In the last few years, it feels like there’s been an explosion in manga-related art shows in Tokyo (and in the rest of Japan too, but I’m based in Tokyo, so that is what I notice the most). The cynical part of me notices the vast array of merchandise at these shows and scowls at the blatant cash grab on the part of museums and galleries and publishers. But the comics-loving side of me is delighted to see this medium getting some recognition as “serious” art. And all parts of me are thrilled that I get to see the original art from some of my favourite manga, like the pages from Sakuran at the Moyoco Anno exhibit this fall or from Shinjuku Lucky Hole and Kuslar at the onBLUE show a couple weeks later. (I may have given into the naked cash grab at the latter show and perhaps bought a Shinjuku Lucky Hole mug and probably have no regrets about that choice.)
I also got to see unpublished pages from Taiyo Matsumoto’s upcoming contribution to the Louvre series (about cats!!) and a retrospective of the career of Ryoko Yamagishi, one of the Year 24 Group, who I know mostly from her pioneering yuri tale Shiroi Heya no Futari. Because I spend a lot of time thinking about gender and manga and sexuality, not because it is her most famous work. That title would probably be given to Arabesque, the story of a young would-be ballerina in the former Soviet Union. Nonna Petrova is the second daughter of a moderately successful ballerina in Kiev, who began teaching at a ballet school when her own stage career was finished. She raised both of her daughters as ballerinas, but it is clear to everyone that it is the older girl Irina is the more talented of the two. Nonna is just too tall, too “dynamic” of a dancer to really make it in the strict world of Soviet classical ballet.
You see where this is going, right? Arabesque is a shojo manga, after all. And Nonna has been clearly introduced to us as the protagonist of this particular story. So naturally, one of the higher-ups from the Leningrad Kirov Ballet shows up at the school as a guest judge at the school exams with the current reigning male star of the Soviet ballet scene, Yuri Mironov. And naturally, Nonna is placed in circumstances which force her to dance with Mironov. It goes without saying that Mironov is taken with her dancing and whisks her away to Leningrad to study at the ballet academy there under his personal tutelage. All par for the course for the first chapter of a shojo manga. Love interest? Check! Incredible undiscovered talent? Check! Girl who will learn to believe in herself as the manga progresses and find love? Check and check!
What’s remarkable is how Yamagishi works within the typical shojo constraints to produce a story that is almost obsessive in its discussion of the dancing presented and lyrical in its visual telling of that dancing. I’ve never seen a manga so intensely focussed on dancing. Like, the actual dance part of dancing. Page after page after page lovingly depicts ballerinas in the middle of grand jetés, pirouettes and attitudes shown in a series of overlapping figures in slightly different position. And you can tell that Yamagishi loves ballet. There is such beauty in her ballerinas, such tenderness in the lines of their exaggeratedly long legs. And she never fails to explain a ballet term to her reader, giving us the details on a variety of classic ballets and their significance to ballet in general.
The first book in part one of this series is thoughtful and careful in its pacing. We watch Nonna go to Leningrad and develop relationships with the dancers there, including a love-hate one with her teacher Mironov—although it is always clear which side of the love-hate line it will end up on—as she hones her skills as a dancer and eventually wins the coveted lead in a new production, a more modern dance that takes advantage of her dynamic dance style. The second book, however, gets a little rushed and weird. Events happen only to be forgotten. She is whisked off to France where she finds herself in a rivalry and then friendship with dancers who soon disappear from the book as though they had never been. She writes long, detailed letters to her old roommate in Leningrad, but never thinks about the mother and sister she left in Kiev. Her best friend gets engaged to be married, but never mentions it to her, inexplicably. It feels a lot like Yamagishi was trying ideas in the second half of the story, but nothing ever really stuck. It’s dizzying how she races toward the inevitable happy ending in the second half of the second book.
There is also one very strange thing in the art that I have yet to understand the meaning of. Characters are randomly placed in the horizontal with seemingly no rhyme or reason. In completely unemotional scenes, characters will be turned ninety degrees to the side, as if to indicate some emotional distress or change in state of mind, but they’re just talking about the weather. It’s bizarre and distracting.
Despite this, the depictions of dance keep the reader fully engaged even when the story is racing along like a train that has forgotten to stop at any of the stations. And while the story adheres to certain shojo tropes, above the love triangles, the rivalries, the friendships, Yamagishi’s sights are always set on the art, the creation of something and the time and effort that go into that process. Nonna loves ballet. She loves to dance, and she is always portrayed as working hard to refine her art, to connect more deeply with the dance. Arabesque insists on the importance of art and the reality of the hard work that goes into creation. There is also an incredible array of leotards on display, if you need sartoral inspiration.