Swan Volumes 3 and 4

CMX was nice enough to send me a big box o’ Swan. This is the first time that I’ve had such a large chunk of a manga series sitting around the house to read, so I’m going to try to post about this great ballet series a little bit each week and work my way up to the current volumes.

To recap, our intrepid heroine Masumi is singled out for her incredible potential. Although her ballet training has been remarkably insufficient, she is able to partially overcome her flaws through hard work. She is granted the gift of special lessons at the newly formed Japanese National Ballet School by the ballet master Alexi Sergieiev. Masumi meets the promising male dancers Kusakabe and Aoi as well as the most talented female junior dancer in Japan, Kyogyoku. Kyogyoku recognizes in Masumi someone who has the gift to be her true rival.

After a dance competition Kyogyoku and Kusakabe head off to Moscow. Masumi is able to visit them on a stop over as she travels to further her studies in London. She sees Kyogyoku deal with a rival Russian Ballerina and former protege of Sergieiev named Larissa Maximova. As the third volume opens, Kyogyoku’s performance of Sleeping Beauty will determine if she will win a chance to audition for a Bolshoi Ballet production.

Swan Volume 3 by Kyoko Ariyoshi

Kyogoku has to dance the role of Aurora with the weight of the expectations of the new Japanese ballet program on her shoulders along with her own artistic ambitions and nerves. One of the things I like about Swan is the little expositional detours where Ariyoshi will explain a little bit about the plot, performance history, and music of a given ballet while showing several panels of the characters dancing the role. Paragraphs of ballet exposition might seem boring, but the art is so dynamic that I found myself caught up in the story of the performance. Kyogoku’s performance is a success, and a new ballet star is born. She’s besieged by new fans and press. Masumi is genuinely thrilled for her new friend and proud that Kyogoku has been able to advance the cause of Japanese ballet.

Larissa is complaining the next day about Sergieiev abandoning the Russians to work with foreigners. Masumi stands up for herself and Larissa challenges her to dance the Red Poppy against her. Masumi agrees, although she has only seen the role once. As Masumi is dancing, she finds that she doesn’t remember the next step, but another Russian student named Liliana comes to her rescue. During the next show Kyogoku lands wrong after a grand jete and snaps her Achilles tendon. She can’t dance for a year, and may never be able to regain her previous ability. Masumi is devastated, but Kyogoku initially appears brave about her horrible situation. The shock comes when a member of the Japanese ballet school puts forward Masumi’s name as a candidate to audition in Kyogoku’s place. Masumi has to dance the role of the Black Swan against Larissa.

Masumi agrees to the audition after Kyogoku encourages her. She undergoes intensive training with Sergieiev, and he attempts to accomplish in 10 days with Masumi what most dancers study in 10 years. Masumi picks up an incredible amount of technique, but she is only able to surpass Larissa when she reconnects with her love of the dance. Masumi manages to remain serene and centered during the audition process while the perfectionist Larissa psyches herself out. Masumi will audition for the Bolshoi in one month. She goes to share her news with Kyogoku and discovers that the injured ballerina is acting out against her horrible situation.

Swan Volume 4 by Kyoko Ariyoshi

Masumi leaves Russia to train in London for a month. Kusakabe and Aoi reminisce about how much she’s changed after seeing her off. In London Masumi is challenged for the first time to interpret her role for herself. She works with the Cuban dancer Fernando to create a student production, and he points out that ballet dancers have to draw on their own creativity in order to inhabit a role. Masumi struggles to add this new element to her dancing, but ultimately manages to deepen her acting ability. She sees firsthand the sacrifices that dancers make for their craft as her roommate Sidney Eckland pushes her boyfriend away because she only has time for ballet.
One of the fun things about Swan is when real ballet dancers show up in the manga. Margaret Fonteyn appears to critique Sidney and Masumi’s interpretations of the White Swan from Swan Lake. While Masumi’s dancing still has flaws, she does possess an undeniable stage presence that captures audience attention. Masumi returns to Russia and her teacher Sergieiev to prepare for her next audition. She also spends more time with Kusakabe. He supports Masumi as she prepares for her audition, and she can tell that she’s falling in love with him.

Ariyoshi continues to use incredibly effective and innovative layout techniques. Sometimes she might mimic motion study photography to show a dance move step-by-step. She’ll often use collage, with the heads of various characters fading in and out of the background as someone is having an emotional moment. While often everyone is starry-eyed occasionally Ariyoshi will draw a character with blank white eyes, which creates an arresting effect. While I can see that for some people the frequent speeches about trying one’s best and giving everything up for ballet might get a bit tiresome, there’s something about this series that triggers my total suspension of disbelief. Ariyoshi makes me want to believe in a world where an untried Japanese dancer ends up hanging out with Margaret Fonteyn, where everyone’s hair looks like a shampoo commercial, and where the power of dance can change people’s lives.

There’s a weird listing on amazon that comes up when you search for “Swan Manga” that groups several of the early volumes together, saying that they are unavailable. If you’re trying to track down early volumes of this series, it is better to search for “swan 1”, “swan 2”, etc.

Review copies provided by the publisher.