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Four-Eyed Stranger #12: "A Soul Is a Light Thing"

Oliver Ho
These wistful, sci-fi window-washers echo Major Tom's enigmatic epitaph: "Plant Earth is blue and there's nothing I can do"

Death, dissatisfaction and dirty windows haunt Hisae Iwaoka's Saturn Apartments.

Saturn Apartments embraces an existential melancholy, accentuating quiet moments, mystery and introspection over space opera. Call it zen in the art of window-washing...in space.

Young Mitsu has just graduted from junior high. He's 14, an orphan, and he's following his late father's footsteps into the occupation of window-washer. In manga artist Hisae Iwaoka's dream-like vision of the future, that's a hazardous profession, not unlike the chimney sweeps of Victorian England.

A structure that recalls (lightly) Larry Nivens's classic novel Ringworld, the Saturn Apartments appear to be a massive, three-level ring built to encircle the Earth. All of humanity relocated there generations ago, when the planet was declared a nature preserve--no humans allowed. The ring's levels correspond to three classes of wealth, opportunity and privilege.

Many elements of the story are also reminiscent of Charles Dickens: life revolves arounds class; people are practically born into their roles and cannot change levels; and the story follows an orphaned child of mysterious lineage being thrown into a harsh working life, which also gives him a view (literally, through the windows he's hired to clean) into lives of all classes. Through Mitsu's eyes, we meet people at all levels who experience similar existential crises. It's as if everyone quiet wonders if this is all there is.

Mitsu's father died on the job, five years earlier and under mysterious circumstances. Since then, an organization known as "the guild" (apparently a sort of union of window-washers) seems to have been looking out for Mitsu, much to the annoyance of his co-workers. Their resentment could prove fatal for Mitsu, and he wonders on more than one occasion if particular colleagues are out to kill or at least deceive him.

Iwaoka's charming artwork simply astounds. Her thin lines and pointillist moments have a delicate and fragile feeling, but the accumulated effect is powerful. Her world feels fully-formed, dense and layered with meaning waiting to be teased out. The wide, round faces of her characters seem at first to risk cutness, but Iwaoka uses the tiniest of marks to indicate nuanced and affecting emotional changes.

Dickens' "Pickwick Papers" is one of the secret origins of "Saturn Apartments"...

One exceptional and brief interlude introduces a poor couple who had been saving money for the husband's tuition, but instead spend it on having their windows cleaned so they can see the planet. The young man's dream of attending a prestigious university has been shattered (he's from the wrong level), and in a heart-breaking scene, he covers the floor of their small apartment with equations.

"To me they were nothing but symbols," his wife reveals to Mitsu. "But they were beautiful."

David Bowie's Space Oddity leaps (or rather, floats strangely) to mind during another evocative scene: on Mitsu's first day on the job, he turns around while he's working outside the ring, and he sees the Earth for the first time--the same view his father saw before his death--and he's stunned, unable to move or look away from the mind-boggling sight. The song has a sense of mystery and wonder that resonate with Saturn Apartments, and in the words of Chris O’Leary, it's an "existential lullaby," an equally apt and succint description of this comic.

"Major Tom’s blissful sense of isolation, a desire to free himself entirely from human entanglements and just drift off into the void," O’Leary writes in his excellent David Bowie-focused blog, Pushing Ahead of the Dame. "Yet while alienation is key to the song, it’s not a bleak or despairing track at all, as it has childlike qualities."

Perhaps it's the "childlike qualities" of Saturn Apartments, along with its irresistible artwork and character-driven, spaced-out-in-space story, but it's difficult to stop imagining music to accompany this manga. Besides Space Oddity, pretty much the entire Galaxie 500 catalogue seems like a Saturn Apartments soundtrack waiting to happen. The lo-fi, dream-pop pioneers share an atmospheric (pun intended) and minimalist charm with Iwaoka's winsome manga.

...as is David Bowie's "Space Oddity"

The first volume of Saturn Apartments was published in May this year by Viz as part of their partnership with Ikki magazine, and even though Iwaoka spins out plenty of plot threads to start the story (the main one being the mystery of what reallyhappened to Mitsu's father), she emphasizes character above all. Among the people Mitsu encounters are Jin and Tamachi, who were both working with Mitsu's father on the day he died, and who seem to share secrets about what really happened that fateful day.

There's also the intriguing Sachi, who lives in a tiny railcar-like enclosure that circles the ring continuously. Sachi's job is to look for damage (subtext alert!), and she wears a fetching, steampunk-y getup consisting of what looks like a parka, leather face-mask and clunky air tank. Her cat wears a similar outfit as they wander the outside of the ring together. An observer who stands apart from everyone, Sachi reveals that she used to watch Mitsu's father when he was working.

"When you told me he fell while he was working, I thought a soul is a light thing, so maybe he floated back up here to the ring system," she says. It's another wonderful, small moment, and Mitsu's silent reaction is a perfect compliment.

Then with a half-smile he says, "You're weird."

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Appearing every other week, Four-Eyed Stranger looks at classic manga reprints and unusual modern work by Asian artists.

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Preview pages of Saturn Apartments, and read new chapters (to be collected in volume two later this year)

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