What’s it about? Inside every human is a bustling world of trillions of cells, each trying to do their jobs. A brand-new red blood cell is excited to start her first day of work delivering oxygen to various parts of the body, but when a pneumococcal bacterium invades, she’s not equipped to deal with it and find her way around the confusing labyrinth that is the circulatory system. She teams up with a white blood cell, whose receptor keeps going off whenever he’s around her. Will Red survive her first day? Or will she be devoured before she can deliver that packet of carbon dioxide?
I never thought I’d use the descriptor “Schoolhouse Rock meets Osmosis Jones meets Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure,” but I just watched Cells at Work so here we are.
It’s a fun piece of edutainment, a biology lesson by way of the director of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders. Its playful aesthetic truly brings the body’s systems to life, so to speak, creating a sense of a busy, diverse city while anthropomorphizing the body’s different cells in ways that make a lot of sense.
Of course red blood cells are a package delivery service; of course white blood cells are an elite combat group; of course platelets are adorable children; and of course virulent infections like pneumococcus look like threatening bug aliens. It all fits together in a cohesive aesthetic, making it easy to understand the different roles of each cell based on their appearance and personality.
Granted, that “common-sense” approach can lead to certain blind spots on the part of the design team. There’s quite a bit of gender normativity lurking underneath, revealing and reinforcing unexamined biases. The “combat units” like white blood cells and T-cells are universally masculine (it doesn’t make sense to call them male or female, since individual cells don’t have gender) while feminine-coded cells tend to be aggressively feminine, dressed in soft colors, drinking tea from elegant tea services, and speaking in gentle voices.
The main exception to this rule is the red blood cells, with visible masculine and feminine designs, including our heroine Red. But even then, there are niggling little flaws—the feminine ones wear shorts, while the masculine ones wear long pants.
Of course, Red is an individual within a system, so she’s worth taking a look at individually as well. She’s a perfectly functional protagonist, albeit with nothing to make her stand out from the crop of “eager and energetic but not yet competent newbie” main characters.
She’s cute and a good audience stand-in, as her own lack of knowledge makes her a convenient starting spot for people who come in knowing nothing about the body’s various systems. Her struggle with finding her way and not knowing precisely how to do her job after an insufficient orientation will likely bring back memories in quite a few adult viewers, too.
That same relatability brings a low-key sense of moe to her character as well. When a female protagonist struggles, it’s hard for me not to think of potential male viewers who specifically prefer nonthreatening, borderline-helpless women. I know that doesn’t bother a lot of viewers, and some even specifically like moe anime for that aspect. But I can never quite get comfortable with that sense of women being a package for male consumption.
Or maybe I’m being unfair. I like Red. I like spunky female characters, and her dynamic with the intimidating, stone-faced White is a lot of fun. I want to see her grow and learn and succeed, and I want to learn everything I forgot in high school biology right alongside her.
The action is solid, reminiscent of Stardust Crusaders but less out-there than Hirohiko Araki’s famously out-there concept called for, and every frame brims with creativity and life. Underlying gender normativity notwithstanding, Cells at Work offers up one of the best pilots I’ve seen this season.
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