By Raz Greenberg.
Based on Akane Shimizu’s original manga, David Production’s Cells at Work! quickly became one of the highlights of the current anime season, especially due to its innovative concept: portraying the cells within the human body as anthropomorphised characters, with a particular emphasis given to the daring deliveries of oxygen by the red blood cells under the threat of invading bacteria, and the struggle of the white blood cells against the bacteria, all while teaching the readers some basic concepts of human biology.
The idea of animating the inner work the human body using anthropomorphized characters is not new; the most famous example is of course Pixar’s Inside Out, and those with affinity for bad movies might remember the Farrelly brothers’ 2001 live action/animation hybrid feature Osmosis Jones. Long before both films, however, there was Il était une fois… la vie (Once Upon a Time… Life), a French 1987 television series with a Japanese touch, produced by Albert Barillé.
Born in Poland, Barillé made his first foray into animation with the stop-motion puppet show Colargol, a Polish-French coproduction known as Barnaby in English speaking countries. He became a household name in the French animation industry, however, when in 1978 he produced Il était une fois… l’homme (Once Upon a Time… Man) an ambitious animated series which followed human history from early evolution to the early 20th century. Naturally, the show gave a greater focus to historical events in France and Europe, but it nonetheless remains an impressive achievement in providing its intended young audience a broad historical overview spread across only 26 half-hour episodes. The show’s concluding episode, with its warning against the arms race and the mutually-assured-destruction politics of the cold war was particularly impressive in its chilling demonstration of how the long history of mankind could come to a tragic end, brought upon the human race by itself.
Once Upon a Time… Man proved to be a huge success, drawing praises for its educational approach and leading to the development of an entire franchise of animated shows, each exploring another educational theme, finding further success beyond the local French audience in many different countries (although the franchise still remains relatively unknown in English-speaking territories). Once Upon a Time… Life was the most innovative production in the franchise, moving away from the usual focus on history and geography to explore the different mechanisms of the human body. It is here that the similarities between Barillé’s show and Cells at Work are most obvious, starting with the divide between the working-class red blood cells and the law-enforcing white blood cells who struggle against monstrous bacteria, although Cells at Work portrays this struggle as far more brutal. Several other elements are shared between the Japanese and the French show, although utilized somewhat differently – notably an arsenal of futuristic-looking weaponry at the hands of the body’s protectors and something of a labyrinth-approach to the inner structure of the body. And there is, of course, the overall thematic approach – Once Upon a Time… Life was a pedagogical affair, with relationship between different characters kept to a minimum, whereas Cells at Work relies on the personalities of its characters to push things forward. Still, the similarities between the two shows are strong, and perhaps for a good reason.
As early as Once Upon a Time… Man, Barillé’s studio Procidis has collaborated with Japanese studios in the production of its shows. Once Upon a Time… Man employed the services of Tatsunoko Production (the production house behind classics as Speed Racer, Gatchaman and Casshan) while Once Upon a Time… Life employed the Eiken studio (which, under its earlier name TCJ, produced pioneering robot shows as Tetsujin 28-go and 8 Man). Among the Japanese animators who worked with Barillé are background designer Yoji Nakaza (who later also worked on Grave of the Fireflies and Akira) and chief animation director Masaki Sato (later credited with character design on Interstella 5555 – another innovative French-Japanese animated production).
Certain elements in the franchise certainly have an anime feeling to them, though it’s hard to say for certain if these elements were directly inspired by the work with the Japanese studios. For example, one stylistic motif that stood out in all of the franchise’s shows was the use of a stock of regular characters that are cast in different roles in each episode, reminiscent of Osamu Tezuka’s “Star System”. Once Upon a Time… Life used this element extensively, as it used the same cast of characters to portray human life of both the outside world and the inside of the human body. I couldn’t, however, find any reference to a direct influence of Tezuka on Barillé. The Once Upon a Time… shows also use characters of simple, cartoony design against detailed backgrounds, in a manner very similar to anime productions, yet their characters’ facial features are closer to the “clear line” style of Franco-Belgian comics than to that of manga and anime that often emphasizes different tones and shading (Cells at Work actually gives a good example of this emphasis in its frequent close-ups on characters’ faces).
French internet users were quick to recognize the similarities between Cells at Work and Once Upon a Time… Life – even though artist Akane Shimizu has denied being aware of the French show. The reason to look back at Once Upon a Time… Life in light of the popularity that Cells at Work enjoys, however, is not related to the influence that the latter may or may not have had on the former; rather, it is because it gives a chance to appreciate the French show’s general optimism that’s not unlike that of the Japanese show: portraying how, despite many different hazards and problems, the amazing machine of the human body can always recover and keep on working. In fact, in a stark contrast to the grim futuristic conclusion of Once Upon a Time… Man, Once Upon a Time… Life ended with a futuristic episode that was highly optimistic of future medical and scientific developments and their contribution to the betterment of human life. There’s something to look forward to!
Raz Greenberg is the author of Hayao Miyazaki: Exploring the Early Work of Japan’s Greatest Animator.