~by Hisae Iwaoka
2011 ALA Great Graphic Novels for Teens
I’ve been aware of Hisae Iwaoka’s near future slice-of-life manga series Saturn Apartments for a while now. Considering my proclivity for science fiction, it is somewhat surprising that I took so long to get around to reading it, especially since I’ve heard very good things about the series. But when Saturn Apartments was the only manga to make the top ten list of the American Library Association’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens in 2011, I couldn’t ignore it any longer. The first collected volume of Saturn Apartments was originally published in Japan in 2006. The English edition of the book was published by Viz Media’s lovely Signature imprint in 2010. I have enjoyed just about every manga released by Signature, increasing the odds even more that I would like Saturn Apartments.
In the near future, the entire earth has been set aside as a nature preserve. The human population has completely removed itself from the planet, now living inside a ring encircling the Earth 35,000 meters above the surface. Most people live in the lower levels of the complex, the middle levels are primarily devoted to public works, while the elite, rich, and powerful inhabit the upper levels. Mitsu lives in the lower levels. A recent junior high school graduate, he has chose to become a window washer like his father before him. Cleaning the outside of the ring is a dangerous and demanding occupation. In fact, Mitsu’ father was lost in an accident while working a job. No one seems to know exactly what happened on that day, but the event affected the entire community.
Iwaoka’s artwork is quite distinctive and I became rather fond of it. I wouldn’t call the art pretty, some might even call it ugly, but it is cute and lovely in its own way. The characters have large heads with small but expressive facial features. While everyone has very similar, stocky body types, it is easy to tell the characters apart. It’s also nice to see such a wide range of ages done in Iwaoka’s style, from toddlers to older adults. The world-building in Saturn Apartments is also very well done--something that the artwork helps emphasize and capture. The differences between those living in the crowded and dirty lower levels and those living in the pristine and luxurious upper levels are made clear simply by looking at their setting. The backgrounds are wonderfully detailed without being too cluttered, really adding to the sense of place. The Saturn Apartments and its environments are just as important to the story as the characters.
I wasn’t wowed or blown away by the first volume of Saturn Apartments, but I did enjoy it. So far the series has a quiet charm and has more depth to it than I first realized. There is a sadness and loneliness to the story that is effective but not overwhelming. Humanity has been literally separated from its origins, making individuals’ struggles to establish and maintain meaningful connections and relationships more vital than ever. Saturn Apartments takes a closer look at these relationships--it's about people. Particularly important, and who ties much of the first volume together, is Mitsu’s father, a character that only appears in flashbacks and as part of other people’s memories. It is obvious that he has impacted the lives of others and his disappearance greatly affected those around him. Mitsu, who feels abandoned, needs to learn about his father and through others is able to begin to better understand parts of his life. I am looking forward to following Mitsu further in the next volume of Saturn Apartments.