by Hisae Iwaoka; translation by Matt Thorn
published by Viz; $12.99 US
Inspired by the To Terra… Manga Moveable Feast this month, I’m looking at some more modern stories of young people in space. Saturn Apartments has a very similar premise to Terra, in that humans have moved to an artificial structure surrounding the Earth, which is now an uninhabited nature preserve. But the approach is very different — where Terra tackles big philosophical themes, Saturn Apartments makes its points through quiet stories of everyday life for a lower-class worker.
The society is heavily stratified, both physically (with levels of apartment buildings) and culturally, with plenty of class distinctions. Mitsu’s father was a window washer, and since he’s now presumed dead after a work accident, Mitsu has agreed to join his guild and work to pay his debts. Saturn Apartments explores the nature of grunt work in a future world, similar to Planetes. Most of the clients are rich people, the only ones that can afford to pay the fees to have clean windows and thus real sunlight. Mitsu and his colleagues live on the lower levels, dingy with artificial light.
The lovely thin-line art reminds me more of American independent graphic novels (perhaps with a bit of European influence as a wash) than traditional manga. Mitsu is drawn (as are many of the other characters) with an extremely round head and very small eyes (in contrast to the expected “manga has big eyes” criticism). It reminded me a bit of Charlie Brown, which also fits his personality. Mitsu looks cute and innocent, yet he’s dealing with a grim life. His eyes look lost in his face, just as he’s overwhelmed at times by circumstance.
As the first chapter demonstrates, the work is hard and dangerous. Crawling around the outside of the station in spacesuits on ropes is always a risk, and the winds make it more so. The scenery is a distraction, with no time to view Earth from a unique perspective.
Yet there are moments of extreme beauty. Even the overwhelming bunker-ness of the basement where Mitsu lives is lovingly delineated in detail. The jobs shed light on the interplay of society members as Mitsu looks in through their windows. The character portraits are similarly touching, as Mitsu learns about his mentor’s home life or a young couple’s decisions based on the class restrictions they face.
Mitsu’s coming to appreciate community. He’s determined to plug it through, alone if necessary, working hard to do the right thing. But there are other people looking out for them as well, and he’s learning to value those bonds. In a weird way, it reminded me of one of my favorite Batman stories, when the grim solo hero let go just enough to allow others to care for him. I was touched by Mitsu’s growing awareness of others, and by how each chapter worked as a story while still building a history for him.