Reviewby Carlo Santos,
In the future, humankind lives aboard the Ring, a space colony encircling the earth. One of the riskiest jobs here involves cleaning the windows on the outside of the Ring, and Mitsu is a 16-year-old window-washer hoping to master the trade as his deceased father once did. The hazards become apparent when one of Mitsu's co-workers, grizzled veteran Mr. Kageyama, collapses on the job. He learns that exposure to space radiation is slowly killing him, and must make a tough choice about his future. Meanwhile, a new window-washer named Yukishima joins the crew and Mitsu takes on a supervisor role for the first time. With all these changes going on, it's easy to overlook engineer Sohta and his cronies secretly building a illegal vessel to return to Earth's surface ... but their plans are quietly coming along, and they may have just found their test pilot.
Now in its fourth volume, Saturn Apartments has evolved beyond the episodic formula of the early chapters—a repetitive grind where Mitsu would do a window-washing job, meet a new character, and learn a predictable life lesson. Instead, the series now shows how Mitsu is progressing in his young career, although its approach is so subtle that one could still accuse the story of (apparently) going nowhere. Yet with the major changes going on in Mitsu's job, and his acquaintances engaged in various personal projects, this accusation simply isn't true. Rather, the problem now is that it's going somewhere in a diffuse, roundabout way. Despite the soothing, delicate artwork and charming characters, the series still falls short of greatness because of its vague sense of direction.
Those who are patient enough, however, will eventually figure out what that direction is. Only after reading the volume in its entirety does Mitsu's career path become clear: the individual chapters, seemingly just points of interest plucked from his daily life, line up to show an upward progression from rookie to young veteran. Passing a qualification test, seeing a mentor consider his retirement, taking on a new employee as a subordinate, and hearing an assessment of his own progress—all these brief episodes add up to a maturation process for Mitsu, and more than that, they correspond to real-life experiences in the working world. That aspect continues to be one of Saturn Apartments's charms—that this outlandish sci-fi setting still involves real people living ordinary, relatable lives.
Unfortunately, this message of doing one's best and dealing with life's ups and downs often gets lost among other flights of fancy. The subplot about Sohta working on a "descent device" to return to Earth's surface would be an interesting storyline in itself, but it shows up too infrequently, and most of the focus is on Sohta and friends skulking about and trying to keep their workshop a secret from a newly moved-in neighbor next door. Imagine how much more exciting it would be if they actually talked about how the vessel worked, or the hazards of making the trip. Then there are the stand-alone moments that simply don't add much to the series: it's hard to see what can be gained from philosophical conversations with a disembodied voice in space, or encountering the lively employees of a steel processing plant. (A later chapter suggests that the steel workers might be a key plot point, but the payoff never comes.)
In contrast to the bumpy storyline, the artwork remains consistent from cover to cover, with delicate lines and short penstrokes forming the basis of a unique style. This vision of the future won't be mistaken for any other: where other series might go for glossy tech or post-apocalyptic detritus, Saturn Apartments sticks with gentle, hand-drawn shading and a soft afterglow. When Mitsu stares into the expanse of deep space, he doesn't see a frightening canvas of black: instead, space is an infinite field of light gray, strange and beautiful. Other background details are meticulously drawn in, from the little nicks and scratches on the Ring's window panels to the crowded streets that form the working-class district. Character designs are also distinct in their own way, with wide faces and squat bodies creating a cute, mascot-like look that defies one's expectations of the genre—but fits right into the "soft" style here. When it comes to panel layouts, the art isn't quite as daring, relying instead on the usual rectangular patterns. But for a series trying to capture the feel of everyday life, framing it in a familiar visual structure seems like a fitting choice.
There is such a thing as being too familiar, though, and the humdrum dialogue coming out of the characters' mouths exemplifies that problem. Yes, it makes sense that working-class folks trying to get by in a space colony would use ordinary, down-home language—but the writing here is so dull as to be completely forgettable. It seems that everyone in the series takes on the same bland tone of voice, and the only way to extract any personality from the characters (verbally, at least) is to get them angry or drunk. On the plus side, this simple style of dialogue means that the translation also comes across with ease: the lack of jargon words, tricky puns or even cultural references makes for straightforward reading in English. (It also means not having to worry about footnotes; everything you need to understand about the story is in the story itself.)
Saturn Apartments does some things very well—the delicate visual style, the subtle story advancement, the approachable characters—but it's still not as polished as it could be. Even after moving away from the "customer of the week" formula, Mitsu's window-washing adventures continue to drift off on unnecessary tangents, like talking to mysterious voices from space. Another sort of drifting off also happens when the storyline shifts to Sohta and his mysterious descent device; this intriguing subplot just doesn't get the in-depth treatment it deserves. Still, fans of the series' gentle artistry, slice-of-life storytelling, and its fanciful futuristic setting will be glad to know that Volume 4 continues in the same vein. But if the series could lock down on one storyline, forget the fluffy filler scenes, and show a little more emotion, just imagine how much better it could be.
Overall : C+
Story : C
Art : B
+ Distinctive artwork and relatable stories of everyday life evoke a gentle, soothing mood.