The Gold Standard for Ballet Shojo – The Swan manga review

To be honest this review is coming over a month after I’ve finished the manga. It’s taken me that long to attempt to decompress from this series. I can’t say that I have at this point. I’m finding it difficult to put Swan into words, into a review, since it’s so fully captured my imagination even now.

Swan by Ariyoshi Kyoko is a story that I can’t seem to shake off. It’s rendering me speechless despite my promise that I would read and review it. This review is going to take a slightly different form then my usual style. So I apologize if this completely falls apart and just ends up being a long love letter.

Despite it being an absolute classic, and potentially the first (don’t quote me on that) shojo manga based around ballet. I will take the time to explain the premise.

Swan is the story of Masumi Hijiri, a 16-year-old ballet student from a small school in Hokkaido. She goes on a once in a lifetime trip to Tokyo to watch Alexei Sergeiev and Maria Plisetsyaka’s rendition of Swan Lake. Overwhelmed by their emotional performance, Masumi ends up botching her after show greeting and retreating back to Hokkaido. What Masumi lacks in technical skills though, she more then makes up in passion and raw, undeveloped talent which is what leads her to being invited to the nationwide ballet competition to foster’s Japan’s upcoming talent. She isn’t top of the class, Masumi stands on her own, interacting and challenging herself in the fantastic and tragic world of ballet.

Being brutally honest, Swan in very much a story of Masumi going full tilt into the world of ballet with raw passion, and naivety only a teenager could possess. It’s both realistic, but also makes you wonder. The core events of Masumi’s training, and transition to various schools of ballet makes sense. It’s the usual, if you think a bit too hard about the details left unaddressed it might break your emersion, but they’re easy enough to work around.

In terms of characters and character arcs, one thing I loved about Swan is that there were no bitter rivals. Masumi of course is the character you want to root for the most, and ballet does have competitive elements so there are characters that compete against her, and with her. It’s done in a manner that’s so honest, there is never the de-evolution to dirty tricks or other unscrupulous means. Characters win, or lose to one another based on their own merit and skills, as well as events that could not be calculated. Everyone is at the level where such things aren’t needed; just the goal of striving and being inspired to accomplish the highest level of sport and art.

Speaking of art; Swan goes where shojo manga dares to tread and that’s into black. There’s so many panels that will have a solid black background so we can really focus on the poise and movement of the characters. The fine details from the tips of their fingers, to how each costume would be designed and then lays when in motion is on full display. The loving details are showcased with each ballet, each competition piece.

The parallels between Masumi front, and then Sayoko.

Not to mention the sequences replicating motion. The repetition of the character only shifted slightly over, the fabric moving ever so slightly to create the sense of movement is some of the best I’ve ever seen. I hate comparing series, but if Subaru was raw expression that leap out of the pages, Swan is subdued in a way that pulls you into them. It’s quiet, striking, you can feel the baited breath of the audience as your eyes trace the page, only to be released with a page turn and final pose.

I found myself more then once simply gazing upon a single page, or two page spread for minutes at a time. I’d go back and notice a new detail, something I hadn’t seen before that made my image of the ballet change ever so slightly to match the full vision of Ariyoshi-Sensei. It’s also made me on the prowl for the art book for this series, since I’m so entranced with these pages.

That doesn’t mean that Swan is perfect. It is after all now considered a ‘vintage’ shojo. So the story, art, and a handful of elements are dated and somewhat fallen out of favor as the times have changed. Luckily, there’s nothing inherently problematic within the pages. It does come off dated but that has it’s charm. It’s not a shojo for the main couple, although they do exist within it’s pages.

That’s Alexei as her coach/teacher now just to make it clear.

What makes it romantic is the romance of the stage. The love someone has to have to spend so many hours perfecting a piece to then showcase it to the world. The love between dancer, dance, and stage that’s created is something that typically I’ve only seen captured when a person actually does become a ballerina. It’s truly the closest manga that replicates the journey of a ballerina and experiencing the stage that I’ve read so far.

That being said… There are some disagreeable elements especially with the relationships. Minus the professional ballerino Alexei, all the main character we follow are 15-16 years old when the story starts, and are only 17-18, maybe 19 years old when the manga ends. I had to remind myself of that often, simply because these characters rarely acted their age. Like any child professional in performance most of them were held to a higher standard and had to act that way. Most of them didn’t get traditional childhoods, or teen years so when the elements of normal teenagers leaked into the story I almost felt disappointed since it felt so stupid and petty. That was also the point of those scenes. At the end of the day many of these characters were still teens, and are allowed to be motivated by feelings that only can be recognized as fleeting in hindsight. Being able to recognize that within these pages, is honestly a beautiful feeling.

I am still iffy about how they portrayed ballet pairs. As you can imagine, solo work will rarely carry a dancer their entire career. Most of the time talented ballerinas and ballerinos will professionally debut with their partner of choice. Swan made the argument that many of these professional pairings are also rooted in romance (i.e. they’re dating), but more often then not… they’re not. Ballet is their job, and to do a job well you need the best person who matches your skills, not one you’re attracted to. That being said, these characters are mostly teenagers and don’t have the life experiance, or professional experiance to know the difference. Of course, that does add to the dramatic flair of it all.

L to R: Aoi, Masumi, and Hisho.

I’ve mentioned it earlier but it does bear repeating that Swan does not bog itself with explaining every single thing. There are notes in about the first five-ish volumes regarding the french transliterations of ballet terms used throughout the series. Ariyoshi Sensei was also ahead of their time since they knew that training arcs had to be included, but these don’t overstay their welcome and contribute to character development and dynamics without being annoyingly long.

Swan at it’s core overflows with romance. You can tell from the simple details of daily life, to the pages dedicated to setting the scene of a particular ballet, the dialogue, and of course the dance sequences themselves – this was once the dream of many girls. And I’m sure Swan inspired many of them to at least try to pursue this dream of ballet. Also, more then once the series got me to tears. I won’t lie. There’s the New York arc and I swear I was absolutely devastated when it ended, because I know I’m not the only maiden who mourning that particular conclusion.

It’s honestly tragic that Swan‘s English publication never finished. This series was huge, and it’s impact within not only it’s generation of shojo but shojo as a genre afterwards can not be overstated. It’s certainly not for everyone, but at least for me it allowed me for however long I was reading to recapture my love of ballet within it’s pages. I’m 100% ready to re-read Swan sometime in the future and have all these feelings happen again. I’m also ready to dive into the sequels soon, potentially with more reviews to come? We shall see~


  1. This manga looks so gorgeous! I missed out on picking up the CMX releases and am bummed that it hasn’t been license rescued. This feels like a series that deserves a beautiful collectors edition, especially since, as you mentioned, it was never fully published in english.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It truly is, it’s some of my all time favorite art. I’ve been looking into secondhand copies of the CMX editions but wow that market is high. >..<

      God, I truly would shell out the big bucks for that. Maybe one day a publisher will do just that!

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s