Arabesque Part 1: Ryoko Yamagishi

arabesque_yamagishiIn 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I also got to see unpublished pages from Taiyo Matsumoto’s upcoming contribution to the Louvre series (about cats!!)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.swan_yamagishi

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.dance_yamagishi

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. sideways_yamagishi

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. 



  1. Thanks for this great write up of a fave manga-ka and manga (yes, I’ve spent most of today, after discovering your blog, catching up with old entries). Around 2013-2014 there was an exhibit in Japan, “Ballet Manga Leap Above the Beauty” which I, being stuck in Canada and never actually having been to Japan didn’t get to see… However, a great (and generous) friend was involved in organizing the exhibit to me and sent me the “catalog” which… Well is really a 200+ page, full colour, stunning book of ballet manga (with some bits, like bios of the main manga-ka, done in English but also filled with essays by various people in Japanese that would take me all year to try to slowly translate my way through). My friend knew it would be a perfect surprise gift to me since basically two out of my three great loves are shoujo manga and ballet (don’t ask about the third). Highly recommended although I see it doesn’t go cheap now on used sites.

    ANYWAY, I do have a point–Yamagishi gets a lot of the emphasis here due to how important Arabesque was–as well as her much darker, more recent and prize winning Maihime Terepsikola–to the genre. Ballet manga was a big thing, as you know, from the 50s on, but Yamagishi who wanted to be a ballerina really brought a reality to it (I’d say in the art and storytelling). As a bit of a ballet snob I do laugh at some of the inaccuracies when classical ballets are discussed–but then reprimand myself that in many cases those are probably, for example, the version of Swan Lake or Raymonda that Japan would have seen in the 60s and going into the 70s even if they made big changes to the originals. I love the drama of it all–soap opera and ballet and 70s shoujo? Yes please. It’s a shame in a way that it came so early because she could have touched more on homosexuality prevalent in the ballet world and how hypocritically it can be handled by the companies (*especially* by Soviet companies in the era when this was written) but maybe that’s just me trying to find gay stuff where there needn’t be (from the bits I’ve read–and I must, with some help, read it all–of Terepsikola, this gets into it a lot more. Yamagishi of course had already had a hit series between these two that was essentially (OK, in its way) historical Yaoi, so…

    It’s interesting to compare to the other big ballet hit from the 70s (such a huge hit in fact that it went on and on and had sequel after sequel and even a magazine named after it), Kiyoko Ariyoshi’s Swan. I doubt it would have happened without Arabesque’s success as there are so many similar elements (and if you think Yamagishi has a tendency in the second half to set up a new location and new side characters and then just drop them, just wait until you read Swan–presuming you haven’t already). Swan is less psychologically adept–it takes elements from Arabesque and ups the sports-manga element. I’ve only read the 15 volumes CMX released in English (the company went kaput with just 6 volumes left arrrrgh), but it wasn’t a reading experience I could “binge” just because it has that sports-manga problem of having to go from competition to competition (sometimes actual ballet competitions or sometimes premiering in a ballet is a stand in for a competition)–always one-upping the, well, competition and it can be exhausting unless you pace yourself–in fact in this sense and also in terms of art, it seems equally indebted to Sumika Yamamoto’s Ace wo Nerae! And that’s its greatest strength–the art is stunning. I’d say she illustrates ballet as well as Yamagishi does, but with an even better sense of movement (something Yamagishi improves on in her later series). I couldn’t believe when CMX released the title–I only knew the manga from one stunning illustration in the old Manga! Manga! book, but like every other page has a ballet image that is as beautiful. But yeah, as can be expected because Yamagishi is one of the greats for a reason, outside of the ballet scenes it’s a distant second to Arabesque (which still isn’t bad…) Oh and Swan has even more errors about ballets that probably most readers wouldn’t notice but… as I type that I realize that that may be down more to the CMX translation (like most CMX translations, it felt like it was done very quickly).

    Anyway ballet and 70s shoujo manga = ❤ If only they could add some M/M action in there… (the Ballet Manga Exhibit book actually has a second about two, at the time, recent hit shonen ballet mangas actually…)


    1. Thanks for the schooling on ballet in manga! And ballet in general! I took ballet lessons as a child, but that was basically my last contact with the real world of ballet, so I really have no idea about what’s accurate here and what’s not. I haven’t read Swan, but you’ve made me curious with the “ups the sports-manga element”. I could be into that. I’ll have to check it out, thanks!

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