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June 7, 2010

Bento Bako Weekly: Saturn Apartments vol. 1

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Written by: Kristin
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Title: Saturn Apartments
Author: Hisae Iwaoka
Publisher: Viz Media, on their Sig IKKI imprint
Volume: Volume 1 (ongoing), $12.99
Vintage: 2006 by Shogakukan in Japan, May 2010 by Viz
Genre: Science fiction, drama, seinen; meant for mature readers, but it’s safe for teens

In the distant future, mankind lives in a giant ring that circles the Earth at 35,000 meters, in the upper atmospheres.  The ring is divided into three levels – the upper level, filled with businesses and upper class apartments; the middle level, where everyone visits during their lifetime for education; and the lower level, where the lower class citizens live.  Earth, devastated by centuries of human consumption, is now a nature preserve, off-limits to all citizens.  No one is allowed down on the planet’s surface.  Young Mitsu, freshly graduated from middle school, is joining the ranks of workers for one of the most dangerous jobs in the ring – window cleaning.  His mother died when he was very young, but his father died five years ago when there was an accident outside on the ring as he was cleaning windows on the lower levels.  The lower levels, rarely cleaned (because usually only the people on the upper levels can afford the service), are particularly dangerous because of their position on the bottom of the ring and the high winds that can blow there quite suddenly.  Mitsu’s father’s rope was cut, and he presumably fell to his death to the planet below.  Mitsu plans to take up his father’s position and work hard as a window washer, under the tutelage of his father’s former partner, Jin.  As he works, he learns that with his job, he can make people happy, and that it’s worth all the dangers to grant someone’s wish.

It won’t be that simple, however.  There are the obvious dangers: high winds, high altitude, air pressure, intense radiation from the sun, meteorites, cold temperatures.  It’s a risky job, the pay isn’t great, and the equipment is expensive.  As the rookie, Mitsu is subjected to some high altitude bullying as well.

Mitsu is haunted by the disappearance of his father.  Somewhere deep in his heart, he suspects that his father cut his own rope because he wanted to see the planet’s surface.  It’s a pull Mitsu himself feels his first time out on the ring.  In fact, there are some great metaphors about humanity’s constant pull to our planet.  I thought it was a little odd that the giant ring was built inside the planet’s atmosphere, and not in outer space, but it allows the people to be closer to the surface.  That longing for home is a theme used in many science fiction and fantasy tales, including Battlestar Galactica (a series where a bulk of the story centers around the characters trying to find their way back to Earth), Star Trek (hello holo-deck), The Lord of the Rings (the elves, and particularly those that live along the coast, constantly feel the pull of the western lands), and Mass Effect (the Quarians, who could settle on any planet, are still trying desperately to return to their home planet).  In Saturn Apartments, the window cleaners are able to stand on the outside surface of the ring and look down on the planet.  The people living on the lower level are, unfortunately, generally denied any such view, because the windows are typically caked in filth.  There’s a nice story in this first volume about a couple who gathers the funding needed to clean a window on the lower levels for their wedding, so they can have real sunlight streaming in.  There’s a sense that living inside the ring cuts you off from natural life.  The lower levels in particular are lacking in natural life, like organic growth or sunlight, and are crammed with buildings, old machines, and teeming with people stuffed into small tiered tenements.  There are a lot of artificial elements, and the elderly are stricken with diseases caused by a lack of natural sunlight.


Mitsu and Jin take the lift down to Mitsu's first job in Saturn Apartments vol. 1.

Yet even with that assumed concentration of people, the images in the book are ones of vast emptiness.  There’s a lovely spread where Mitsu must take a stairwell down to the level where his home is, because the elevator is broken.  It’s a long, lonely, desolate trek behind buildings, like a vast empty alleyway with a fire escape.  Characters walk, solitary, through empty narrow streets between featureless buildings.  Outside, the ring stretches on and on, with no decoration other than the myriad of windows spaced along it.  Sometimes the cleaners hang suspended on ropes to clean windows, dangling in the emptiness thousands of meters above the Earth’s surface, which spans out far below them.  Or they stand and walk along the upper surfaces, walking far across the generic expanse of metal and glass.  They go out with a partner, but two people in the middle of nothing are still lonely in the middle of nothing.

There’s also some nice commentary on social class systems.  The people living in the upper levels are wealthy, with large apartments with large windows, which they can afford to have cleaned regularly (there are a couple stories in the first volume with some finicky clients who request multiple cleanings or make outrageous demands).  They get to see the real sky and the real sun. For those born in the lower levels, it’s likely many will remain there their entire lives.  Everyone gets to go into the middle levels for education and to access other public services, but it’s difficult to get jobs in the middle levels, never mind the upper levels.  It takes advanced education to get a job in the middle and upper levels, but even that doesn’t guarantee anything.

The art, while not to my tastes, is perfect for the setting and the story.  The writing is good.  There’s some light, subtle humor tucked in there, but mostly there’s a bittersweet feel to the entire book.  It’s touching in a way, but it’s kind of sad and a little depressing at times.  Overall, it’s a nice title, and a welcome change of pace.  You can preview Saturn Apartments at the Viz SigIKKI website.

On Wednesday, I’ll look at volume 31 of Tite Kubo’s Bleach.  So be sure to come back for that.


Review copy provided by Viz Media.



  1. Is there ever a future where we DON’T screw up the planet?

  2. Kristin

    It’s consumption, over extension, and over use of resources. And over all environmental destruction. It’s a more real imagined future than most.
    The idea here is that they left the planet to let it heal itself. No one is allowed down there because it’s all protected land (except an occasional scientific excursion to chart the conditions). They do bring animals up from time to time, and breed them, then return them to the surface. There’s a minor character in the story (a client) who does this for a living.

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Comic Attack, Kristin Bomba. Kristin Bomba said: New review: @Viz_Media's Saturn Apartments vol 1 https://comicattack.net/2010/06/bbwsaturnapts1/ #manga #mangamonday […]

  4. […] Paradiso (Manga Recon) Todd Douglass on vol. 1 of Saturn Apartments (Anime Maki) Kristin on vol. 1 of Saturn Apartments (Comic Attack) Julie Opipari on vol. 2 of St. Dragon Girl (Manga Maniac Cafe) Connie on vol. 23 of […]

  5. […] Paradiso (Manga Recon) Todd Douglass on vol. 1 of Saturn Apartments (Anime Maki) Kristin on vol. 1 of Saturn Apartments (Comic Attack) Julie Opipari on vol. 2 of St. Dragon Girl (Manga Maniac Cafe) Connie on vol. 23 of […]

  6. […] and two of Hiro’s Quest… over at Comic Attack!, Kristin posts a thoughtful critique of Saturn Apartments. If you’ve been on the fence about this title, let her persuade you to give it a look… […]

  7. Jade

    This is a great review of the book, Kris! You painted such a vivid picture of the vast emptiness in most scenes that I checked the volume again and found the scenery much more impactful. I’m glad you can take issue with the art without indicting the whole book on it too, I think this is a turn-off for a lot of potential readers, but there is competence there if not a fully palatable style.

  8. Yeah, it’s just too bad I couldn’t figure out a way to put that better. I talked about it, but didn’t explain it in context. I’ve gotten rather worse at that kind of in depth analyzing since I graduated college several years ago. The distanced, lonely lives the people leave is an example. The way they’re all separated out by level and class. The isolation the window cleaners feel outside on the rings.
    It’s interesting though…in the lower levels they live in these tiny houses. And you find some happy people down there. On the highest level, they live in these huge, empty rooms, many of them alone, often sad or depressed somehow. I really love those contrasts, too.

    As for the art…. Yeah, it’s really not to my tastes. But it’s got this…science-fictiony style. And it fits really well with the tone of the book. It just…~looks~ like it belongs with this story. Erg…I don’t know if that even makes sense.

  9. Jade

    The people in the book actually remind me a lot of the little gnome people in the Dark Crystal that would get their life drained. That might help endear them to you a bit.

  10. Oh, huh. I hadn’t even thought about that, but they kind of do.

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