Cells at Work
Cells at Work is an ongoing manga series by Akane Shimizu, and it follows in the Japanese tradition of turning anything into cute girls. In this case it is the cells of the human body that are being turned into cute girls, and a few good-looking guys. What makes this series truly stand out is that it is trying to inform while it entertains. Now hold: on what about shows like Kantai Collection, which throws out tidbits of World War II naval history as we enjoy the antics of cute ship girls? What sets Cells at Work apart from something like Kantai Collection is that the science content of the manga takes center stage and is presented in a way that truly informs as it entertains. Think of it like a more educational version of Osmosis Jones, only I think the characters in Cells at Work look better.
There isn’t a truly over-arching storyline throughout the first five volumes of the manga, as the stories are more episodic in nature, lasting one or two chapters. Despite this there is something of a continuity as you will see various characters and ideas pop up again as needed in future storylines, so there is a small bit of connection. What hooked me, and the science nerd in me, was the name of the first chapter: Pneumococcus, where we begin with a red blood cell going about her job, only for her to be at ground zero of a Pneumococcus infection.
The author does not shy away from the scientific terms either, as they are liberally sprinkled throughout the story, and in many places little explanations are given for the less scientifically inclined.
Further storylines include cuts, allergies, the flu, cancer, stress, how blood cells are made, immunity, acne, the cardiovascular system, and shock, to name a few. I know that these don’t sounds like very interesting story topics, but that shows the skill of the author in that he is able to take such complex and dry sounding stories and turn them into something interesting. The cardiovascular system storyline is only one chapter long, but by the end of it you will be rooting for the red blood cell as she finally completes a circuit through the circulatory system without getting lost. You’ll also keeping coming back to see more of the T cell and his crazy friends (the rest of the immune system). My personal favorite is the macrophage, who reminds me of Roberta from Black Lagoon.
As my former students can attest to I am not an artist, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate good art when I see it. The artwork is excellent and the human body cell characters are drawn in a much more realistic style than what is seen in some manga, albeit with the characteristically large eyes found in manga characters. If I had to call it anything, I would say it’s similar to what you would see in a shounen manga, but without any of the expected fan service. Many of the characters will also have visual cues as to their role in the human body like the macrophage being dressed as a maid for its role in helping other cells, or the B cell carrying a massive spray gun for releasing antibodies.
The bacteria and other infectious agents are drawn in a more monstrous fashion, but like the human body cell characters their design is influenced by their real-world characteristics. For example, Pneumococcus, the villain of the first chapter, is a bacteria that has a circular shape and that also forms long strands of cells seen in the image below.
Now look at the artist’s representation of Pneumococcus and we can see both ball shaped parts to represent the spherical shape of the bacteria, and long stringy parts to represent the long strands the bacteria forms.
The body itself is represented as a massive city or factory, depending on the part of the body that is being depicted. I like this sort of setting as it allows for interesting analogies to help explain certain topics and move the story along.
One such example occurs when explaining a sneeze and its role in removing allergens and bacteria from the body. The sneeze is depicted as a large rocket being fired out of the body. Another example is the T-cell dropping out of ceiling grates and other random places to explain how T-cells can transmigrate or enter and leave the blood vessels.
As you can expect from a manga about the inner workings of human body there is a large cast of characters, and yet not so large at the same time. There are tons of red blood cells that all share a similar look, but only the lead character stands out. The same goes for each of the other cell types; they are all drawn in a similar manner, but the lead character for each type is given some distinguishing characteristics. Their personalities tend to match their role in the body, like the killer T-cells being obsessed about fighting and killing cells, as killer T-cells focus on killing other cells. My personal favorite is the macrophage for having both sides of Black Lagoon’s Roberta Lovelace’s psyche. There are all sorts of these little shout-outs to other manga and anime scattered throughout Cells at Work.
The first cell that we are introduced to is the red blood cell, and she is best described as a stereotypical genki girl, who is inexperienced but just wants to do her job well. It’s hard to not get wrapped up in her adventures across the human body, as everything that happens, happens when she is around. The next character we are introduced to is the stoic white blood cell, who is much nicer than he appears. He makes for a nice straight man in some of the situations. If I had one complaint its that we don’t see enough of the red blood cell in the most recent volume (volume 5).
After reading all five volumes of Cells at Work, I have to say I am very impressed with the author’s knowledge of human anatomy and physiology. I have yet to find anything that was factually incorrect or watered down to the point of being useless. In fact, I even learned a few things about bacteria and how they help regulate the large intestine. Now, before I scare anyone else off, you do not need to be a biology major to enjoy and learn something from the manga. I would put the manga at the level of a high school Anatomy and Physiology class, or a college level introductory class on Biology. As long as you have a basic understanding of biology including what a cell is, you will be just fine. In fact, if I had had a copy of the manga when I was still teaching in Mongolia I would have had my students read some of the sections, specifically, the chapters 7 (red blood cell formation) and 10 (cardiovascular system). I will be posting more later on how you can use Cells at Work in the classroom.
Now I know there are a number of eagerly awaited new anime and sequels coming out this year. I’m looking at you My Hero Academia, and Full Metal Panic. Cells at Work is also getting an anime in July of this year, and while it won’t be as hyped as some of the others, I can’t wait. The preview looks amazing and I am looking forward to it as an anime to watch and potentially one that I could use in the classroom.
If I had to put a number on it, I would rate Cells at Work a solid 8 out of 10. If you are a big fan of science add 1, if you’re not a science person subtract 1. Either way I would highly recommend everyone at least check out of the first chapter or two.