With a pandemic spreading through our global community, it’s hard to avoid increased mentions of people’s bodies. Some of the endless media and medical talk treats bodies as sobering metonymic abstractions, representing countless unidentified sick or dead people. Other people address bodies as frightful realities, shelters to a novel virus that’s sometimes invisible and sometimes fatal. Public conversations around bodies have become qualitative, about high or low risk, strength and vitality, as though this latest end-of-the-world TV serial was brought to us by Charles Darwin. Even for so-called low-risk people who are social distancing, bunkering at home in their PJs with a wartime ration of snacks, the conceit of the body may suddenly feel like a haunted house: you’re either in the suspenseful moment before the poltergeist’s attack, or you’re already possessed.
But what if we could reimagine the body during this time of disaster? What if we could use a whole new vocabulary for the way we’re talking about health and wellness? The chipper anime series Cells at Work! does just that, and it may be the perfect balm in an era where coronavirus has made bodies so frightening and unpredictable.
In the 2018 series, currently available on Netflix and Crunchyroll, the ditzy, directionally challenged Red Blood Cell tries to do her job of delivering oxygen to cells throughout the body while avoiding constant catastrophes in the form of invading germs, bacteria, and viruses. She’s helped out by the militant White Blood Cell, who has a good heart but poor social skills. (The white blood cells’ favorite catchphrase is “Die, germ!”) A host of other cells also contribute, some quirkier and more curious than others, like the cryptic basophil and the cheery macrophages, who accessorize their frilly maid dresses with massive weapons.
The show, adapted from Akane Shimizu’s manga, has a simple monster-of-the-week setup. But it’s refreshing in its wholesome predictability, and isn’t actually about the villains, though it is delightful to see the massive globs of cedar-pollen allergens or the grape-cluster staphylococcus bacteria wreak havoc in their different ways. Instead, the show is about the resilience of the body and a community of individuals — cells or otherwise — working together toward a singular goal.
Each time a cell is introduced — say, the mercilessly adorable Platelets, or the brainy, tea-loving Helper T Cell — the series takes its time in describing their vital functions in relationship to the other cells in the body, and the body’s broader economy. Immature cells, or cells tied to a single specific occupation are often shown exhibiting insecurities. They’re also given their own personal character backgrounds, and provided with a chance to shine.
One of the most striking episodes of Cells at Work! features the flu, as a virus that invades in the style of a zombie takeover, while a young, scared immune cell tries to face his fear and come into his own as one of the body’s elite fighters. It’s easy and satisfying to imagine COVID-19 in this episode, as an invading virus rapidly multiplies and attacks, and the cells team up to do their jobs and take it down.
In another episode, a cancer cell is introduced as a variation on the usual one-note villain. He’s written sympathetically, as a mutant cell who aims to destroy the body because as soon as he was born, the body was intent on destroying him. Putting aside the touch of cognitive dissonance the episode creates, in asking viewers to sympathize with a wide-ranging, common, often debilitating disease, the show nails a more serious emotional note in the way the antagonist represents the antithesis of how the series has established itself. Of course a cancer cell feels like a victim turned villain — it’s unintentionally at odds with the rest of the body, which functions as a finely tuned machine, producing nutrients, maintaining homeostasis, and valiantly guarding against threats.
But the body is also political in almost every sense in which it appears. In our time of pandemic, the body has been politicized as a symbol of our country’s shoddy health care policies. Its brazen indifference to marginalized communities and minority citizens has been brought to the fore. Where infected bodies have become a stand-in for the larger infected body of America, in Cells at Work!, a body is an equitable, hard-working country, with a strong conception of unity and community.
As an unoriginal high-school drama teacher would say, there are no small parts. Red Blood Cell proves the point — she’s a negligible, infinitesimal part of her personal body, but she still spends the entire first season of Cells at Work! attempting to improve at her job. Even in the dramatic, apocalyptic two-part finale, where her body is at the brink of death, she valiantly continues to do what she can as long as she’s still able to walk.
There’s a natural comparison to draw between Cells at Work! and the Farrelly brothers’ 2001’s movie (and spinoff series) Osmosis Jones, given how they both turn bodily functions into animated, anthropomorphic heroes. But an essential difference, besides the tone and aesthetic, is the way Osmosis Jones peeks into the outside world for context. Bill Murray plays the body the hero cells are fighting to defend, and the movie banks on gross-out humor involving Murray to mine most of its laughs. In Cells at Work!, we don’t see the body, though the string of incidents it suffers — food poisoning, the flu, heatstroke, hemorrhagic shock — raises a lot of questions. Who does this body belong to? Age? Sex? Background? Why are they at risk for so many diseases? How are they conducting themselves in the world?
In this series, those details are irrelevant. They’re a distraction, even. What matters is the internal battle, and the sense that the cells are all cheerfully cooperating to keep this body working at its highest potential. In the real world, we’re at war with a disease that’s forcing us to fight our basic social urges and isolate ourselves, as hospitals and hard-working medical professionals try to make do with limited and failing resources. Cells at Work!’s conceit that our bodies contain an entire army of well-meaning, hard-working organisms working toward our survival is precious and uplifting. After all, the body shouldn’t be associated with disaster and doom. We have enough of that to deal with in the outside world. Even in times of challenging illness and disease, the body should be a fighting tide, a site of hope.