Reviewby Carlo Santos, May 22nd 2011
In the future, humankind lives in a ring-shaped colony circling the Earth. It's hardly a space-age utopia, however, as different levels of the ring separate the different economic classes. Mitsu is a lower-level resident whose job is to wash the massive window panels that give upper-level dwellers an uninterrupted view of space. Although the work is monotonous, Mitsu's clients are certainly not: some want his companionship, some want to offer him a job, and some ... aren't even real. The lower-class folks are just as varied, as Mitsu meets a former classmate, a failed t-shirt salesman, and a rogue window washer trying to scrape up some extra money. Life in space isn't perfect, but it's pretty comfortable. So why is one of Mitsu's buddies hatching a scheme to travel back to Earth?
When it comes to sci-fi manga, Nobuaki Tadano's 7 Billion Needles and Hisae Iwaoka's Saturn Apartments might as well exist at opposite ends of the universe: the former is a fast-paced, mind-bending apocalyptic thriller, while the latter is a slice-of-life piece that drifts calmly among the stars. But what makes both titles great is a trait they share in common: using futuristic ideas to explore the basic human need to connect with each other. In Saturn Apartments, the ability to make friends doesn't necessarily determine whether the planet blows up or not , but it's still the driving force behind Mitsu's window-washing adventures. The high-tech setting is simply a fancy exterior for a story with a very human heart.
The importance of human contact is expressed as plainly as possible in Volume 3's first chapter: Mitsu's latest client feels lonely and needs someone to talk to. The story is wistful, sweet and short—perhaps too short, as the final scene ends on a happily-ever-after note without really filling out all the details. Mitsu's other encounters follow a similar formula of struggle and resolution: a mystery window-washer goes around "stealing" other jobs until he comes clean and explains himself; a t-shirt salesman tries to unload excess stock and finds a clever solution; a former schoolmate learns to respect the window-washing profession; even Mitsu himself faces a moral dilemma when an upper-level manager offers him a higher paying but less satisfying job. While each of these stories reaches a satisfying ending, none is particularly profound or surprising; the chapters just aren't long enough for insane twists or deep philosophy.
It's clear throughout this volume that plotting isn't Hisae Iwaoka's strong point—and for a slice-of-life series told in bursts of 20 pages, it doesn't always need to be. Some chapters come out okay even without a precise beginning, middle and end. However, this vagueness hurts the series in chapters like the one about Mitsu's acquaintance Tamachi—a meaningless hodgepodge of conversations and wandering about town. An attempt at a ghost story also falls short because, despite following all the horror-story conventions, it lacks a suitably shocking climax. And the one ongoing storyline, with power-plant worker Sohta designing a vehicle to return to Earth, moves in awkward stops and starts as it is often upstaged by Mitsu's episodic adventures.
Fortunately, the series fares better in character development: Mitsu shows growing maturity as he works past the death of his father, gets along better with his mentor Jin, and becomes more trusting of his own abilities. Also of note is how Sohta deals with the conflict between his high-level education and the manual labor he's settled for—an issue that will resonate with many of today's underemployed, and one that takes some interesting turns as Sohta's storyline develops.
Like the storytelling, the artwork also shows areas of great promise but is let down by imperfect execution. Iwaoka's backgrounds are often stunning in their scope and detail, from the urban charm of the lower levels, to the otherworldly window-washing scenes, to the occasional sweeping view of space. Even the tiniest corners are carefully cross-hatched to give that illusion of a wholly built world. But the delicate touch and light tones cause the visuals to lean too much toward gray, when a few more splashes of black could have really made an impact. The character designs are also something of a love-it-or-hate-it affair: cute at first glance, but infuriating as one starts to realize that everyone has the same meatball head and button eyes with only hairstyles and relative heights to tell each other apart. (The fact that everyone from age 6 to 60 has the same childlike build doesn't help, either.) So while the art is very distinct and detailed, it also has certain stylistic quirks that end up being limitations.
Being a slice-of-life series, Saturn Apartments is easily a contender for most unremarkable dialogue ever—the writing style is as ordinary as the artwork is unique. Most of the characters simply chat about the meals they're having, the work they're doing, and what their friends are up to. Yet the lack of drama doesn't mean the writing is necessarily bad; there's something poetic in the way everyone talks to each other in calm, clipped phrases. This gentle flow of words works even in translation, adding some interest to what is otherwise mundane subject matter. The occasional sound effects are also treated gently, with English translations quietly working their way into the art where Japanese characters would have been.
Maybe the strangest thing about Saturn Apartments is the idea that future humans have mastered extraterrestrial living, but not economic justice. Shouldn't they have fixed the gap between rich and poor by now? Yet this odd social structure tells a more universal truth about human nature: that no matter how much we advance as a civilization, there will always be differences between us. And it is how we bridge those differences—like a certain window-washer's encounters with his clients, his co-workers, and his friends—that shape society. So while this slice-of-life excursion sometimes stumbles over the storyline, and stops short of greatness in the art, the underlying message about people connecting with other people still rings true. In a technologically advanced future, our humanity is more important than ever.
Overall : B-
Story : C
Art : B
+ Tells uplifting truths about life through warm encounters and characters overcoming obstacles, all set against a unique sci-fi backdrop.
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