Reviewby Carlo Santos, May 28th 2012
In the distant future, humankind lives aboard a ring-shaped space colony orbiting above the Earth. Mitsu is one of the Ring's window-washers, a job that requires dangerous spacewalks to clean the panels that allow ordinary folks to see space. After his recent promotion, Mitsu now supervises a team of window-washers—but he has trouble getting along with them when their skills don't meet his standards. Mitsu goes off by himself to do the job right, but what will happen when he gets into an accident like the one that claimed his father's life five years ago? Meanwhile, Mitsu's friend Sohta is still working on a vehicle designed to return back to Earth. He's already rented out some factory space and is trying to recruit Mitsu as a pilot, but what Sohta fails to see is the growing distance between him and his wife.
As the characters of Saturn Apartments have grown and gotten to know each other, so has Hisae Iwaoka's storytelling improved with each succeeding volume. Early on in the series, the narrative seemed so inconsequential: simple, one-chapter affairs where Mitsu would clean a window and learn a valuable life lesson, or perhaps hang out with the supporting cast while chatting idly about the ups and downs of life. But those baby steps have given way to the dramatic strides of this volume: a clash of egos between Mitsu and his co-workers, a life-threatening crisis that also sets off emotional triggers, and a personal conflict as Sohta tries to bridge the gap between his dreams of exploration and his troubled marriage. They say that "nothing goes on" in the slice-of-life genre—but what goes on here is clearly a big deal for the characters involved.
Mitsu's problems at work, which take up the first half of the volume, are a perfect example of how everyday events can be made legitimately interesting. First off, there's the novelty of Mitsu having to supervise a small group—common enough in the working world, but rare in manga where the main character is usually training under a mentor, or is an equal member of the team. Mitsu's struggles as a middle manager also leads to one of the most tension-packed moments in the series: one of his subordinates lashes out, and the rest of the crew must calm him down while still being firm with him. Just like in real life, it's one of those riveting, drama-filled situations that few can pull away from.
If workplace conflict isn't enough, there's also some real action just around the corner when Mitsu gets in an accident. Who says this series is all just talk and window-washing? The suspense of Mitsu waiting to be rescued, and co-workers rushing to reach him, is a burst of momentum that comes at just at the right time. When it's over, everyone reminisces on the loss of Mitsu's father once again—but this time, instead of being empty sentimental talk, it becomes more meaningful in the context of Mitsu's accident.
The later chapters point the spotlight at Mitsu's engineer friend Sohta, whose quest to descend back to Earth has at last reached the stage of "he's actually doing something" (as opposed to "When is he going to start doing something?"). But the real drama isn't about Sohta sneaking around to get the spacecraft built—it's about his wife, who is growing ever more suspicious about her husband's odd behavior. The resolution that brings the married couple back together is one of those predictable, lovey-dovey moments, but still heartwarming in its execution. Amidst all these major story developments, however, a couple of throwaway chapters still sneak their way in, providing some humor and warmth about Mitsu's acquaintances but adding little else.
Warmth is also something that radiates from the artwork itself, with delicate lines and hand-drawn shading that give the series its distinctively "soft" style. Even so, Hisae Iwaoka is also capable of sweeping, dramatic scenes—just wait for one of those lavish, page-spanning views that show the window-washers at work. More subtle, but just as visually striking, are the shots of various locales around the Ring: intricate walls and streets, disappearing all the way into a vanishing point. Iwaoka's command of perspective also helps to show how precarious Mitsu's situation is when gets into his accident. The visuals are less impressive when it comes to character design, however, with lots of potato-headed, squat-bodied types who are hard to differentiate right away. Fortunately, the varying hairstyles and facial features help to combat that homogeneity—no one would confuse Mitsu's eyes for his aged mentor Jin, for example. Lots of hatched lines and minor details also result in some cluttered-looking scenes, as characters fail to stand out enough from the backgrounds. However, clarity is not a problem in the overall flow from page to page, as the rectangular paneling is easy to follow.
Even though the characters' relationships with each other can be complex, the dialogue in this volume remains straightforward throughout. Even the technology involved with window-washing in space or building an Earth-descent vehicle is rarely discussed, thus keeping the focus on the series' human side. Everybody speaks with an easygoing, conversational tone, and while this may seem like a good thing, it also means there's a dreary sameness to the their speech mannerisms. Only during extremes of emotion, or when a child is talking, do the characters really let themselves out verbally. Despite that blandness, however, this translation still gets the job done.
From Mitsu trying to learn the art of middle management, to reliving his father's past on a too-close-for-comfort personal level, to Sohta's struggles in trying to balance work and family life, this volume of Saturn Apartments covers a lot of ground. The general idea of washing space-station windows is still there, but now it's woven into complete, engaging story arcs that develop over time. No longer is this just about meeting quirky characters one chapter at a time, but about the drama of working-class life. The charming, detailed artwork also adds to the series' unique flavor, putting a soft touch on the usually "hard" genre of distant-future sci-fi. The problem with Saturn Apartments used to be that it had a cool setting, but didn't really go anywhere. That problem is now long gone.
Overall : B+
Story : B+
Art : B
+ Engaging stories laced with drama, camaraderie, and even action prove that this unique-looking series is aiming for (and reaching) new heights.
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