One of the biggest anime hits of the summer is unfolding on a microscopic scale. Adapted from Akane Shimizu's manga of the same name, Cells At Work! gives viewers a look inside the daily lives of the cells inside us, reimagining the tiniest units of life as heroes and villains and the human body they inhabit as a sprawling urban environment. At this level, even the smallest scratch to the skin's surface can cause catastrophe down below. The end result is hilarious from our perspective, but terrifying from theirs.
Within an almost uncountable population of busy workers, we follow two main protagonists: a female red blood cell who is continually getting lost while trying to deliver oxygen, and a male white blood cell who conveniently always shows up to point her in the right direction. His job is to defend normal cells like her against bacteria and viruses -- stylized as villainous "monsters of the week" for our heroes to fight.
The show's success is owed to how well it manages to mix all of the things we love about this curious sub-genre; the edu-taining fun of Osmosis Jones, the anthropomorphized cuteness of Inside Out and the gore and horror of Rick and Morty's "Anatomy Park" episode. It's gone over particularly well with Chinese audiences, racking up over 50 million views on the country's most popular anime streaming service, making it China's current favorite anime series.
Alice Chen, a reporter for the South China Morning Post, attributes this partly to the show's educational component. Speaking to high school Biology teachers, she discovered that some of them considered Cells At Work! to be scientifically accurate enough to be assigned as homework. The teachers praised the way that the series reinforced what students were learning about in school by packaging the information in a more appealing way. "I love how it illustrates the cells as human beings," one student said. "And the white blood cell is so cool."
These teachers aren't alone in singing the show's academic praises, either. Dr. Satoru Osuka, a cancer researcher at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia, recently tweeted about the seventh episode in the series, "Cancer Cell." In the episode, our heroes face their toughest bodily battle yet against the titular cell.
In a follow-up blog post, he explained the scientific content of the episode in more detail, including how Cells At Work!'s depiction of normal cells mutating into gormless zombies without detection was a good representation of how cancer can start and spread. Osuka also tweeted that he was "truly grateful" for the show in providing a "good opportunity to understand cancer in detail," pointing out how well it highlighted early symptoms of the disease that are easy to miss. "You can't remember with text books about living things," he added, "but with this you can remember."