I think a lot of people who enjoy manga can name that one special series off the top of their head. You know, that one that just stays with you, the one you use as a gold standard when deciding whether or not to let a new series take up space on the shelf.
For myself, that manga is the slice of life science fiction series by Hisae Iwaoka, Saturn Apartments.
The series takes place in the distant future where the earth is now uninhabitable and humanity lives on a large ring system that encircles it. The ring is made up of lower, middle, and upper sections, and each has specific functions. The upper ring houses the wealthy, the middle contains parks, public buildings such as schools, hospitals and various government buildings, and the lowest floor is reserved for everyone else. But despite these divisions, all the floors have windows and somebody has to clean them.
Mitsu is the son of window washer Aki, and despite the disappearance of his father after a cleaning job five years ago, he has every intention of becoming a window washer. Once he graduates from junior high, Mitsu joins the window washing guild his father once worked in. Despite the struggle of being accepted by his fellow co-workers, Mitsu has aspirations to become every bit as hard-working as his father.
For the most part, the series follows Mitsu as he learns the ins and outs of window washing while interacting with his friends and clients, who range from his co-worker and mentor Jin, to the people that can afford the luxury of having clean windows. This includes eccentric denizens of the upper floors with obsessions over rare marine life, to the couple on the bottom floor who wish for a clean window so they can experience natural light during their wedding.
While Saturn Apartments begins as a slice of life about Mitsu, his work, and his developing fascination of earth, it gradually becomes a greater story that gives insight to how the people around him live and what their own goals and aspirations are. This in turn gives us an understanding of the ring system and how its society functions which culminates in the final volumes when the series shifts focus to the lives of the lower level denizens and their treatment by the people on the upper floors. The manga works slowly towards this shift, introducing a variety of characters and their stories to ease us into the world the manga is establishing. At times this gradual shift can feel a little too slow as it takes a while before anything of real relevance occurs. However, the slow build and the introductions and connections devised between the various characters means that the more dramatic and emotional moments, when they do happen, really hit home.
Iwaoka is the artist and writer for the series, and her style fits the story she presents perfectly. The style reminds me of a children’s picture book, and manages to be both simple and startlingly complex in presentation. It’s a style I haven’t come across before in manga, and has made me seek out more of Iwaoka’s work for the visuals alone. An argument could be made that the simplicity and lack of features on the characters make them difficult to tell apart at times, but the style is so charming and the personalities of the characters are so distinct I never had an issue.
On the surface, Saturn Apartments is about Mitsu and his journey to become a dedicated window washer. But at its core, the series is about self-improvement, which ranges from Mitsu’s insecurities of himself and acceptance in his late father’s guild, to that of his friends and co-workers who each have their own struggles to overcome. It is a testament to Iwaoka’s skill as a storyteller that this insight into a variety of personal stories and relationships exists so perfectly, and that they all come together to from a cohesive and profound narrative. These connections helps make the world of Saturn Apartments seem so much bigger and established, but it also keeps the story from stagnating because we explore the lives and relationships of characters other than Mitsu.
Saturn Apartments is by no means a new release, having wrapped up both its magazine serialisation and manga release several years ago. But it continues to be a relevant and endearing series, with seven volumes of spectacular writing and visuals that perfectly tells the story of not just Mitsu, but the society he lives in and the people around him. It certainly has a lot of depth and sweetness, but don’t be fooled by its simple exterior. Saturn Apartments tells some harrowing personal stories within its science fiction premise, and I implore you to give it a read.
Who knows, like me you just might have found your new golden standard.