Cells at Work!
はたらく細胞 (Hataraku Saibou)
Shounen – Action, comedy, educational, sci-fi
5 Volumes (hiatus)
Every day, cells band together to keep the body running smoothly. But the inside world is a dangerous place: bacteria, viruses, and even rogue cells can try to attack. But no matter if a cell is dedicated to delivering oxygen, fighting invaders, healing injuries, or communicating, everyday, they’re hard at work!
How many of you read The Magic School Bus? Specifically, The Magic School Bus Inside the Human Body? Well, instead of kids touring the body, imagine that they were born and raised there in order to work. Now throw in some manga staples like tsundere twintails and monster girls, and voila — Cells at Work!
Technically, everyone is named something like “White Blood Cell Neutrophil Division, U-1176”, but the series concentrates on certain cell and just calls them “White Blood Cell” or whatever. So although “Red Blood Cell” could refer to any one of the Red Blood Cells, for the manga, it almost certainly means the girl on the cover.
Newbie Red Blood Cell’s job is to transport oxygen, but she has a horrible sense of direction. As she finishes up a delivery, bacterium attack! Luckily, she and others are saved when White Blood Cell kills them off. She’s thankful, but White Blood Cell finds it a little awkward since it’s just his job. Long story short, they keep running into each other as the body faces various problems, some more dangerous than others. The two become friends, although Red Blood Cell appears to have a crush on White Blood Cell. Meanwhile, they interact work with many other cells, from a cute little Platelet to the Jojo-esque Killer T Cell.
Now, I have to admit these kind of series are hard for me to read… because I’m a wimp. I have a bit of a hypochondriac streak inside me. And while Cells at Work! covers a range of illnesses and injuries, and some might hit a little too close to home for some readers. That, and the manga can be quite bloody. I know, it’s ironic considering the theme of the manga, but White Blood Cell and others can be absolutely drenched after an encounter with an adversary.
But Shimizu does an amazing job in imagining how cells-as-people would act and function in a world with diseases and medicines. Cells go to school and eventually train to become a part of society. Most of the bacteria and viruses are portrayed as monsters that look like enemies from an RPG. But some of the other dangers are like kaiju, and cells must also face issues like droughts and construction.
Yes, construction. Nothing like trying to escape with a big hole in the way. Or maybe you’ll just relate to being stuck in a busy terminal and trying to make it through to your next destination.
The cells are always at work, so we don’t get to see them at rest. (Well, except for the one who has to stay at home watching over other cells, which he admits is boring a lot of the time.) Early chapters follow Red Blood Cell as she tries to do her job without getting lost or into trouble, and White Blood Cell helps her as a part of his job. But as the manga goes on, Red Blood Cell becomes less and less important. I think she was seen once in the fourth volume, 0 times in the fifth. Instead, Cells at Work! decides to have a longer arcs and be almost philosophical. Although I like White Blood Cell, I hope Red Blood Cell isn’t reduced to being a guest character. I can understand sometimes faking-out readers as to who the protagonist is (Sket Dance is one example), and following White Blood Cell around is better from a story perspective to introduce new crises to the body. But she has been around too long to just be another cell that pops up now and then. Plus, her crush on (or budding feelings for) White Blood Cell is too cute.
White Blood Cell seems like a scary guy, but he’s actually a deep character. His role is to get rid of threats, but he is one of the few who respects cells that have other jobs. He doesn’t kill mercilessly even though others call him weak for being sympathetic and empathetic. There are quite a few different cells who are dedicated to fighting threats to the body, and while they are fun and quirky in their own way, White Blood Cell is the most interesting.
One thing to consider is that releases have stalled. Plenty of spin-offs are being released (many in Japan and a few in English), but who knows how long it will be until Volume 6 is released. It will probably be at least another year. Volume 5 ends on a note similar to an anime season, so it’s not like readers are left on a cliffhanger. But since the manga is on hiatus, it doesn’t make you want to rush out and buy the series or even borrow it.
The art is pretty incredible. It combines the human body with suburban society. Manholes operate as a special enter/exit for certain cells. Cells in charge monitor others through computers. The infections look scary but still have some inspiration from their real-life counterparts. The cells all have their unique visuals both in their facial features as well as their outfits. Red Blood Cell is adorable, another is a twintail tsundere, and no one can have a heart of steel when looking at Platelets. (And if you do, you’re a monster!!) We even see younger versions of the main characters. English is written on some articles of clothing, and color pages are included in each volume. Panels are busy but not usually too overwhelming. The fighter cells put a lot of effort into getting rid of the enemy, and at times, it looks like a warzone. The different cells have their own unique ways of fighting, from knives to tridents to guns loaded with liquids. Do plan on seeing a lot of text boxes to explain diseases and such, and expect to read about the main characters’ positions and job descriptions every single chapter. That’s annoying if you’re marathoning the series. However, overall, it’s just so much fun to look at, and Cells at Work! is the kind of manga where you can’t help but be excited for whatever comes next.
Honorifics are used, which is a little weird in a series like this. “White Blood Cell-san” just doesn’t roll off the tongue naturally. Some translation notes are included. But obviously, in an edutainment series like this, there aren’t a lot of cultural notes or pop culture references.
Cells at Work! is a fun imagining of what goes on inside your body, but with the manga volumes stalled, it may be worth waiting to see what the future brings for the series.
Crunchyroll has the anime available to stream. The spin-off Cells at Work! CODE BLACK is also available from Kodansha Comics. Spin-offs Cells at Work and Friends! and Cells NOT at Work! are available from Kodansha Comics as digital-only releases.