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Manga Review: Saturn Apartments Volume One by Hisae Iwaoka

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Every once in a while you read a manga that just grabs you in some way. There’s a certain draw to these rare titles, and it’s a combination of many components that make up the greater whole. Characters, plot, artwork, and setting all craft the tone of a book, and in the case of Saturn Apartments, that tone is peculiar and addicting.

Created by Hisae Iwaoka, Saturn Apartments volume one was originally released in Japan in 2006. VIZ has licensed the series for an American release and it found itself in the Signature lineup. Personally I’ve found that titles from VIZ Signature tend to be more unique and interesting then mainstream manga, and that’s exactly the case with this one.

Saturn Apartments takes place far into the future where man has moved from the Earth to the stars. There is an orbital ring which surrounds the planet, and the world below has remained off limits for a number of years. Earth is basically a giant nature preserve and it’s forbidden to travel to the surface. The view from above is certainly pretty, however the windows on this orbital station can get mighty dirty. That’s where window cleaners come in.

That’s right, Saturn Apartments is a manga about window cleaners in space. In particular the series follows a young upstart named Mitsu, who has just graduated and is determined to take over his father’s career as a cleaner. You see, Mitsu’s dad recently passed away while on the job. Ever since then the people around him have taken care of him, rooted him on, and looked over his shoulder. He has a large surrogate family in the lower level, and it’s this assistance and support that has helped him become the headstrong hard-worker he is today.

Though Mitsu lives in the lower levels of the orbital ring, he attended school in the middle level, and now that he’s a cleaner he does jobs for the upper level. You see, the apartment complex is broken up into the three stages that follow a class structure, so to speak. The lower levels are the poor classes while the upper is the richest, though I’m sure you already figured that one out. Each of the levels was constructed accordingly, and, due to financial hardships, the lower levels aren’t able to get their windows clean. They have to use artificial light which tends to lead to health complications and the whatnot.

As the book continues Mitsu gets in good with the Guild his father used to work for. He’s quickly put on the job and finds himself outside wiping windows for clients and seeing Earth in all its glory. He eventually discovers something about his father’s death that he didn’t realize before, and, beyond that, he gets to know the rest of the Guild members. Some of them are supporters of his; others are friends of his father; and there are some who just plain hate his guts. Mitsu has to deal with all this while his life is overshadowed by the death of his old man.

Through the course of this first volume Mitsu goes on a few cleaning assignments, including one where the guy wants water placed over the window to simulate being under the ocean. There’s a solid bit of reasoning behind it, but it’s not revealed until later in the storyline. There’s also an inspector brought into play later in the book, and the character seems to be of importance to the story. I suppose we’ll find out more in the next installment.

Aesthetically the book stands out, thanks largely in part to Iwaoka’s unique art style. Everything is smallish (almost chibi style) and people in particular look shrunken compared to their environment. That’s probably a deliberate statement on living in the apartments. The lower levels are more compact while the upper levels are more open, leaving readers to assume the upper class leads emptier lives. There’s some incredible detail here, and the backgrounds all have nice definition and depth.

Saturn Apartments is a fascinating read that is richly layered. The characters are the standout element of this book, however, and the development of both main and secondary characters is simply amazing. Mitsu is a deep character, and he feels right at home in the world. It seems as though the apartments were created around him, and that’s really a good thing. This gives readers the sense of connection with the character and he really defines the tone of the series. If you’re looking for a manga that is unlike any other, Saturn Apartments is a sure ticket.

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