Content Warning: Gore, fanservice, capitalist hellscape
What’s it about? One Red Blood Cell’s first day on the job becomes a nightmare when the body he inhabits takes up smoking for the first time in ten years. But as the narration tells us, this is only the first of many new horrors.
Somebody slap a Sonic Sez on this sucker and ship it off to the school system, cause CODE BLACK is here to tell you that smoking kills. But like, with blood and tiddies and stuff.
Alright, that’s not (entirely) fair of me. CODE BLACK has been a bit of a punchline in my corner of anitwitter since it was announced, but there is a bit of meat to dig into with the premise. First of all, you don’t need to have watched the original Cells at Work! to watch this; while it shares the basic concept of anthropomorphizing bodily functions, it stands alone. Think of it like reading Wicked without having watched the Wizard of Oz (if you read the books you are one step up on Gregory Maguire).
While I find the idea of a series having a canonical edgelord AU to be inherently funny, I can also see the logic of it. The original Cells had a few dark episodes but was basically an upbeat, PG series that dealt with things like “a cold” and “heat exhaustion.” Keeping that tone leaves a fairly small sliver of content within a very big conceptual bubble, so cordoning off a separate series for your grimmer stories makes marketing sense if nothing else.
And I’ll tip my hat to this first episode: using the overworked cells of a failing body as a vehicle to tell a story about workers being crushed beneath the heel of capitalism is a solid choice. Our fresh-faced newbie Red goes from watching an ancient introductory video talking about the importance of getting to know one another and a soothing trainer assuring them that overtime will be minimal to a hellish on-the-job training session overseen by senior workers who are beaten down and bitter from exhaustion. The workforce is stretched thin, breaks are nonexistent, and Red is told in no uncertain terms to work until he drops. It’s as subtle as a brick through a landlord’s window, and I’m into it.
Which is why I’m also so annoyed that they chose Harada Shigemitsu, of all people, to pen the manga this series is based on. Harada is primarily an ecchi writer (his thin resume includes a series entitled “Oretama” or “My Balls”), which probably won’t shock you if you’ve seen the designs for his White Blood Cells (before anybody “well actually”s me, Harada works as a team with newcomer artist Hatsuyoshia Issei). While the original Cells has some gender-normative designs (male Red Blood Cells get to wear pants while all the ladies are in shorts, that kind of thing), it’s got nothing on the uniformly triple-G sporting Neutrophils of CODE BLACK, who helpfully wear their combat jumpsuits unzipped to the waist so you can appreciate their assets. There’s an attempt at parity with the V-neck sporting, hairy-chested Killer-T Cells, but it simply can’t match the bobbling bazooms for absurdity. And while the opening theme shows a few cell types with mixed genders, the episode itself is solidly in “one gender species” territory, presumably to capitalize on the novelty of cis-swapping the original leads.
I belabor this point because while this first episode includes a fair amount of physical violence and some body horror, I’m already aware that the manga includes sexualized violence toward its female characters via a Gonorrhea tentacle monster. Probably around episode four, if the show continues at its current pace of adaptation. Maybe I’m jumping the gun and this adaptation will skip or tone down the manga’s sexual violence, but it’s exhausting to be constantly on guard in shows like this for when their desire to ogle the female cast will inevitably turn into ogling their brutalization for cheap shock value (and no, the fact that you’ve given these characters knives doesn’t make it better; “strong lady forcefully made helpless” is part of the fetishizing).
I like gore and body horror and blunt anti-capitalist metaphors; I like that this episode ends with Red denying the advice that he suppress his emotions, given how often that advice is uncritically foisted on men in entertainment in life. But I’ll be watching this one at arm’s length, and not just because Funimation has made the unique choice not to subtitle the on-screen text of an edutainment anime; the cynic in me doubts it can keep the balance of asking us to engage with these characters while consistently emotionally and physically brutalizing them week after week. Let’s see if it can prove me wrong.