Cells at Work! Code Black

3 out of 5

Directed by: Hideyo Yamamoto

covers season 1

Having enjoyed Cells at Work!, spin-off series Code Black is surely intriguing just based on the association, but taking place in a “code black” body – a poorly-functioning host, addicted to cigarettes and alcohol and riddled with STDs and the like – is a gripping premise, promising a more “adult” version of the somewhat weightless antics that occupied the happy-go-lucky occupants of the parent show’s body. Of course, “adult” can be misinterpreted as it is here, with a sort of try-hard mentality that could be seen as the grimdark variant of CaW; or perhaps the horny, heterosexual, teenage-boy variant, given the White Blood Cells’ being gender-swapped here for gigantically-busted ladies, in impossibly low-cut tops and occasionally getting harassed by tentacles. …At least, at first. At first, I considered dropping Code Black for these reasons, as it didn’t seem like it would be getting up to much except proving that it wasn’t a kids’ show via swears and boobs, and Cells at Work!s second season, running at the same time, was bringing in greater story-telling maturity and variance than the first season, solving for some of its initial flaws. Still, Black’s animation studio Liden has produced some works I’ve very much enjoyed, and both opening and closing themes are by Polysics, and there’s definitely something undeniably unique to its sense of hopelessness, pitting our eager protag type – a Red Blood Cell, voiced by Junya Enoki – against a world that’s simply not conducive to his gung-ho work ethic, throwing up impossible, and truly insurmountable odds in every episode. And I think after we get past some of that tentacle porn and boobage, the horniness chills a bit, and the show relies more on its characters, using the lead RBC’s energy to play off of the attitudes of some of the other cells, some of whom are inspired, some of whom redirect their jealousy to slacking off (or becoming addicted to caffeine!), and some of whom are depressed by their inability to achieve the same levels of confidence. There are definitely also other “good” red blood cells we meet, perhaps dedicated to their duties for different reasons, and it’s fascinating to see some of the systems we’ve seen in the original CaW, but how they operate when things are absolutely not optimal.

The whole grimdark thing still lurks at the edges, somewhat preventing the writing from fully breaking out into something a bit more developed, but Code Black does mature, to a degree, as it goes along, and the lead RBC’s arc is fairly well-balanced – Enoki doesn’t portray the character as too chipper, and we’re allowed to see how the environment wears on him over time. Liden does a good job with these beats, and I continue to feel like their relative “stiffness” with animation can serve darker moods like this pretty well, although it’s certainly too limited for larger scale events.