Hisae Iwaoka's Saturn Apartments takes place in a ring-shaped apartment complex orbits the earth, 35 kilometers above the surface—high enough that the air is thin and the earth is a distant ball, but not quite in outer space. Inside, the building is divided into levels that correspond with the levels of society: Wealthy people live in airy, naturally lit apartments in the top level; the middle level is dedicated to commerce and agriculture; and the working classes live a dark, cramped existence on the lower level. The difference is not just aesthetic: The lack of natural light causes immune system deficiencies in the lower level, making the inhabitants weak and shortening their lives. This seems to be the only place where people live; the planet earth has been declared a nature preserve and is off limits to humans.
The main characters in this manga are the people who maintain the outer shell of the apartment complex. Most are window washers, who stare down into the spacious apartments of the rich, and one is an inspector, who tramps about, with her dog, looking for flaws in the outer skin of the structure.
Mitsu, the main character, is a second-generation window washer. His father, Aki, disappeared while washing windows on the lower side of the structure, an area where the windows are seldom washed—partly because it is more dangerous there (gravity still exerts its pull this close to the earth) and partly because the lower-level denizens can't afford luxuries like clean windows. Everyone assumes that Aki fell to his death, but Mitsu is not so sure, and the tantalizing possibility remains that he might be still alive on the earth's surface.
On his first day on the job, Mitsu almost meets the same fate as his father. A young couple ask the window washers to clean their windows for their wedding day. Everyone refuses, citing Aki's accident, but Mitsu stands up and says they should find a way—and his co-workers give him the job. Working with his father's old partner, Jin, he finds the spot where Aki's rope broke—apparently an accident caused by a bit of protruding metal. They fix it and move on, but Mitsu lingers a bit too long, trying to get the window just right for the newlywed couple, and ends up being battered by a windstorm. Jin just barely manages to pull him in.
From there, the series moves in a stately pace through a series of short stories. In some ways, it's a workplace story: Many scenes are set in the window washers' workroom, where they gossip and argue, and Mitsu socializes with his co-workers and their families as well. Other stories play on the role of the window washer as the outsider looking in. Mitsu, being young and earnest, quickly gets emotionally involved with his clients and often moves through the barriers, physical and mental, that separate them.
At the same time, there is a wisp of a larger story floating through these short stories. The young couple from the first episode reappear and become a larger part of the story. Sohta, the husband, once dreamed of doing research, but because he is from the lower levels, he is relegated to cleaning tanks and other humiliating jobs. He channels his energy into designing a vehicle that would descend to the earth, work that must be done on the sly. This piece of the story hints at something that is rarely mentioned: The peacekeepers who maintain the rigid discipline and class structure of the ring apartments.
That class structure is a recurring theme in the stories. Mitsu's co-workers are a collection of stock blue-collar characters: Jin hides a kind heart under a gruff exterior, Kageyama is a gentle giant, Makoto is young and rebellious. All three are macho at work but tender-hearted when they are with their families, and in the fourth volume in particular, they are forced to face up to the physical hazards of their work.
The denizens of the upper level are the opposite. Many of them appear to be the idle rich, sitting passively in their sunlit lofts, although a few acknowledge that they work outside the home. One man is a waste collector, tearing down slums and recycling the materials to build new dwellings, a profession that is presented first as exploitation and then as urban renewal. The rich, of course, are no happier than the laborers, and while Mitsu usually is fairly passive when interacting with his co-workers, who have seniority over him, he is more active in solving the problems of his clients.
While the Saturn Apartments are physically stratified, the levels are not impermeable. Prejudice keeps people in the lower levels from getting permanent berths above, and the rich tend to shun the imagined squalor of the lower levels, but the window washers move freely between the different worlds. Class differences are mentioned often, and two of the stories explicitly address class change—one of a woman who moves up, one of a man who moves down. It's a fascinatingly nuanced world, and Iwaoka seems to be capable of weaving an endless number of stories out of its varied threads.
He is also capable of creating an amazingly detailed and varied visual world. The window washers stand on the top of the ring as if they were at the North Pole, surrounded by the emptiness of space. Sometimes he pulls back and shows them as tiny specks, tethered by ropes, atop the vast complex. Other times we see them from the clients' perspective, looking at them from below as they work on their hands and knees. The sophisticated lofts of the upper levels are huge empty spaces with mezzanines, bookcases, even landscaping arranged around the sides—one features a huge fishtank. Down below, the quarters are more crowded and cluttered but no less interesting, and the levels are connected both by elevators and a series of stairways and catwalks. It's a complicated world, but the reader never gets lost in it.
Iwaoka's overarching story is unfolding at a leisurely pace, but each volume of Saturn Apartments has so much going on that it's impossible to become bored. Mitsu's growth from tenderfoot to experienced window washer, Sohta's quest to design something that will bring him the respect he thinks he deserves, the window washers' lives and loves, all make for a fascinating, textured manga that could go on forever. In fact, I hope it does.
You can read the first chapter of each volume of Saturn Apartments, and most of the fourth volume, at Viz's SigIKKI website.