Review: The Princess of Tennis

cover of "The Princess of Tennis" by Jamie Lynn Lano

Title: The Princess of Tennis. The true story of working as a mangaka’s assistant in Japan
Language: English
Author: Jamie Lynn Lano
Year: 2014
Publisher: self-published
Pages: 203
Price: US-$ 20
ISBN: 978-1499797527

In a way, this book is similar to Julian Darius’s When Manga Came to America in that both are non-scholarly books about comics. The main difference is that I found The Princess of Tennis more enjoyable and less pretentiously written. However, is it of any use to the scholarly reader?

But first things first: what is this book about? It is an autobiographical* account of how Jamie Lynn Lano became a mangaka’s assistant in Japan. The events described took place between September 2008 and October 2010. Before that, Lano had already moved from the US to Japan and had been working as an English teacher there for several years. The book begins with her applying for a job as an assistant to mangaka Takeshi Konomi of The Prince of Tennis (テニスの王子様 / Tenisu no Ōjisama, 1999-2008) fame. Although the manga is available in English, German and other European languages, and has been adapted as an anime series, my impression is that it hasn’t had much success in America and Europe. However, Lano makes it clear that in Japan, “TeniPuri” is hugely popular and has e.g. its own comic festival and a long-running musical adaptation.

Nevertheless, Lano miraculously gets the job at Konomi’s studio to work on New Prince of Tennis, the sequel to The Prince of Tennis, even though she has never drawn manga before. (She graduated in Media Arts & Animation though.) She vividly describes the working conditions there, which are quite different from what one hears about comic production in Western countries. For instance (and to Lano’s initial surprise), all of Konomi’s 3-5 assistants are required to stay at the studio building overnight during their working sessions, which may take up to 10 days. Lano paraphrases the words of another assistant:

“Practicing speed lines, tennis shoes, and backgrounds gets boring when you’ve been at it for 48 hours with 4 hours sleep, haven’t seen the sun, and your boss is nowhere to be seen. […] He would text us at the last moment asking us to come in for a few days, which would actually turn out to be a week, at which point we had run out of clean underwear, and how we would be left on our own, Sensei [i.e. Konomi] not being in the office at all. All day, we’d be left alone, practicing.” (p. 95)

Lano begins to perceive the studio as a “dungeon” (p. 103), and eventually quits one and a half years later, after she was almost fired before when she dared to complain to Konomi about those working conditions.

The book is entertaining, thanks in no small part to Lano’s frank and emotional style of writing (at one point, she puts no less than 13 question marks and 7 exclamation marks at the end of one sentence (p. 11)). But can we learn anything from it about manga production? After all, we only gain insight into one mangaka’s studio, so it’s all anecdotal evidence at best. Konomi’s chief assistant even says, “Everyone is different. Some mangaka just let their assistants draw the whole thing and fax in the manuscript. But I’ve never heard of someone doing what Sensei does, leaving us alone for days without any work to do.” (p. 150)

On the other hand, many things described in the book must be similar in other manga studios, and for poetologically interested comic scholars it is worthwhile to read about details of the manga production process, such as drawing speed lines (p. 62), drawing backgrounds based on photographs (p. 63), division of labour between penciller and inker (p. 63), character design (p. 64), representing the manga at conventions (p. 69), and many more.

Thus The Princess of Tennis might serve as a starting point or source of inspiration for more serious inquiry. For instance, it would be interesting to find out how many other mangaka produce their manga in a completely analogue way like Konomi does, with photocopying machines instead of computers, and whether that has any effect on their productivity or the end result. One could also try to read The Princess of Tennis and New Prince of Tennis (if one can find it – as far as I know it hasn’t been translated) side by side and see which parts of the manga are mentioned in Lano’s book and what she says about them. All things considered, I’m glad Lano chose to make the effort to share her experiences in the form of a beautiful book.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○

*The Princess of Tennis belongs to the difficult genre of autobiographical texts that contain such a high level of detail, e.g. verbatim dialogues, that their credibility is rather dubious. Even if Lano took notes each day and blogged about her experiences (another similarity to Darius’s book: both have been published on a weblog before), I hesitate to call this book entirely non-fictional.