Swan vol. 1

Swan vol. 1
 Chad Clayton  rates it:    

Author/Artist: Kyoko Ariyoshi
Format: Paperback
Price: $9.99

Seven years ago, if you had told me that DC Comics would start an imprint dedicated to releasing unflipped, translated Japanese manga, I would have dismissed the idea with a laugh. If you had gone on to say that their first wave of releases would include a healthy handful of shoujo titles ranging from the 1970s to today, I would have started searching your scalp for lobotomy scars. Yet here I am, reviewing one of CMX’s inaugural releases that just happens to be a very 1970s, very shoujo manga about ballet, of all things. That’s quite a jump for a company most famous for sci-fi melodrama about guys who fly around in their underwear, but hey, you won’t hear me complaining if it means getting more titles like Swan.

Masumi is a 16-year-old ballet student from Hokkaido, who one day gets a letter to participate in a try-out session for a new, prestigious ballet school in Japan that will be taught by world-renowned ballet artists. However, little does she know when she begins the true motives of the school: to produce a first wave of world-class ballet dancers that will finally put Japan on the ballet map. Now that the dream of being a prima ballerina is in her grasp, she must now face Triumphs, Heartbreaks, and learn the value of Hard Work and Believing In Yourself on her way to realizing her dream.

Three-minute advertising-copy synopsis aside, Swan fits the “sports manga” archetype pretty well, but keep in mind that this is a shoujo sports story, not a shounen sports story. While any title under the banner of “sports manga” carries a certain number of expectations with it – stories about friendship, rivalry, hard work, battling the odds – it doesn’t necessarily have to play to a certain set of sensibilities. Many shounen sports manga more heavily emphasize teamwork, camaraderie, victory, blood sweat and tears – the more external aspects of sports. Swan, being a shoujo manga, places a greater emphasis on the internal aspects of sports: Masumi’s battles with failure, desire, self-doubt, and inadequacy. Swan is much more about characters feeling things than doing things. Granted, Swan‘s heavy focus on the emotional side of things, combined with the very melodramatic, theatrical ways of expressing it (described below) can often cross the line between credible and cheesy. But hey – we’re talking about a shoujo manga about ballet, two art forms known for melodrama and theatrics. It’s somewhat fitting, and it helps make the manga a lot of fun to read.

It wouldn’t be entirely unfair to draw some comparisons between Swan and the fairly recent anime Kaleido Star. They’re practically identical in concept: both are sports dramas set in the performing arts, and they share a lot of superficial similarities. Unfortunately, both titles share some of the very same faults. Even though the manga keeps hinting at her natural talent, Masumi’s credibility as a skilled ballet dancer is often being undermined. At one point, she advances not because she wins, but because someone else sees potential in her. So much is made about how far she is behind everyone else, the fact that she’s getting all the breaks is a little hard to accept. Even when she does make progress on her own, we aren’t given much sense of hard work and sacrifice. We’re aware mentally that Masumi is working as hard as (or harder than) everyone else, but for me, that point was never really driven home on a visceral level. However, Swan manages to make up for these faults by being intense and engaging, something that Kaleido Star was unable to do in the early going.

But for all that, the story itself didn’t grab me quite as much as Ariyoshi’s way of portraying it. If you’ve ever wanted to know what the “classic shoujo style” is, well, this is it. All the hallmarks of the style are here. The linework is airy, delicate, and graceful. The artwork is highly detailed and stylized. The character designs tend towards tall, lanky, willowy figures with sharp, severe facial features. The characters’ faces are wonderfully expressive. And, of course, everyone’s beautiful. Even old men with mustaches.

Anyone who wants to know how to draw an expressive character should read Swan and take notes, because Ariyoshi has the art of emotional expression down pat. She shows impeccable command of body language and facial expressions – her characters writhe in anguish, burn with intensity, soar with joy, and can become as beautiful and terrible as Greek deities. She also uses more figurative forms of emotional expression – bodies on fire, creepy eyeless stares – to get her point across. But what stands out the most are the eyes – the changes in expression can be subtle, but they add a whole new level of emotional depth to Swan that seems to be missing from many recent titles.

If I had a deeper knowledge of the manga landscape of 1970s Japan than I do, I could probably close out this review by putting Swan into some kind of historical context. I suppose the best I can do now, though, is try give it some context for the modern American manga buyer. On the surface, Swan is a little out of fashion – its art style screams 70s, as does its fashion sense – but good stories never go out of style. Swan is at once a clean, fun piece of slightly kitschy shoujo melodrama, and an interesting look back at the roots of some the latest hot properties currently stuffing the bookstore shelves. It’s not a drab, boring lesson in history, it’s an entertaining story in its own right that deserves a bit more attention than some might be predisposed to give it. Who knows, if Swan sells enough to prove such ventures economically feasible, we may someday get some more old, hugely influential titles from manga’s rich history. Hey, we can always dream, can’t we?

(Endnote: I’ve seen complaints about the heavy use of ballet terminology in Swan, so I felt compelled to comment. There is a fair bit of French ballet terminology, but there’s no obligation to memorize most of it unless you absolutely have to know what every term means. Halfway through the novel, I started skipping most of the definitions and wasn’t much the worse for it.)

Added:  Monday, June 27, 2005

Related Link:  CMX
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