Swan Volumes 5 and 6

Swan Volume 5 by Kyoko Ariyoshi

Ballet manga is just like sports or war manga but instead of big games or battles, there are the exciting dance-offs! In volume 5 of Swan Masumi and Larissa go head-to head in competition as they alternate the roles of Odette and Odile in Swan Lake. Larissa gives a textbook perfect performance with a traditional interpretation of Odette. Masumi’s unconventional performance of Odile initially leaves the audience perplexed, but as they see her dance they are completely won over. Sergeiev dances the role of the prince with both girls, and it was a little odd to see him locked in passionate embrace with Masumi onstage after all the time he’s spent relentlessly drilling her to refine her technique. Kusakabe notices Sergeiev’s special regard for his student, thinking to himself, “His face is so typically stoic and Russian, but his eyes glow with passion! When it comes to Masumi, his ‘heart of stone’ is on fire!” I’m always impressed with Ariyoshi’s layout techniques. During the big dance scenes she’ll combine splash pages showing the entire bodies of the dancers combined with several head shots that demonstrate the emotions on their faces as they act their role.

Back in Japan, Kyogoku is out of bed and struggling to regain her old skills. She falls when trying to execute dance moves she had perfected as a child. She receives a heartfelt letter from Kusakabe, reminding her of the vow they made years ago to dance together before the world. Kusakabe tells Kyogoku about Masumi’s audition for Swan Lake. Kyogoku practices for 40 hours to perfect her turns and collapses again.

Masumi is trembling before she is about to go onstage as Odette. The other students rush to tell Larissa that Masumi is shaking with fear. Larissa is annoyed and says “Wouldn’t you be? If it was your turn onstage?” As Odette, Masumi’s performance is again a contrast to Larissa’s. Masumi is tranquil and serene where Larissa was vibrant. When Masumi goes offstage Kusakabe discovers that she’s feverish. When she goes onstage again Sergeiev notices her condition and is concerned because he’s seen dancers get sick from nerves and pressure before. He uses his strength and skill as a partner to make her dancing look effortless. Masumi wins the right to progress, but there is a third candidate to beat – Larissa’s cousin Liliana. One of the things I like about Swan is that even when dancers are rivals, there’s never any real enmity between them. Larissa is philosophical about her defeat and tells Masumi that she considers them rivals for life now.

Swan Volume 6 by Kyoko Ariyoshi

The sixth volume of Swan deals more with the characters’ interpersonal relationships than ballet. Masumi suffers a setback when she is supposed to dance against Liliana. Liliana turns out to be a prodigy, with an ethereal quality that is the essence of romantic ballet. Masumi’s fear manifests in a temporary hearing loss. At first her performance is about to be canceled, but she regains her hearing and dances anyway. Her hearing vanishes again when she is onstage, and she is only able to get through the performance by following Sergeiev. The role of Odette goes to Liliana, and Masumi must return home to Japan to continue her studies.

Sergeiev is devastated by the turn of events. He thought that the flaw in Masumi’s dancing was due to poor training or lack of musicality, but it is much worse knowing that she may be dealing with psychological issues. Masumi flies home to Japan with Kusakabe, enjoying his company on Christmas Eve. Kyogoku meets them at the airport. When Masumi asks her about her leg, Kyogoku informs her that she’s wearing toe shoes already but in an aside to Kusakabe she whispers that she was just discharged from the hospital yesterday. The Japanese students are going to prepare for a production of a production of “Song of the Forest.” The first term students will compete against the new second term students for roles. Everyone expects that Kyogoku will play the lead female role of Mavka, but Masumi is selected. She’s horrified by the idea of taking a role that Kyogoku was looking forward to and insists on sharing the audition.

Kusakabe is upset, and begs Kyogoku not to dance. He points out that the instructors didn’t choose her in order to give her time to heal, but Kyogoku says that the role of Mavka can be her comeback. Kusakabe goes on a walk with Masumi. She talks about how happy she is that Kyogoku is healed, and he tells her that Kyogoku is still injured. He asks Masumi to take back her inadvertent challenge. Masumi feels horrible and thinks that Kusakabe hates her. Aoi corners Kusakabe and lectures him about his insensitivity to Masumi. Masumi tries to talk to Kyogoku, but the injured dancer is still determined to perform. As Masumi watches Kyogoku struggle through her performance supported by Kusakabe, she realizes the depth of the feelings between the pair. Masumi runs away and Aoi goes after her. Poor Aoi picks the wost possible time to tell Masumi that he loves her.

After six volumes, I’m still incredibly curious to find out what will happen as Masumi progresses in the world of ballet. Will she be able to overcome her psychological issues and become a better dancer? Will she find love with someone? What about her dead mother’s past ballet career and the mysterious Russian who was her partner? Ariyoshi has set up a ton of plot elements to be explored, and I’m still entertained by the occasional digression into background information about the difference between classical and modern dance. I read a volume of Swan with clear storytelling and innovative layouts and I’m struck by the contrast with some of the manga that’s being produced today that has overcrowded panels and too much screen tone.

Review copies provided by the publisher