Monday, October 8, 2018

The Rise And Fall Of the Roman Album Empire

Recently I came across a Laputa Roman Album at one of those anime con swap meets that have become all the rage as anime fans realize they have too much stuff and not enough shelves. The Roman Album was in good shape and was reasonably priced. During the purchase I remarked to the vendor, "it's not often I see Roman Albums for sale these days." The reply I received was enlightening.

"What's a Roman Album?"

And at first I'm dumbstruck by the passage of time, that here in 2018 we can be two or three iterations down the line of Western anime fandom from when Tokuma Shoten's Roman Albums weren't just ubiquitous, but absolutely crucial references that were sometimes the only primary sources we had for solid information on anime TV shows and films. And then I took a step back and flipped that question around on myself. What IS a Roman Album? How many of them were there? Why were they published and when did they go out of print? And why were they called "Roman Albums," anyway?

Roman Albums 1-4

For anime nerds of my generation they were always just there; solid, dust-jacketed bastions of anime knowledge either shelved comfortably at home or gleaming proudly in the exhibitor hall lights at local fantasy-fair dealers tables or stocked in the "Japanimation" section of our neighborhood comic shops next to Robotech Art Book I or that big Macross Perfect Memory book we regret not buying. We never gave much thought to why, exactly, there was a color illustrated guide to Minky Momo or My Youth In Arcadia, in much the same way we accepted the existence of "anime comics," Animage, Animec, and Animedia magazines and whatever a "mook" was supposed to be when it wasn't being an insult. What we did know was that these artifacts, like the cartoons themselves, were evidence of a vast ecosystem of Japanese animation interest that lay somewhere beyond the horizon, a universe of cartoons we desperately wanted to immerse ourselves in.

Roman Albums 5-7
Roman Albums 8-10

Roman Album publisher Tokuma Shoten began as the book arm of Asahi Performing Arts Publishing back in 1961. By 1978 Tokuma Shoten, already having success with the children's magazine "TV Land", realized the anime boom was in effect and jumped on that bandwagon with both feet, rolling out what would become the longest running anime magazine Animage in July of that year. Tokuma Shoten later bankrolled the anime productions Nausicaa (you might have read Miyazaki's Nausicaa manga in the back of Animage) and Legend Of The Galactic Heroes, they financed a studio you might know as Ghibli and the Streamline Pictures dub of Laputa and Castle Of Cagliostro, and they partnered with Disney to get Ghibli films into American theaters and home video outlets.

Roman Albums 11-14

"TV Land," however, would be the genesis ofロマンアルバム. The first Roman Album was a 1977 TV Land "Special Edition" all about current anime blockbuster Space Battleship Yamato. Selling 400,000 copies, the Space Battleship Yamato Roman Album not only inspired Tokuma Shoten to start publishing Animage, but to continue with a whole series of Roman Albums. Tokuma Shoten would eventually lose the "TV Land Special" cover text, replacing it with "Animage special" branding, because cross promotional marketing is where it's at.

Roman Albums 15-17
Roman Albums 18-21

Occupying a strange, liminal publishing space between books and magazines, Roman Albums carried a mix of B&W and color illustrations, scene-by-scene episode guides, color poster and sticker inserts, and the occasional flexi-disc. Interviews with the creative staff were mixed with character and mechanical designs at every stage of the process, and rest assured if the anime series featured a shower scene or a panty shot, Roman Album was there to capture it for posterity, because home video wasn't a thing yet. Theme songs would be presented as sheet music and voice talent would get biographical pieces, interviews and photo spreads. 

Roman Album 27 (Babel 2) with flexi-disc

 A healthy use of English text as design elements offered a tantalizing bit of comprehension for Western readers. Early Roman Albums carried the "magazine" aspect so far as to feature advertising on the back cover, but later editions were more book-like with dust jackets illustrated front and back. Page sizes varied but eventually standardized at the A4 size (8.27 x 11.69) with page counts that could swell to over 200 pages for some shows.

Roman Albums 22-24

Roman Albums 25-28

To our 1980s anime nerd eyes, Roman Albums were the authoritative final word on the whole world of what we then called "Japanimation," that if it wasn't in a Roman Album (or, say, a This Is Animation book or an Animec special) then it simply didn't exist. The unbelievable truth, however, is that there are vast empty spaces in the Roman Album history of anime, whole fields of anime research that Tokuma Shoten just didn't feel like talking about. There isn't a Macross Roman Album. There aren't Roman Albums for Lupin III or Gatchaman. BrygarJ9-I and Baxingar J9-II get Roman Albums while Sasuraigar J9-III is ignored. Early 80s hits like Orguss, Cobra and Cat's Eye are neglected and the absence of later 80s hits like Fist Of The North Star and Saint Seiya is downright odd. Dirty Pair? No. Crusher Joe? No. There are Roman Albums for the 1979 Gundam TV series and films but past that, Roman Album is silent. There's a Minky Momo Roman Album, but not a Creamy Mami or Magical Emi or Pastel Yumi. Heck, there isn't even one Urusei Yatsura Roman Album, one of the larger holes in the Roman Album's far from complete coverage of the field.

Roman Albums 29-32

Roman Albums 33-36

On the other hand, Tokuma Shoten did spend valuable Roman Album pages on deep cuts like Prehistoric Misbehaving Boy Kum Kum, the Tezuka telefilms Marine Express and Bander's Book, and the wonderfully named "Poems Of Baseball Madness: North Wolf South Tiger." Rights issues, personality clashes, a determination on the part of Tokuma Shoten to promote Tokuma Shoten-connected properties, who knows how these publishing decisions were made? Even with a whimsical and possibly biased publication strategy, the Roman Album library remains a vital resource. And yes, they're still publishing the occasional Roman Album, mostly covering Ghibli films, because Tokuma Shoten looks out for Tokuma Shoten, baby.

Roman Albums 37-39
Roman Albums 40-43
And why WERE they called "Roman Albums?" Well, an album, of course, is a collection of text, musical compositions, or images, like a record album or a photo album. The "Roman" part is supposedly shorthand for "Romance Adventure", the "romance" part being used in the literary sense of "a narrative genre that includes a mysterious, adventurous, or spiritual storyline involving bravery and strong values." Tadao Nagahama's Voltes V, Daimos, and Combattler V would similarly be described as a "Robot Romance Trilogy", with only Daimos featuring "romance" in the "boy meets girl" sense. All three of these series would, of course, receive Roman Albums.

Roman Albums 44-47

Roman Albums 48-50

The growing Western interest in anime, and the 1980s comic con/comic shop distribution networks built to sell us comics, model kits, and other fannish merchandise, meant Roman Albums could and did find homes with American anime fans. And sure, you might never see a Horus, Prince Of The Sun or a Getter Robo or a Tekkaman over here, but Be Forever Yamato Roman Album number 36 was seemingly available everywhere to anime fandom circa 1986. Was there a glut of Be Forever Yamato Roman Albums in somebody's Jinbucho warehouse? Did Tokuma Shoten overestimate the Japanese public's demand for this particular symbol of the anime boom's high water mark, and pass the overstock on to a North America suddenly hungry for big-eyed Japanese cartoon characters? Did someone mistakenly add a zero to an overseas shipping invoice? Who knows. BFY RA 36 went from prized to pedestrian fairly quickly as Star Blazers became unfashionable compared to Bubblegum Crisis and other icons of the OVA age. You can still find Roman Albums from Be Forever Yamato and other anime films and TV shows cheap – in Japan. Or perhaps at the occasional anime convention swap meet... if I don't find them first!

-Dave Merrill

Roman Albums 51-54

Roman Albums 55-58

Roman Albums 1-70:
1. Space Battleship Yamato
2. Cyborg 009
3. Rainbow Soldier Robin
4. Devilman
5. Tiger Mask
6. Super Jetter
7. Astro Boy
8. Raideen
9. Mazinger Z
10. Kamui
11. Arrivederci Yamato
12. Bander's Book
13. Tomorrow's Joe
14. Voltes V

Roman Albums 59-62

15. UFO Robo Grandizer
16. Combattler V
17. Eight Man
18. Danguard Ace
19. Heidi
20. Fighting General Daimos
21. Zanbot 3
22. Treasure Island
23. Triton
24. Galaxy Express 999 film
25. Marine Express
26. Adventure Of Gamba
27. Babel II
28. Shotaro Ishinomori Works
29. Daitarn 3
30. Captain Harlock
31. Space Battleship Yamato 2
32. Getter Robo / G
33. Poems Of Baseball Madness: North Wolf South Tiger
34. Hurricane Polimar
35. Mobile Suit Gundam
36. Be Forever Yamato
37. Tekkaman

Roman Albums 63-66
38. Marco Polo
39. Cyborg 009 Legend Of Super Galaxy
40. Cutey Honey
41. Kum Kum
42. Mobile Suit Gundam I
43. Space Battleship Yamato III
44. Mobile Suit Gundam II
45. Adieu Galaxy Express
46. Future Boy Conan
47. Baldios
48. Ideon TV
49. Queen Millenia film
50. Mobile Suit Gundam III
51. A Contract Be Invoked The Ideon
52. My Youth In Arcadia
53. Yamato Perfect Manual 1
54. Yamato Perfect Manual 2
55. God Mars tv/movie
56. Final Yamato
57. Xabungle
58. Minky Momo

Roman Albums 67-70
59. Bryger/Brygar/Braiger 
60. Horus Prince Of The Sun
61. Nausicaa
62. Dunbine
63. Votoms
64. Baxingar
65. Goshogun Etranger
66. Arion
67. SPT Layzner
68. Laputa
69. Totoro
70. Kiki's Delivery Service

Roman Album 43's Special Area


Anonymous said...

Dear Dave,

Thank you for this article! While, as you say, there are definite gaps in what the Roman Albums covered, in many cases books with comparable content exist (as you also say ^_^) on those "missing" series, from different publishers (in some cases, themselves associated with different anime magazines--naturally, the people who knew the material best).

My guess is that once such anime guidebooks became a thing, competition for the rights to do them heated up. Animage gave good coverage to Urusei Yatsura and Dirty Pair, so it wouldn't surprise me if they had a desire to do Roman Albums on them, but simply couldn't come to arrangements for one reason or another. For more on Tokuma Shoten and Animage, check out the afterword to Seraphim: 266613336 Wings (an Animage manga, natch).


Marc McKenzie said...

Dave, thanks for this wonderful article. I first found out about Roman Albums years ago courtesy of the fanzine ANIMENONIMUS, and it's great to see one that covers this topic all these years later.

I was lucky enough to by the RA for Dunbine a few months ago via ebay--one that was in pretty good shape. But I also bought a RA that covered Escaflowne back in the guess is that it was a special edition. Now you've gotten my interest up again and I may start looking around for more...

Salvatore said...

Excellent write-up (as usual). I own the Devilman and Cutey Honey Roman Albums, both of which I wanted to get autographed when Go Nagai came to LAX this summer, but couldn't due to strict signing guidelines. Blah. I used to own the Cyborg 009 Roman Album, which might've been my favorite, since it included a nice full color summary of the TV series (plus the first movie).

The Devilman Roman Album was really neat because it had a retelling of the Devilman manga by Tsuji Masaki, with illustrations by Takeshi Shirado. It's really cool, although a bit comical to see TV!Devilman in Manga!Devilman's gory situations. While the Cutey Honey Roman Album is excellent, the lack of new artwork always bummed me out.

The pricing on the Roman Albums can also be annoying. Usually they run to about 800 to 2000 yen, but some of them, like the Grendizer (or "Grendiser" was they've written) easily goes for 5000+ yen. It's ridiculous. The Grendizer one isn't even that good!