A popular anime/manga series that swept the internet recently, Cells At Work is basically if Osmosis Jones (and/or Ozzy and Drix for those who remember that show) got an anime upgrade and was written by someone with some serious med school education. The anime has become so popular that fans feel inspired to at least try and take care of their health. Not to mention that the characters were used in a recent ad for blood donation in Japan.
Some fans wonder what kind of world the Cells at Work really is because of how the cells are created and the unusual way that the show portrays diseases such as cancer. The world of Cells at Work is, to quote a video from YouTube “rigidly utilitarian” and some people comment that it borders on a dystopia.
Pump the brakes, otakus. Keep in mind a few things:
1) This show’s characters represent the human body, which functions differently from Western society as a whole.
2) The manga writer/illustrator is Japanese. Sociologically speaking, the Japanese (and Eastern society as a whole) tend to emphasize the collective needs over the individual. (For an example of the cultural difference, watch Crazy Rich Asians.)
3) The best way to reconcile this view is looking at the body of Christ and the Catholic view on how God’s will and mankind’s free will can work together.
“For as in one body we have many parts, and all the parts do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually parts of one another”- Romans 12:5
(There’s also a really long passage from 1 Corinthians 12, but I’ll use the verses as I go along.)
To start with, all the cells in Cells at Work were created with a purpose. It ties into the verse in the first part of 1 Corinthians 12 about spiritual gifts. Every person on Earth, as crazy as this sounds, was given a purpose even before they were born. The cells in this anime were just created knowing their function from early childhood. Sometimes, such in the case of Red Blood Cell aka AE 3803, it takes people a while to do well with their gifts.
AE 3803’s character arc centers on her navigating her way through the body. She gets lost all the time and runs into her share of trouble. Thankfully, she usually has people who help and in one episode, she does manage to make it through the circulatory system all on her own (for the most part). And even though she can be a bit easily distracted, she really came through on the cancer 2-parter when she realizes that something is very wrong and alerts the entire immune system team.
1 Corinthians 12: 22 applies to the adorable platelets (“the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are all the more necessary…”) who seem small and vulnerable, especially since they look like kids and in real life have short lifespans. However, these platelets are very important in repairing the body, healing scrapes and cuts and probably whatever interior damage the body takes. Not to mention, they provide a breath of relief and are adored by a good portion of the fanbase. (They also make a great case for platelet donation.)
One thing fans of the series overlook is that the major characters have a personality and free will to a certain extent. After all, White Blood Cell (aka U-1146) chooses to be friends with AE 3803 even though Killer T Cell discourages the idea. Killer T, however, has his own insecurities, as he has this combative friendship with Helper T cell and a belligerent relationship with NK Cell. Poor Killer T needs to watch his salt intake.
So if all the cells (and by extension all humans) are created with a purpose, how does that explain cancer and the other diseases that harm the body? The nature of sin. Due to original sin, our bodies aren’t created perfectly, so we will be vulnerable to sin from outside forces, just like how the body can be vulnerable to diseases.
Cancer, however, comes from our own bodies. And in the show, the cancer cell was portrayed with a somewhat sympathetic past.
In my opinion, cancer cells represent people who are corrupted by a sin within themselves. In Doctor Ed Hope’s words, cancer is essentially a cellular psychopath. It’s true that there are people who feel like they were born wrong or feel like a mistake and they have to realize that they were created to be good. Unfortunately, due to the nature of sin, some people choose to basically corrupt and destroy the people and the world around them. “If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it.”
The only way to deal with sin is to fight it and cut it at its root. This is why the scene where the entire body comes together to fight the growing cancer is one of my favorite moments in the whole show. And while the cancer cell may have some sympathetic moments, it crosses the line by trying to destroy the body. In the manga, Cancer Cell makes a scary comeback and even manipulates a Negotiator T Cell into protecting him, taking advantage of an actual blind spot.
If you or someone you know has suffered or even died from cancer, don’t see the Cancer Cell as a symbol of your despair. Cancer is one of those things in this world that doesn’t make sense. It’s hard to understand the nature of evil. We just know it when we see it and all we can do is fight it.
So if you’re into anything relating to the medical field or want a nice anime that’s relatively lighthearted and has some surprisingly deep meanings, check out Cells At Work on vrv or wait for the English dub via Aniplex. And yes, the English dub cast is singing the theme!