The setting of “Saturn Apartments” is one that is instantly full of possibilities: humanity now lives in a massive man-made space station that forms a ring around the planet, some 35,000 meters above the surface. All of Earth is now a nature preserve, while the artificial ring is divided into sections based on income. From there, though, Hisae Iwaoka takes “Saturn Apartments” into a direction that most others would never think of. It’s the story of a young man who becomes one of the window washers for the system.
It’s a little more complex than that, though. Mitsu is taking the place of his father, who was also a window washer and died five years earlier when the rope keeping him attached to the station snapped. Mitsu isn’t sure, as he begins his new job, if it was an accident or if his father committed suicide. And after years of going to school in the middle-class portion of the station, Mitsu has to adjust to living in the lower levels of the station, performing an extremely dangerous jobs for the richest people on board.
What makes “Saturn Apartments” work so well, right away, is how Iwaoka immerses the reader in its world. You feel like you’re part of this new landscape, and it’s set up in such a way that it’s easy to believe it could happen. And while Mitsu has lived in the space station his entire life, we’re still seeing everything as if it’s new through his eyes. He’s not used to this job, and with each new experience we learn about it alongside him. Iwaoka splits the focus between the people that Mitsu works with, and the clients. Mitsu’s primary co-worker, Jin, gets most of the attention among the people in the lower levels, as the older guy who is showing Mitsu how everything gets done. He’s a teacher not only in the physical skills needed, but also how to interact with the clients and what to expect. Jin could have easily come across as a stereotype, but instead his role as Mitsu’s father figure ends up surprisingly heartwarming.
Just as important are the stories of the clients, though. Getting the windows on the outside of the station washed is an extremely expensive process, and more often than not there’s a specific reason for why the client is paying them to put on spacesuits and stand on the outside of the station. From the man who wants to create a visual of the ocean, to a scientist trying to create robots to perform Mitsu’s job, everyone has a different reason for bringing our protagonists into their dangerous job. It’s half the fun of “Saturn Apartments,” letting us get to know these different people and through them the world and culture that Iwaoka has created.
Iwaoka’s art in “Saturn Apartments” is beautiful, with constructions of delicate thin lines that form the characters and the backgrounds. Superhero comic fans might get reminded of artists like Travis Charest and Sean Chen, with round open faces and such care put into some of the smallest details. When Mitsu creates the look of the ocean for one of the clients, for instance, it’s a moment that is ultimately sold because of the thousands of dots she’s laid onto the page. It’s a gorgeous final look, whether drawing gardens or old grimy sets of stairs that plunge down into the bowels of the space station.
“Saturn Apartments” reminds me a great deal of “Planetes,” a series about garbage collectors who scoop up all the debris floating in outer space. Not because of any similarities in their jobs, but because like “Planetes,” we see how the lower class lives and what their dreams and aspirations are. Mitsu, Jin, and company are enthralling characters and reading about them is a fantastic experience. Viz is serializing “Saturn Apartments” on their SIGIKKI website, and while the later chapters will eventually go away as collections are released, the first chapter (as well as the latest installments) will always remain up. Just be warned that once you read the first chapter, you’ll almost certainly be back for more. This is nothing short of fantastic.