Saturday, December 3, 2011

“The Dance Of A Lifetime” – Swan (manga) – 9/10 Snowballs

Ballet is a dance executed by the human soul. ~Alexander Pushkin

Mangaka: Kyoko Ariyoshi

Genre: Drama/Romance/Shoujo

Review Status: Incomplete (8 Volumes/21 Volumes) *Note- CMX only published 15 of the 21 volumes before folding, and there are no scanlations of the series.

Licensed: Formerly licensed by CMX manga.

Art: While this does have some strange holdovers of styles from the 70’s, this is classic shoujo art that manages to be straight-up beautiful most of the time. The usual sparkles-and-flowers that fill the pages of a lot of modern shoujo have never worked better than in this manga about ballet, where such things are a part of the stage and scenery. The mangaka also has a wonderful sense of motion and movement in her art that makes the scenes easy to visualize, which is especially important when creating a story where that’s so central to the plot. The realistic character designs convey the look of dancers on the stage beautifully.

Summary: Swan is the story of Masumi, a young girl from a rural Japanese town, who dreams of becoming a prima ballerina. She is picked to take part in a national ballet competition but realizes that although she has the passion and talent to be a great dancer, her training lags behind that of her peers. During the competition and the subsequent professional lessons, she fights to improve her abilities and achieve her dreams. (

Review: Manga is something that is often subject to the changing styles and interests of the times. The art people like to look at changes, the things that society views as important changes, what people enjoy changes. What’s wonderful about this manga is that it manages to make a story that can withstand most of these things and create a story that’s still moving and engaging, much like Tezuka’s work still manages to be relevant and- above all- good.

This does show its age. The girls head out to a disco one night. They train in the USSR-named countries (though in the post-Cold War translation keeps the Cold War names of cities), 70’s fashions abound, but those aren’t intrusive or detrimental to the story at all.

Swan keeps is focus on one place only- the story of Masumi, a burgeoning ballet dancer who wants nothing more than to dance with the greats. With nothing but raw talent, she manages to make her way into some of the toughest ballet competitions in the world. Nothing is as easy as it appears, though. Her talent isn’t enough to win. She must train and study and work for hours on end, sacrificing time with friends and learning about herself and the characters she must portray on stage. It shows some of the most brutal things that ballet dancers go through. Becoming one is hard work and can destroy anyone who isn’t going to commit themselves 100%.

Masumi struggles with it herself. She doesn’t always win, she falls to competitive pressure, and it hits her hard when her friends find themselves in situations. Watching her grow as a character is fun and often touching. Her own growth is set off by and aided by a large and varied cast of characters that are as complex characters as Masumi herself. Things aren’t beds of roses for them, but they manage to pull through situations all the better for it. The nice thing is that these characters aren’t used as mere plot devices, to be seen once and never again. Often they are recurring characters that Masumi meets time and again, who grow and change themselves.

While this can get a little melodramatic, it doesn’t always detract from the manga. It’s about ballet, something that’s often seen as something that is melodramatic in and of itself. Swan keeps the struggles and issues of the characters pretty realistic to what real dancers go through. And the actual ballets can be gorgeously depicted. This has a charm and a strong story that manages to overcome any issues that come with being almost 40 years old.

Overall, this is one of the best shoujo manga around, and definitely worth a read if you like Princess Tutu or a good story.

Recommended: 11 and up. The ballet world isn’t always a nice one- there’s fierce competition, and when one dancer is injured in a way that might end her career permanently, she attempts suicide.

Other titles you might enjoy:
Glass Mask (anime and manga)
Cat Street (manga)
Princess Tutu (anime)

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