08 Jun, 2010

Swan, Vols. 1-15

By: Erin Finnegan


By Kyoko Ariyoshi
CMX
Rating: E for Everyone

It must have been 2006 when I cornered the CMX rep at New York Comic Con. “Hey Mister,” I said desperately, “whatever happens, you gotta promise me you’ll finish releasing Swan.” He chuckled and said something like, “That’s odd… you’re the third person who’s said that to me today.” Then he promised he’d finish it. With just six volumes of Swan left to go, CMX died and broke that promise. I’ve learned a lot of Japanese since 2006, but perhaps not enough to read Swan. (I bought a bunkoban rerelease in Japanese, but the furigana are too small to read on bumpy subway rides.)

I ought to mention up front that I don’t know anything about ballet. I never took a single lesson as a kid. Sure, I saw “The Nutcracker” at Lincoln Center, but it was only after reading Swan. I’m no expert in classical music, but I bought a “Swan Lake” album after reading this manga.

I fell in love with Swan not because it’s about ballet, but because it’s so hardcore about it. The dancers sweat as hard and compete as ruthlessly as any athlete in a sports manga. They work on their acting with as much attention to detail as Maya in Glass Mask. (Glass Mask is an equally hardcore ’70s manga about acting. The Glass Mask 2005 anime adaptation is now available now—go buy it!)

The fashion of Swan

Sometimes the '70s fashion is a bit much.

Swan is the tasty manga equivalent of gritty American films from the 1970s. It is the Taxi Driver or the Apocalypse Now of ballet manga. In other words, it is a classic title that belongs on everyone’s “Must Read” list. I’ve put Swan on my “Best of the Year” manga lists for years.

Maybe it’s my fault CMX went under (not really) because it took me six years to write this review. I wanted this review to be so amazing that Swan would become a huge smash hit and go to reprint 10,000 times. CMX could have supported all of their other titles on the cash. Obviously, one lone internet reviewer cannot wield that much power. Because I wanted to write a perfect review, I let my fear of failure stop me from writing it at all. (Besides, Shaenon Garrity’s Swan review was pretty good already.)

Now I’m writing this from the perspective of license rescue. Hello, prospective publishers: Swan is the perfect license rescue. It might not have the pop culture audience of Yotsuba&! or Gunslinger Girl, but I’ve heard Swan is huge in the library market. It’s rated “E” for everyone. There is no objectionable content. It’s about ballet. Girls love ballet. Girls love to read. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.

But wait! When I say this is rated “E for Everyone” I need to clarify that this is a series that everyone should read. Even testosterone fans like Daryl Surat of Anime World Order love this title because Swan is so girly it goes all the way around the circle from feminine to masculine again.

Plus, it is educational without being heavy-handed or boring. We’re given the story and some historical information about each ballet featured in the manga, but it never seems like a lecture. We need to know the story behind each ballet as much as the protagonist does. Kyoko Ariyoshi never lectures her audience. Footnotes help out with some of the French ballet terms, especially early on. There are even references to real-life dancers and choreographers. Dame Margot Fonteyn makes an appearance, and in another volume Ariyoshi indirectly recommends the 1977 film The Turning Point.

The Firebird

Swan gives a little information on each ballet performed in the series.

If you’ve never read Swan, older volumes are a pain to find, so I recommend picking up volumes 13 through 15 (or start with 12). The series doesn’t exactly reboot, but the break in continuity is so great that if you missed the first half you’ll be OK. Volumes 1-12 are about classical ballet, but in volume 13 the protagonist moves to New York City and starts studying modern dance. (If you don’t know anything about modern dance, don’t worry, neither does Masumi.) There are new love interests and a fresh cast of characters so you don’t need to be familiar with volumes 1-12.

The art of Swan is freaking amazing. During ballet sequences Ariyoshi illustrates time in gorgeous cinematic sequences, following the dancers’ movements in trails across the page. Drawn in the experimental 1970s, Ariyoshi experiments with panel layout. Masumi’s worries and fears break out of square borders into explosive layouts. Even through the psychedelic sequences, everything stays legible. Reading across a page of Swan is much less confusing than picking your way through the randomly scattered dialog bubbles of modern shojo.

If you think today’s shojo heroines have sparkly eyes, think again. Although throwing a star-shape or even box-shaped reflections into characters’ pupils has been standard since the beginning of shojo in the 1950s, Swan takes it to a whole new level. The more beautiful Masumi’s dance is, the more her eyes are obscured with eyelashes and sparkles. And Masumi’s got nothing on the angelic Lilliana, a rival dancer so unearthly people call her a living angel. Sometimes Lilliana’s eyes completely disappear, replaced entirely with sparkles.

Younger readers probably won’t notice the star filter effect. Star filters haven’t been used in movies or TV in America since the 1970s, but Swan is full of star filter lighting effects. Somehow they come off less hokey in black and white than they do in color movies.

Lilliana, "the living angel"



In another weird bit of ’70s awesomeness, Super Deformed mode is nothing like modern chibis. When we see Masumi simplified, sticking out her tongue and being goofy, she looks like a dead ringer for chibi moments in Phil Foglio’s comics from the same time period. It’s fascinating to see how little comedic moments have changed over the years.

Chibi moments from Swan

A selection of comedic "chibi" moments.

I find all the throwback ’70s artwork a charming addition to my Swan reading experience. It makes me feel like I’m reading manga from a time when shojo was real shojo (and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri).

Modern shojo often focuses on the small emotional interactions of the protagonist with a boy she likes. Swan, like other shojo from the 1970s, is a story on a grand scale. It isn’t just about Masumi’s personal struggle, Swan is about Japanese ballet dancers making a debut on the world stage. Masumi trains with and competes against the Soviets and Americans, who, during the Cold War, were the best of the best. In the two different worldwide competitions, Masumi competes against and befriends characters from England, Germany, Cuba, and Monaco.

Outwardly, the art is very “girly,” but at the core of the story is another very feminine quality. Despite Masumi’s nearly unbelievable success in the world of ballet, she has low self-esteem about it. She is never vain or gets a big head about it. Instead, Masumi is quick to praise other dancers while she berates herself for being weak or worse. Fortunately, she never goes too far with the self-abuse. Instead, Masumi focuses on her love of dance. An overconfident protagonist might be less fun to read about; a protagonist with lower self-esteem would be grating.

Masumi’s lack of self-confidence leads to some bizarre, yet entertaining behavior. In one competition Masumi is so nervous she goes hysterically deaf (yes, you read that right: hysterically deaf). She pulls off her performance on the verge of a total mental breakdown. Before another performance, Masumi becomes so hysterical that her dance teacher slaps her, and points to the stage doors: “If you’ve had enough, then there’s no need for you to suffer any longer! Toss out your toe shoes and get out of here!! The exit is that way!!”"

This is shojo, so there is romance, but it constantly takes a backseat to dance. Masumi has a crush on Kyogoko’s boyfriend, but can’t do anything about it. Other boys have crushes on Masumi, who fails to notice until the moment they kiss her. The romance is the lowest priority in the story.

Masumi's Apartment

Masumi's New York apartment. Will the side-by-side twin beds discourage romance?

As protagonists go, Masumi doesn’t have a strong personality. We get a little of her backstory, but never too much. It’s a little hard to get a sense of Masumi as an individual. This works to put the reader in Masumi’s place. We experience everything with her, through her eyes and in her head. Masumi’s lack of a strong presence as an individual makes it easy for the reader to put themselves into the story instead. Masumi’s narration of her emotions work to tell us what it would be like to dance in her place. I’ve never danced ballet, but I felt like I have, thanks to Swan.

The pages I’ve selected below are from volume 14, after Masumi moves to New York. In the New York volumes, Masumi dances across city skylines that make me simultaneously homesick and nostalgic for New York, which is weird, because I live here. The exterior of Lincoln Center hasn’t changed much since the ’70s, apparently.

In this scene, the summer is brutally hot and the dance studio doesn’t have air conditioning. It’s so hot Masumi doesn’t feel like eating. The dancers pour sweat throughout the volume until Masumi faints. During this arc, the classically trained Masumi is struggling to understand modern dance. What’s the point if there are no characters and no story? After her fever breaks, Masumi’s new friend Luci takes her to the rehearsal room in the middle of the night, where he dances The Bolero to a tape recorder.

Luci’s movements through the darkness are simultaneously great manga art, art appreciation, educational, and dead sexy (but still OK for young readers).

Other dance titles like Forbidden Dance from Tokyopop and a few odd books of Princess Tutu from ADV Manga have been imported to the U.S., but nothing explodes with the same passionate energy as Swan. Swan belongs in every library.



Volumes one through fifteen of Swan are available now.

Review copy for volume fifteen provided by the publisher.

17 Responses to "Swan, Vols. 1-15"

1 | lys

June 8th, 2010 at 7:17 pm

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Beautiful review. I’m glad you were able to write it now, even as I’m still heartbroken over the recent events with CMX. It’s so true about this series and libraries, too—I discovered I could get the series through interlibrary loan and read the first two volumes just one week before the CMX news hit; from those two volumes I was in starry-eyed love with the series. Now I’ve got my own copies of the first 5 volumes (I had to get v1 secondhand since it’s out of print, but it wasn’t hard to track down) and intend to add the rest to my collection as soon as I can. I’m just kind of appalled at myself, as a dedicated fan of all things shoujo, for not realizing sooner what an amazing thing it was to have this series (and a lot of other CMX titles) being published in English at all.

That scene at the top of your review is just… wow. Breathtaking. I love this series.

2 | bahamut

June 9th, 2010 at 3:22 pm

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Man, I’m bummed I ignored this series. The panel layout and page composition are driving me wild. The art alone is enough to make me want to pick it up. I hope I won’t have a hard time finding the older volumes, and I hope a discerning publisher (like Vertical) will save it and publish the last few volumes, perhaps as omnibuses.

3 | Ephidel

June 9th, 2010 at 5:09 pm

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That was a beautiful review for a beautiful series :)
I’m still trying to fill in the missing volumes in my collection, but the emotion and panelwork are simply stunning, and you’ve managed to show a lot of that off here. I really wish they had been given the chance to see it through to completion though :(
At the moment, I’m considering importing the aizoban releases to take the place of the ‘unpublished volumes’ but I know I’d end up buying the rest too because otherwise they wouldn’t match. They’re oversized, contain colour inserts… and if someone were to pick up those instead during a license rescue, they’d have my preorder as soon as they appeared on amazon, regardless of the fact I already own the CMX volumes ^^

4 | Heather Maz

July 6th, 2010 at 8:01 pm

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I agree your review was beautiful. I read Swan the first week it was published in english. I asked a clerk for something different and they handed me the book. I fell in love with it. I own all the editions but #15 (soon to be remedied) because I was in Korea for a year. I did not even realize that CMX closed untill I went to buy the new release and realized they were not going to be anymore english editions.

I would also recomend this series to anyone. You do not have to know anything about ballet. Kyoko Ariyoshi draws you in so fast that before you know it your looking up the movies that are mentioned or listening to the music thats discussed. The books are just that good. The style of artwork does reflect the seventies when they were published, so they are a little different in style then the current manga but just to repeat it the artwork is beautiful!

I have no idea what DC comics was taking about when they were taking about “current problems in the American market” but from where I stand Swan is just as good or better than the one title they kept. It deserves to have the last 6 books made. I find it almost unethical and insulting of the company to do this. I have stayed with their product for years buying each edition just to reach the end and have them say “hey-so sorry.” I would understand if it was a series in the first few books but to be so close to the ending- why would they cut this? I do not read japanese and owing to the fact that the book is so old, the chances of me finding the rest of the copies and geting a friend to read/translate it are about a hair over none.

If this is ever picked up I would be one of those diehards who would be willing to pay more for the books or omnibus. SO PLEASE PICK THIS SERIES UP!!

5 | Gabrielle

August 6th, 2010 at 1:04 pm

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Oh my gosh, I still have all the books. It was published here in the 90s I guess. This is an amazing manga, I dare to say it’s one of the best ever written.
Mmm I think I can help you with vol. 16-21, if you’re interested you can contact me via Facebook, but I may need some time, I’d try to make it as fast as I could :)

6 | Friday Procrastination Aids, 6/11/10 « The Manga Critic

September 28th, 2010 at 8:17 pm

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[...] paws… and my former PCS colleague Erin Finnegan tells you everything you need to know about Kyoko Ariyoshi’s Swan and throws in a few gorgeous pictures for good [...]

7 | Joyce

October 9th, 2010 at 7:42 pm

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I have always loved Swan, and have been collecting this series since the first volume came out. Your summary is written absolutely wonderfully and really conveyed everything that is so remarkable about Swan. It is really unfortunate that the publishing has ended for this series (I only found out today while I was browsing to check for the release date for vol. 16). I’m so upset that it’s no longer going to published, however I am going to somehow hunt down the original copies in Japanese, and try to decipher the story from there.

8 | great story

November 11th, 2010 at 6:57 pm

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its a really great book i love it

9 | great story

November 11th, 2010 at 6:58 pm

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its a really great book i love it hi

10 | Anita

November 18th, 2010 at 10:45 pm

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ah….I’m so sad that Swan is not being published in english anymore. I totally forgot that CMX closed down xO. Sigh…I agree. Swan should be in every library. (lol the libraries in my city all together have vol 1-12 only) I’ll take your advice and buy vol 13-15 (with my parents’ permission xp) I really hope some company picks it up but…these days, I find many publishing companies disappointing.

11 | Dwee

January 9th, 2011 at 1:36 pm

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one of my favourite mangas beside glass mask, candy, and pop corn. great story indeed, i agree with the review, and i never get bored of reading it again and adain. i have all of the series but they are in bahasa Indonesia. hope you all can get the complete ones, guys.

12 | Cindy

January 10th, 2011 at 8:34 pm

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Hmm. Beautiful beautiful review. I know exactly what you mean. I remember those busy days when I get my books from the library and read them late into the night, quivering with excitement. But then the volumes stopped. My fears were confirmed – the series was dropped due to the shallowness of most of today’s modern manga readers. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an avid fan of a select few modern manga myself, but Swan was undeniably one of the best for me. One thing I have to disagree with you on, though I love the ballet content as much as you do, I looked forward to the romantic parts as well. I finished the series when I found online chinese raw scans of the remaining volumes. Those who don’t know this might not believe this, but Luci fell insanely in love with Masumi for a time, and his feelings were returned. There was even a point in time when Masumi was so torn between love and ballet that she considered giving up on ballet for a life with Luci ( What ever happened to Leonard?! – he was my personal favorite ). But it’s true, whenever it seemed as if the love tides will overwhelm Masumi and the readers, the limelight is returned to ballet once again. I just felt that the love and ballet content were both very well balanced, to the point where it was painfully breathtaking.

P.S. I’m sad about how little development there was between Leonard and Masumi. Their love and perfect harmony and partnership was the very thing that kept me going.

13 | Cindy

January 10th, 2011 at 8:35 pm

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I know exactly what you mean. I remember those busy days when I get my books from the library and read them late into the night, quivering with excitement. But then the volumes stopped. My fears were confirmed – the series was dropped due to the shallowness of most of today’s modern manga readers. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an avid fan of a select few modern manga myself, but Swan was undeniably one of the best for me. One thing I have to disagree with you on, though I love the ballet content as much as you do, I looked forward to the romantic parts as well. I finished the series when I found online chinese raw scans of the remaining volumes. Those who don’t know this might not believe this, but Luci fell insanely in love with Masumi for a time, and his feelings were returned. There was even a point in time when Masumi was so torn between love and ballet that she considered giving up on ballet for a life with Luci ( What ever happened to Leonard?! – he was my personal favorite ). But it’s true, whenever it seemed as if the love tides will overwhelm Masumi and the readers, the limelight is returned to ballet once again. I just felt that the love and ballet content were both very well balanced, to the point where it was painfully breathtaking.

P.S. I’m sad about how little development there was between Leonard and Masumi. Their love and perfect harmony and partnership was the very thing that kept me going.

14 | Cassidy

January 29th, 2011 at 9:10 pm

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OMG! I love these books SO MUCH!! I love shoujo manga, one day I saw this at the library, I think it was #5, and I picked it up and read it. Then I forgot about it, but later I saw the whole series was on the shelf so I went and picked it up and I LOVED IT! I became obsessed with ballet for months!! I totally can’t wait for #16 to be translated!!

15 | Cassidy

January 29th, 2011 at 9:11 pm

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wait…reading the comments…OH NO!! did they actually shut down publication?!? This is REALLY BAD! now I have to learn how to read japanese :(

16 | Ashley

January 31st, 2011 at 4:41 pm

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This is one of the main reasons I got into dance, specifically ballet. I was in middle school when I read the series for the first time and was crushed that my library only had the first 8 or so. I followed them online and have read them countless times. There needs to be a company that picks up the translation of this series to see it to completion! It’s too good, and I think that if people could read it they would love it <3

17 | Lola

April 22nd, 2011 at 11:00 am

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I loved this series. I grew up with the Taiwanese pirated version. Shame the English version isn’t readily available anymore. Modern shojo is just not the same. There seems to be less visual variety nowadays. The authors from the 70’s & 80’s all seem to have quite distinct style. Everything look so same-y now. :-(

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