s persistence and dedication, as he doesn’t have the same zeal. AC1677 turns to the high that caffeine produces in order to try and outshine his friend. The body suffers a nosebleed, and AA2153 almost loses his best friend as red blood cells are sucked out and AC1677 loses his strength after crashing from a caffeine high — but he manages to save him, and eventually returns to his former self and works harder. (AC1677 is my favourite character by the way!)
It’s episodes like these that make me feel a twinge of guilt — of course, I too have made my own body suffer from bad decisions (lack of sleep, for example, eating unhealthy food, and stressing myself out lol) and watching Code Black somehow drives the point home that I’m letting it down. I’m killing these cells in my body even though they’re working so hard for me — always working, never resting — so that I can enjoy a good quality life for as long as possible without suffering and pain.
Since the pandemic began, I’ve made some changes to my lifestyle, including more exercise and a better diet (because I haven’t been able to eat out lol). I’ve lost about 12 kg, and I’m feeling much better compared to the days I used to gorge on fried foods coz of work stress. I couldn’t even climb stairs without feeling winded. My body must have been screaming.
I’d like to think I’m providing a better ‘working’ environment for the cells living in me these days. So that’s a good thing.
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