I’ve been catching up on the japanese comic book Swan by Ariyoshi Kyoko. About two years I wrote this little book review of Swan #1. This review originally appeared in the webzine Knuffles.
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I’m not a big fan of Japanese comics but Swan is something exceptional. It’s the story of a young girl named Masumi who does not have magical powers, nor is she collecting cards or trying to retrieve a stolen talisman from an ancient monster bent on ruling the universe. Masumi simply wants to become a ballerina, and Swan is the story of her journey. It’s clear intent is to get more japanese girls interested in ballet.
There were 21 volumes of Swan originally published in Japan from 1976 through ‘81. CMX, a division of DC Comics, is now reprinting them in english. The first three are now in bookstores (the fourth will be available in early August), and I suppose if they sell well enough, all 21 will eventually be available.
There are some oddities to japanese comics (‘shojo manga’ if you want to impress people). To read the book, you start at the back and work your way to the front. Word balloons are placed from right to left, and there isn’t always a little pointy bit that shows who is talking – you need to figure it out for yourself. Characters transform radically when they experience extreme emotions. Their eyeballs disappear when they’re shocked and when they’re embarrassed they catch fire. Since Masumi is such an emotional girl, she is always shrinking or exploding or otherwise making herself tricky to identify. These idiosyncrasies can be a bit distracting, until you get into the story.
The Swan is a beautiful lacy valentine to the art of ballet. Curls and flower blossoms brim over the edges of the panels and everyone has impossibly long eyelashes. But these ballerinas sweat a lot too, and they fall over when they get tired. They are often in competition with each other, leading to a lot of the drama and conflict.
When you bring young dancers together there is bound to be a lot of emotions, and the artwork skillfully conveys the melodrama, using a pastiche of styles. Realism, impressionism, and abstract styles are used, along with the odd conventions of manga, sometimes all on the same page. But don’t let the evocative art distract you from the well crafted story.
In the opening scene, the Bolshoi Ballet Company are performing in Tokyo. Masumi has come from her country home to see the great dancers perform Swan Lake. The ballet is sold out, but she barges in anyway and meets the dancers backstage. Overcome by the dance of Maria Prisetskaya and Alexi Sergeiev, Masumi throws off her shoes and performs the dance of the Black Swan before their amazed eyes. Prisetskaya and Sergeiev are flattered and moved by the girl’s spirit and passion.
Incidentally, there was a Bolshoi prima ballerina assoluta named Maria (Maya in Russian) Plisetskaya. Several famous ballerinas make ‘cameo’ appearances in the Swan, including Galina Ulanova, Moira Shearer and Japan’s own Morishita Yoko.
When Masumi returns home, she receives a mysterious invitation. Promising young dancers from all over Japan have been brought together to compete in a new contest. Even when Masumi discovers that Sergeiev is one of the judges, she cannot imagine why she’s been brought here. She’s never been in a dance competition or even in a performance.
“How many of you can remember the words of Margot Fonteyn when she visited Japan?” asks one of the judges. “She said ‘Japan will most likely become the focal point of ballet in the world, after France and the Soviet Union.’ Will her prediction come true or not? Either way, ballet in Japan must aim for the world arena. And its future rests wholly on YOUR shoulders.”
The winners of the competition will receive training from Sergeiev and from other international ballet stars. Masumi feels totally outclassed by the other dancers, and her lack of confidence becomes one of several stumbling blocks.
Every now and then in the course of the story, one of the characters will say to another, “Let’s go see a ballet,” and there is a little instructional interlude. In volume 1, we get a brief glimpse of La Sylphide, Ramonda, Sleeping Beauty and the film “The Red Shoes.” The book opens and closes with scenes from Swan Lake.
The story does not follow the usual ballet story clichés. Masumi is, in fact, not the best of the young dancers. Her impulsive emotions hurt her in competition, and her training at a provincial dance school has given her flaws in her basic ballet steps. What she does have is a great natural talent and a dedication to work.
Masumi’s story is not a simple series of ascending victories. She fails a lot but she learns from her failures. One of the things she learns is that ballet is not simply dancing. As a ballerina, you are playing a character. You must experience the emotions of that character, and cannot bring your own fear onstage with you.
After a shaky first round and a disastrous second round, Masumi leaves the competition. But Sergeiev recognizes her potential, and Masumi is called back to be trained alongside the contest winners.
After the contest, the truth emerges. A National School of Ballet is being established and Masumi and the eight contest winners will be the students. Exchange programs are being set up, and the students will compete against each other to see who will perform in a special performance in Moscow.
Masumi decides to try out for the main role of Princess Aurora, instead of trying for an easier role, so she must compete against ‘Princess’ Kyogoku, a gifted and experienced dancer from a Tokyo ballet school.
Sergeiev drills Masumi in her basic ballet steps, but he also imparts some interesting ballet facts, such as when he compares a common ballet gesture to the position of Christ’s hands in DaVinci’s The Last Supper. He also gives some truly fiery lessons in ballet history.
Volume 1 does not resolve the plot, it leaves you with a cliffhanger, after all they want you to rush out and buy volume 2. Will Masumi succeed in her challenge to Princess Kyogoku? Will she win the chance to dance in Moscow? The book does a good job of getting you hooked, and you can be sure it will leave you with another cliffhanger in the next volume.
I hope this little book report will spark your curiosity enough to look for Swan. You don’t have to go to Japan, or to a specialty store, many bookstores now have a small section for manga or ‘graphic novels.’ It’s also available on Amazon and the other online booksellers.