In the summer of 2018, fans (including myself) of Japanese comic artist Shimizu Akane (清水茜) were excited. The long-waited animated series of her manga Cells at Work! (Hataraku saibō, はたらく細胞) was finally aired. Three years later, the animated series of its spin-off, Cells at Work! Code Black, was released. Both comics feature the human immune system, with a red blood cell and a white blood cell being protagonists. The comics metaphorize the human body as a giant factory (or company) with trillions of cells working as employees. The tiny people in Cells at Work! are lucky to work in a relatively healthy environment (body). Those in Cells at Work! Code Black, however, are exploited in a “black company” (burakku kigyō, ブラック企業), overworking to sustain the bodily functions of a smoking, drinking, unhealthy man with cardiac disease and STD—a stressful experience many working men and women find not difficult to sympathize with at all. This educational manga and anime re-ignited many people’s lost interest in their health, as well as knowing about their bodies inside out.
Anime reviewer Rebecca Silverman on Anime News Network: “If I had this book during biology class in middle and high school, I probably would have been a lot more interested in the subject.” (Silverman, “Review,” 2016)
“I hope this episode helps you quit smoking. If you are not gonna do it for yourself, do it for these little red blood cells. They don’t deserve the stress we put on them.” (Doctor Mike, “Doctor reacts to Cells at Work: Code Black Ep #1,” 2021).
Aside from its colorful visualization and well-thought-out character designs, I see a more fundamental and persistent attribute of the long history of popularization of medical knowledge in Japan: humanization that synchronized contemporary society.
In early modern period (particularly from 18th century to mid-19th century), popularization of medical knowledge accompanied fast development of urban culture. Entertainment culture and woodblock prints of ukiyo-e painting and popular literature flourished. City dwellers in Edo and Osaka went to theatres and read humorous novels featuring kabuki actors, prostitutes, and businessmen. They were also able to learn their body functions and methods of life-nourishment (yōjō, 養生) in an entertaining way. For instance, in a 1793 light fiction titled Jūshi keisei hara no uchi (十四傾城腹之内), popular novelist Shiba Zengō familiarized his readers with view of body in traditional Chinese medicine. Referring to Jūshi kei hakki (十四経発揮), a popular medical book on basics of acupuncture, Shiba humanized organs of a sick prostitute in brothel—a common protagonist in popular novels for commoners (Screech, 202-4).
Following the order from her heart, her liver, which was humanized as the general manager, oversaw digestion. Sitting with two accountant-like men representing the spleen and stomach (Hi-i, 脾胃), and the gallbladder (Kimottama, 胆玉), the liver recorded in his notes every detail of the prostitute’s dietary life: amount of food and snack intake, amount of tea and alcohol, and times of excretion and fart (see picture 1).
The ukiyoe Rules of Dietary Regimen (Inshoku yōjō kagami, 飲食養生鑑), presumably produced around 1850 by Utagawa Kunisada (歌川国貞) or his understudy, was another good example of how artists envisioned the internal world of human body based on their medical knowledge and understanding of the society (see picture 2). To educate people about the functions of organs and rules of healthy eating (Shirasugi, 22), the ukiyoe colored the organs differently, assigned tasks to tiny samurais, peasants, and labors in accordance with different functions of the organs. Perceiving the heart as the most important organ commanding others to work, the artist drew a high-level samurai sitting with books and low-level samurai servants around him. By contrast, in colon, low-level samurai were instructing peasant-like labors to ready feces with hoes for excretion. Inside the body of a dining man, one can see the hierarchical society in miniature.
After Meiji Restoration, Japanese society was characterized by fast industrialization, continuing efforts to systematize governance, and adoption of modern science and technology. These changes transformed Japanese people’s view of society and their bodies, which, an 1889 medical booklet vividly mirrored. Written by doctor Nadaoka Komatarō (灘岡駒太郎), Sanital [Sanitary] Model: Political Descrih[p]tion in Human-Body (Jinshin tainai seiji-ki, 人身体内政事記) was published seven months after the Constitution of the Empire of Japan was proclaimed. Borrowing concepts and figures from trendy discourses of cabinet politics and constitution, Nadaoka personified nerves as cabinet ministers who were responsible to Emperor Spirit (Seishin tenno, 精神天皇). Gathering at the cabinet meeting inside human body, they decided how ministries and relevant companies (systems of organs) should work to govern the inner-body society (See picture 3).
Influenced by advancing anatomical studies in Japan, Nadaoka’s depiction of organ functions was medically more accurate in comparison with earlier books or paintings. However, the efforts remained the same to draw upon real-life situations to simplify medical terminologies for non-expert readers. In an illustration introducing the functions of digestive system, Nadaoka metaphorized the digestive organs (liver, spleen, gallbladder, pancreas, and stomach) as factories of the “nourishing company” (Jiyō kaisha, 滋養会社). In the new-style factories with tall chimneys, the working miniature people no longer wore kimono but shirts and pants (see picture 4). Lungs were “trading companies” (Kōeki kaisha, 交易会社) under the supervision of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (respiratory nerves)—an unsurprising metaphor only after the end of Japan’s voluntary isolation (see picture 5).
From early modern period to current day, people draw upon contemporary affairs and anthropomorphizes commonly untouchable body parts to make knowledge of human body comprehensible by non-experts. The opened Japanese bodies not only showcased people’s view of human body but reflected the socio-economic and political situations of their days. How will Japanese people portray human body after Cells at Work? The answer is like a box of chocolates.
1. All Japanese names in this article follows the customs of “last name first, first name second.”
2. Edo was the capital city in early modern Japan (Edo period) from early 17th to mid-19th century.
Doctor Mike. Doctor Reacts to Cells at Work: Code Black Ep #1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9lC_gA9CZAA . Accessed August 18, 2023.
Nadaoka, Komatarō. Jinshin tainai seiji ki. Hōseidō, 1889.
Screech, Timon. Opening the Edo Body. Translated by Takayama Hiroshi, Sakuhin-sha, 1997.
Shirasugi, Etsuo. “Envisioning the Inner Body in Edo-Japan: Inshoku yojo kagami and Boji yojo kagami.” Acta anatomica Nipponica 81(1), March 2006, 19-22.
Shiba, Zenkō. Jūshi keisei hara no uchi. Tsuruya kiemon, 1793.
Silverman, Rebecca. Review: Cells at Work! Anime News Network, https://www.animenewsnetwork.com/review/cells-at-work/gn-1/.108757. Accessed August 17, 2023.