Saturn Apartments 1 by Hisae Iwaoka: B+

In this low-key, dystopic sci-fi story, a boy named Mitsu takes up his missing father’s occupation as a window washer in the hopes that it will yield answers about his disappearance, or maybe just life in general.

Humanity has vacated Earth. They were not, however, willing to move too far away from their former home, now declared a vast nature preserve, and have instead taken up residence in a gigantic ring around the planet. Within the ring, a very stratified society exists, with public facilities located on the relatively airy middle levels, spacious homes for the wealthy in the upper levels, and dark and cramped living conditions for everyone else in “the basement.” Saturn Apartments is essentially a slice-of-life story that follows Mitsu as he begins his new job (washing the ring’s external windows) and interacts with residents from the various levels of society. Most of the guild’s work is either assigned by the government or commissioned by the very rich, so when his first job is cleaning windows on the lower level, it’s rare.

This job has been requested by a young couple who are about to get married—the groom-to-be is Sohta, a very bright young man who obtained an advanced degree with the hopes of finding a job in the middle levels. Only after Sohta graduated was he told that, even if he goes to grad school, he’s still not going to be employable because he’s from the basement. He ends up settling for a job as a technician in a power plant instead. Many of the following stories also serve to illustrate the plight of the basement-dwellers while offering in contrast the excesses of the rich, including one eccentric fellow who keeps a near-extinct sea creature in his home and another who tinkers with robots all day long and has the crew back to redo his windows over and over without offering any explanation as to what they’ve done wrong.

Meanwhile, Mitsu seeks to learn more about the accident that apparently claimed the life of his father, Akitoshi. Five years ago, Akitoshi’s rope was cut and he plunged toward Earth. Mitsu had always suspected that his father cut the rope intentionally, but when he’s sent to work at the same spot, he notices some damage to the ring’s hull that could’ve been responsible for severing the rope, along with many handprints that suggest his father fought to stay alive. Later, he meets his Akitoshi’s former partner, Tamachi, and begins to hear about a side of his father that he never knew.

As I wrote in my introduction, the world of Saturn Apartments is what I would call a low-key dystopia. Those who dwell in the basement aren’t too happy with their lot, but they seem resigned to the fact that they can’t do anything about it. The only one who really has any spunk is Jin, the experienced window washer with whom Mitsu is partnered, but his frustration at rich folks manifests as bursts of ill temper that pass quickly. Iwaoka’s art excels at depicting the oppressive feeling of life in the basement—narrow alleyways and towering buildings reinforce the notion of insurmountable obstacles and one can almost feel the weight of all the rooms above Mitsu’s pressing down on him.

Mitsu himself is perhaps the weakest link here because he is so much an observer. We do learn that his mother died when he was very young and that, after his father’s death, some kindly neighbors attempted to care for him but he always kept a respectful distance from them. Now that he’s finished school and is working, he is determined to pay his own way and seeks to find meaning in the work that he’s doing. Too, he believes that following in his father’s footsteps and working hard will enable him to learn something. What that is, exactly, he doesn’t know, but perservering feels important.

I certainly find Mitsu’s quest interesting and will keep reading about him and his world, but it’s as if he’s keeping a respectful distance from the reader, too, which makes it difficult to become more than simply curious how things will turn out.

This review was originally published at Comics Should Be Good.

Saturn Apartments is published in English by VIZ. One volume has been released so far, though two chapters of volume two are available on the SigIKKI website. The series is still ongoing in Japan; five volumes are currently available there.

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  1. […] cast my vote for the other VIZ Signature offering, volume three of Saturn Apartments.  I described the first volume as a “low-key dystopia,” but the tone warmed up to “homey” levels in the […]

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