Swan is a 21 volume Japanese comic series written and illustrated by Ariyoshi Kyoko, published between 1977-1981 in a Shoujo magazine called Margaret. The series was published in English up to volume 15 by the now defunct imprint CMX.
Swan follows Masumi Hijiri, a 15-year-old girl from Hokkaido’s Asahikawa prefecture, who loves to dance yet is unable to truly progress because of the lacklustre ballet instruction she received growing up in a rural area. The plot kicks off when Masumi travels to Tokyo to see a performance of Swan Lake by Maya Plisetskaya and Alexei Sergei. She’s late for the performance, and after a chance encounter with her idol Alexei, Masumi is then mysteriously invited to enter her first ever prestigious competition, with the National Ballet Competition. It is subsequently revealed that the invitation was due to the recommendation of Alexei! After the competition, Masumi is invited to train at the new National Ballet School located in Tokyo. She receives private lessons from prestigious teachers of the school, (including Alexei) for a period of six months. However, her weak technical skills, (due to poor training) place her at the back of the pack compared to her other classmates. This is the start of Masumi’s journey, and the story follows her as she develops as a dancer and a person.
Pictured above is Masumi, our bright-eyed, dippy heroine. Notice the flowers – daisies – that bloom beside her profile in the lower corner. This is a common stylistic flourish used in Shoujo manga to associate flowers with the main characters. As this is a Shoujo manga from the 1970’s (flowers help to indicate this), there is plenty of melodrama to be had. Typical of 70’s Shoujo is the sparkling tears, shocked pupil-less eyes and anguished declarations of love which all have their place in Swan. However, romance takes more of a back seat in Swan, as the main focus is on Masumi’s ballet, but there are plenty of pretty boys vying for Masumi’s affections throughout. Masumi herself is a typical teen. She compares herself to others, has low self-esteem, and cries at the drop of a hat. Some readers may find these traits irritating, but I find it just a natural portrayal of a young woman’s growth. Over the course of the series, Masumi becomes stronger and more capable as she learns different ways of artistic expression. However, she still has moments of angst (as do we all), a habit she learns to overcome as she becomes more self-assured.
The overall story arc follows Masumi as she travels to London, Moscow, and New York. During her travel she strives to improve her dance skills, as well as dealing with rivalry, love, and friendship. The cast presented is truly international, as the friends and rivals Masumi makes come from various countries and backgrounds, including British, Cuban, American, Russian, and German. A consistent theme is representing one’s country on the international stage and the importance of competing at that level. I find it funny how Ariyoshi only lightly touches on the language barriers that must surely arise – Masumi must be a real polyglot, having to speak Japanese, English, Russian and German! Outside of this primary story and theme, there are many tournament arches in Swan, and plenty of dramatic events happen in the competitions that would not happen in real-life. It’s all in service of that sweet, sweet melodrama, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Masumi makes fast friends with a trio in Tokyo who also competed in the National Competition. These teen dancers who wish to make their mark on the world, Kusakabe Hisho and Kyogoku Sayoko who are long term partners, and Aoi Yanagizawa. In particular, Sayoko becomes an elder sister figure to Masumi, and they form a strong bond. By contrast, one of Masumi’s most formidable and prominent adversaries throughout the series is a young Russian girl called Liliana Maximova. She is described as a ‘living angel’. As can be seen below, Liliana as Odette features the typical large eyes and blonde hair – an embodiment of the foreign ‘European beauty’ that Masumi thinks she must try to stand toe to toe with.
In the early volumes, Ariyoshi uses many side notes to explain the various ballet terminology. This removes the need for the reader to have any detailed knowledge of dance terminology. As well as this, small introductions are given to the ballets that are staged in Swan, including Swan Lake, Giselle, The Sleeping Beauty, Coppelia, and many more. For each ballet, there is an explanation of who the choreographer/composer was, it’s inspiration, the difficult performance parts etc. Yet these are not academic tomes – the explanations are usually succinct and sufficient so that the reader is aware of the basic background of a ballet.
The genre of ballet in Shoujo comics primarily arose from the post WWII environment with “its costumes, and romanticized, almost fairy tale-like settings of Old World Europe as a mix of femininity, rigor, and elegance remade….”. It became a popular genre during this time, and Swan is considered one of the landmark texts in the genre.
Ariyoshi’s artwork is nothing short of incredible. Her drawings evolve from the fantastically ridiculous dewy-eyed melodrama of the 1970s, to a more slimmed down yet still detailed style of the 1980s complete with the fashion and poufy hair styles to boot!. At various points in the narrative, when Ariyoshi wants to depict cameos of real-life famous dancers and choreographers (such as Margot Fonteyn, Anna Pavlova, Morishita Youko, etc.) she switches to a semi-realistic art style in which the features of the face look more like a real-life sketch of a person as opposed to a purely stylised version.
In the early volumes, there’s an emphasis on classical beauty, including airy jumps and lithe arms dominating the pages. This classical Romantic aesthetic comes partly from the supernatural idea of the sylph, a fairy maiden who was popularised by the real-life dancer Mari Taglioni, pictured below.
Gauzy costumes and dramatic classical poses are front and centre. See the image below of Masumi as she performs Les Sylphides against a pure black background with sparkles shimmering off her costume, her arm lifted to an unbroken line in 4th position. A sylph is a spirit that personifies the airy elements, a creature that is effectively not of this earth. Ariyoshi creates a dreamy and otherworldly atmosphere for her readers to really get into the headspace of Masumi as she glides across the stage. Having her body appear partially transparent against a black background helps emphasis the idea of her crossing between two worlds, the real and the supernatural. Character designs for the female cast have mainly large, doll-like eyes, small noses and very long limbs to accentuate the shape of their legs and arms. The men have more angled jaw lines and channel that effeminate look that was and is popular with the Shoujo medium.
One example of her artistic techniques (as shown below when the story moves to the New York arc in volumes 13-19) is having the character’s limbs break out of the confines of the grid boxed panels allowing the movement of arms and legs to be more easily visualised (see most of the images in this piece). The flow of the elongated bubbles gliding across the panels guides the readers eyes to the flow of the physical movements. The image below shows Leonhart, a young half German half Japanese dancer (who is a constant thorn in Masumi’s side, but simultaneously a great dance partner for her, and a tolerable classmate) as he performs Symphony in C by George Balanchine with Masumi.
The page above uses negative space monumentally as Lucian, the young male dancer who steals Masumi’s heart in America, shows her that in modern ballet the physicality and sensuality of the body can be incredibly visceral as opposed to classical ballet which conceals the body. Modern dance generally does not employ a defined story line. Rather the intensity of the moving body, the sweat, and inherit eroticism lends itself to a more charged atmosphere. It also involves significantly more floor work. In summation, there is more focus on harsher physical prowess, lower point work/bare feet, no plot line and a minimal set: “where the full body is contributing to the movement and not the pose. It’s that overt sense of epaulement.“ The terms Modern, Neoclassical and Contemporary all overlap but contain differences as well. I’m not going to go too deeply into classification here, as this is a more general article.
Swan became so popular that a barrage of sequels and side stories featuring Masumi were created. These off shoots depicted Masumi entering into her 20s and beyond as her dance career continues to flourish. Ariyoshi is currently continuing the Swan series. A story of Masumi’s daughter, Mia, is also being written. While the original Swan was published in Margaret, (a dedicated manga magazine), Mia’s story is being serialised in Swan Magazine, a magazine about (you guessed it) the Swan series. It has interviews and explorations of various worldwide dance companies, their dancers, and their shows, as well as including the manga.
Hopefully, one day Swan will be picked up by an English licensing company, so that English readers can enjoy a classic in the Shoujo canon.
For more information on the styles of dancing, check out this great blog: https://balletclassroom.wordpress.com/2012/04/30/classical-modern-and-contemporary-ballet/.