I’m writing this review crammed into the back of a Jeep Liberty. We’re on the road, traveling to see my little sister for her 20th birthday. The car is packed to the gills with presents and people. Things are pleasant, but if someone decides to pass a little gas, we will be having some serious problems. Likewise, we’re very physically close, and on this dark, country road, things are a bit claustrophobic.
I imagine that this feeling is similar, if a bit off in scale, to the feeling felt by the people in Hisae Iwaoka’s Saturn Apartments. After the entire Earth is deemed a nature preserve, mankind relocates to a manmade ring that humans put into orbit. It contains living space for all the world’s remaining humans, as well as fields and fisheries and everything needed to maintain human life. Broken into three parts, the top of the ring contains the rich aristocracy, the middle level contains public works and fields, and the bottom contains power plants, sewer systems, fuel cells, and apartments for the poor and middle class. The one thing that is missing in all of this is natural sunlight.
That’s where Mitsu comes in. He and his company, a guild of window washers, depressurize, don spacesuits that protect them from UV radiation, and go out onto the surface of the ring and wash windows for the elite upper-level dwellers. They risk life and limb to provide a vanity for the obscenely rich, and in return, make a living wage.
In a sense, Saturn Apartments is very much like a series published by TokyoPop during the manga boom, Planetes, in that it shows what everyday people doing their not-so everyday jobs because of a specific scientific advancement. What makes Saturn Apartments interesting is that you get to see how humans become conditioned in these strange situations. People become stratified based on what level they come from. Humanity is segregated, and clothing styles are remarkably different based on the level they are in. People from the bottom levels are discriminated against, and have a hard time getting jobs in the middle and upper levels. It’s a very interesting social examination based around a unique social stressor.
Mitsu, unlike most protagonists for manga series, is no heroic boy looking to change the world. He is very content to fall into the status quo, to start a job in the profession that killed his father, and to become a part of a society that at best commiserates with his difficult position, and at worst thinks of him as a piece of trash. That’s what makes him such an interesting character to read. He has his battles that he has to fight. He tries to make a difference in people’s lives, but he does it in his own way, washing people’s windows, and sometimes, looking in on their lives from above.
Saturn Apartments has one of the more unique art styles of the series in Viz Media‘s Sig IKKI line. People have round, expressive faces, their bodies are like tubes, and unlike other manga in the line, this series looks more like a comic you would expect Fantagraphics or another indie comics publisher to release. I like the change in style, and it fits the subject matter. Saturn Apartments is a very relaxed, simple story, and the relaxed, simple art complements it nicely.
It is hard to get too worked up about Saturn Apartments, mostly because it doesn’t get too worked up itself. Saturn Apartments doesn’t try to wow you or philosophize. It just wants to show you the life a boy who washes windows, and maybe a bit extra about life and the tenacity of humanity, if that happens to come out in the wash. It is because of this simple goal that the series excels so well – as a piece of slice-of-life fiction, Saturn Apartments is able to look at life in a way that few other manga can, in the way that it wants to.
Saturn Apartments is a fine piece of fiction, leisurely and pleasant, and while it isn’t something I’m excited to run out and buy as it is released in paperback, it is fine experience over a warm drink by a crackling fire. If you are looking to step back from the wild world of regular manga and relax a bit, Saturn Apartments will gladly be your cup of chamomile tea.