SWAN, by Ariyoshi Kyoko. First published in 1976, and first published in North America in 2004.
Masumi is a teenage ballet student from rural Hokkaido who wants nothing more than to be a professional dancer. She trains hard at her ballet school, but often gets distracted by having to babysit the younger students or chasing out the odd farm animal out of the studio. Her life is changed forever when she attends a performance of Swan Lake by the Bolshoi Ballet company in Tokyo. She barges her way backstage to meet the principle dancers, and the only way she can express her joy and admiration for them is to perform an impromptu imitation of their performance. This impulsive act impresses them so much that they recommend her to a national ballet competition, where students from all over Japan are competing to be trained and taught by professional dancers and staff from around the world. There Masumi makes friends with a trio of fellow students: class clown Aoi, along with the popular and highly talented duo of Hisio Kusakabe and Sayoko Kyogoku. Masumi passes the first round, but loses the second one and departs for Hokkaiko heartbroken. She gets another chance to compete, but now must work hard under the tutelage of Russian dancer Alexei Sergeiev. Will Masumi survive her training and get one step closer to her dream?
You know, it's odd to think that for all its shoujo trappings, Swan is more tonally similar with shonen tournament fare. Odder still is the fact that this is no way hurts the story. It's kind of nice to find a shoujo where the drama doesn't come from love and relationships, but from competition where only one's innate skill and hard work determines if they will succeed. Unlike shonen tournament series, though, Masumi doesn't succeed because she is the best dancer EVER, but because she is emotive and works hard at her art.
The characters are surprisingly strong as well, although the heroine is probably the weakest of the lot. Masumi's enthusiasm for dance is palpable, and we do get a good sense of the natural lightness of her movement and the emotion she puts behind it, but she's also kind of immature. She's very insecure, always comparing herself to others, and she cries at the slightest obstacle or offense. She is likeable, but one can't help but hope that she will develop some self-confidence with time.
Masumi's friends are also very likeable. I do like that while Sayoko is an older and more technically proficient dancer, she is never a bitch or snob to Masumi. She helps Masumi with her training, and even when Sayoko realizes that Masumi could become a true rival she never changes her behavior towards Masumi nor try to sabotage her. I also like that Masumi truly is only friends with Hisio and Aoi; in any other shoujo story they would be her love interests and would end up in a heated rivalry for her hand. Here, though, their only focus is on the competition, and their friendship is strong enough that they can celebrate one another's successes. Even Sergeiev, who is the closest thing this story has to a villain, isn't all that bad. Yes, he's very strict with Masumi, but he does it not out of cruelty but out of a desire to turn into a truly great dancer, even if that means taking down all that she knew before and rebuilding her skills from the basics.
It's clear that Kyoko truly loves ballet and knows her stuff. The story is LOADED with trivia and jargon about famous ballets, dancers, and techniques. You need not fear that she bogs down the story with infodumping, though. She weaves it into the story as it enfolds, so you learn as the cast does and thus can understand and appreciate what they do, right down to the translation notes for the position names in the margins.
Swan is something truly unique. It's a shoujo series that is structurally and tonally closer to shonen, but it is wise enough to avoid many of the clichés of both. Its cast is surprisingly well-rounded (or at least well-adjusted), and their victories are not a given thing, something which gives their struggles some actual stakes. It is infused with the mangaka's love of ballet, and she is able to educate the reader on the art without losing story momentum. Best of all, despite being written over 30 years ago, Swan's story isn't the least bit dated. Its enthusiasm and maturity is as enthralling now as it was when the story was first published.
While Swan's story may not be dated, its artwork is another matter. The character designs practically scream '1970s' with their dark, moist eyes., loooooong long legs, and occasionally dated hairstyles and fashions, right down to their leisure suits and the Fawcett-esque wings on the men. Everyone, man and woman alike, are ridiculously pretty, but we do get some variety to the designs. For example, the European characters tend to have larger, more aquiline noses with bigger, more squared jawlines.
Kyoko takes an interesting approach towards drawing dances. Instead of using speed lines to communicate motion, she superimposes a few selected poses in a splash panel or breaks down the moment in the manner of stop-motion photography. She also makes some other interesting visual choices, like superimposing silhouettes over the characters at extreme angles or whiting out the character's eyes during moments of stress. That last one took me a long time to get used to, and I still can't help but think that it makes them look kind of ghoulish. Overall the composition is quite dramatic, with characters often bursting out of their panels. There also plenty of large, sometimes page-spanning splash panels for the dances. The artwork can occasionally verge upon the melodramatic and is sometimes a bit dated. Nonetheless, once the characters start dancing the artwork truly shines.
Aside from those plentiful translation notes in the margins, this volume is barebones.
This series was published by CMX. The series is complete with 21 volumes, but only 15 volumes were published, and all are currently out of print.
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