Back in 1992 there was this Super Nintendo game called Captain Novolin. It was essentially an educational tool for teaching players about Type 1 diabetes masquerading as a colorful platformer. Nice try, teachers!
“Edutainment” is great for kids, but it’s also synonymous with “not really entertainment,” which is why it’s doubly impressive whenever anything remotely informational manages to slip through and force us to learn something, whether we want to or not.
Enter Cells at Work!, a TV series that’s figured out the perfect formula for edutainment: monster of the week anime! That’s right, you’re gonna learn all about how your body fights off harmful diseases and, believe it or not, you’re gonna like it!
The Friends & Enemies Within
If ignorance is bliss when it comes to knowing the inner workings of our bodies, Cells at Work! aims to take that bliss and knife it in the jugular until it stops twitching. The story centers on a hapless Red Blood Cell—AKA Erythrocyte, or AE3803 to be specific—that’s completely green when it comes to her job. Like most viewers, she finds the labyrinthine network of the human body utterly befuddling. She constantly gets lost en route to her daily tasks, forcing her to turn to the assistance of other helpful Red Blood Cells and one particular White Blood Cell who is especially good at his job.
White Blood Cell—yes, this is how we have to refer to all the characters in Cells at Work!, so get used to it—couldn’t be more different from Red. Like his fellow Neutrophil workers, he’s ruthlessly efficient, tearing and slashing his way through foreign germs and viruses before they have a chance to become stronger and harm the host. Thanks to the educational twist that makes this series unique, there’s a perfectly valid reason for White to do his job as violently as possible. Seriously, bacteria doesn’t just get the boot here, it gets the full Crocodile Dundee knife from neck to navel.
You’ll also find plenty of hot-headed Killer T Cells, the maid-like Macrophages, and the seriously-stop-being-so-cute-it’s-ridiculous Platelets, which appear in the form of wee grade school children. They’re responsible for patching the body up after an injury, so they act like adorable construction workers who always seem to be hauling something way too large for them to handle. There’s an entire scene that plays up how cute it is that they have to strain just to take a package down a small set of stairs.
All the cells have their work cut out for them because, like I said, this is a straight-up monster of the week show. The first episode introduces a few vicious but otherwise standard Pneumococcus germs before the series moves on to do battle against the influenza virus, Vibrio bacteria, and allergies, as well as a particularly nasty brush with a Cancer Cell. The shapeshifting villain in question even has his own tragic backstory, which is the show’s way of letting us know how cancer cells are formed in the first place.
Part Edu, All Tainment
This might sound kind of dry on paper, but the disguise the show wears is so powerful that it ends up being anything but. From the bubbly, appropriately-infectious opening theme—which has voice actors Kana Hanazawa, Tomoaki Maeno, Daisuke Ono, and Kikuko Inoue singing their hearts out in character—to the episodic threats themselves, it’s hard not to fall for the charms at the center of Cells at Work!‘s circulatory system.
As for how the science is presented, it ranges from facts woven seamlessly into the narrative and the introduction of each new character to full-on info dumps. On-screen text occasionally joins forces with the narrator to let you know exactly what’s going on, with detailed explanations covering what every member of the team does and how their enemies wreak havoc on bodies when left unchecked for even a fleeting moment. If the results weren’t so cute it would all add up to literal body horror.
Where Cells at Work! really shines is in the creative twists it puts on everyday maladies and bodily functions. The cells working inside your body don’t just make you sneeze to eject bacteria, they give it their all and even sacrifice countless lives in the process to launch a giant sneeze missile out of your nose. Medication comes in the form of robots that plummet smack dab in the middle of the scene and destroy everything in sight until they run out of power. Throughout it all you never see the human host, because who cares about some boring old person when you have the most interesting factory in the world right in front of your eyes?
The latest episode is the first to really go beyond the monster of the week format, hinting at a few more storytelling skills original manga author Akane Shimizu and the folks at anime studio David Production (JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure) have yet to fully flex. The season’s almost over, so I wouldn’t hang any hopes on Cells at Work! abandoning what it does so well entirely, and that’s totally fine. As long as this is the closest I get to actually thinking about what’s going on inside my body every moment of every day, I’m totally happy to sit back and watch these dutifully diminutive workers do their thing.