Going into the series, we knew that Cells at Work! CODE BLACK wouldn't be all about happy cells or a relatively healthy body with occasional illnesses and ailments done for edutainment. Instead, the spinoff includes awful things like body horror, but the frightening aspects go deeper than that. The first episode was a rude awakening for both AA2153 and fans who didn't expect the working conditions to be this bad and considered the norm.
For those who have either worked in Japan before or are currently working there, this isn't a surprise. The spinoff's title references a workplace reality known as "black companies."
What is a "Black Company?"
Japanese workplaces are notorious for long working hours. Death from overwork has been categorized as a thing in Japan and is known as karoshi. While taking time off isn't disallowed, it also isn't something many people do due to several factors. Taking time away from work can be seen as lazy and disruptive to workplace harmony because it adds more burden to your colleagues. Employees are financially rewarded for not taking their annual leave. Those who need to take a break for mental health-related reasons might not be able to because it's still a heavily stigmatized topic. Times are changing, and people are shining a light on it more, but many people are still hesitant to voice their struggles.
The spinoff's title Code Black is a play on a term linked to a specific Japanese workplace culture known as a "black company." What makes a company "black" is if it goes one step further and is exploitative. Even an award, "Most Evil Corporation of the Year," was given to one company in 2016 after one of their employees had committed suicide because of overwork.
Black companies hire young people and force them to work overtime with very little pay. Since they're young, and because Japan is inherently a hierarchical structure, these employees are constantly harassed by their superiors, ranging from power harassment to sexual harassment. Unfortunately, trying to leave could damage their reputation, and they may struggle to find employment elsewhere.
How Code Black Represents Real Life
Code Black hasn't been shy about how the cells in different parts of the body parallel real life. In previous episodes, we saw cells working in dangerous conditions and dying from being overworked like AA2153's senpais. In Episode 6, the Glomeruli -- who are anthropomorphized as women in the workplace -- are expected to stay silent and work. Complaining is looked down upon, and Gran's last words were for them to continue working despite the Glomeruli having just watched Gran die. Code Black's previous episode showed a blatant exploitative culture where a depressed and grief-stricken AA2153 was yelled at because he was "physically fine" and should get back to work.
On numerous occasions, the show has expressed how much stress the host body is under, which adds stress to the body's internal systems. Given that the host is drinking, smoking, eating greasy foods and rarely moves, he might very well be working in a black company himself and is using unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with it.
However, there are labor laws in place now that are forcing a change in the current workplace culture, known as the Work Style Reform legislation enacted in 2018 and took effect a year later. Some of the amendments included changes to overtime hours, setting a minimum daily rest period and giving more authority to company physicians who can have more say in getting employees time off for health-related reasons.
Although the new legislation was met with mixed reactions, it did signify a significant shift in Japan's company culture and symbolized a glimmer of hope. Hopefully, with only a few episodes remaining, this change can be seen in Code Black before the series ends.