Above: On the left a pin up poster from the “Be Forever Yamato” Roman Album from the 80s, on the right the cover from the “Samurai Champloo” Roman Album from 2006.
I ordered it as Christmas gift for myself, but it only showed up in my mailbox today well over a month after other people had opened their goodies. I freely admit that it was a bit of a guilty pleasure, and despite my being a creative professional whose work does touch upon animation there was in fact no “real reason” that I needed the object in question. But upon opening the box my heart felt inspired again, and I remember why I had gotten into it all.
The little treasure I’m talking about is a Samurai Champloo Roman Album. Now of course most anime fans have heard of Samurai Champloo (although at this point they’re all mostly watching Bleach) but only a small handful of the Japanimation faithful know what a Roman Album is, or why they’re so special.
To start with a “Roman Album” is neither Italian nor a music album. To be honest I have no idea how they got their name, but Roman Albums date back to the 70s in Japan when anime was going through it’s first major boom. Along with this boom came a glut of merchandise for Japanese otaku to buy, everything from model kits of your favorite robot to the first generation of magazines that only covered anime.
It was during this era that the Roman Album was born. To start with a Roman Album is a softcover letter sized paperback book of about 100 pages. Unlike a magazine, a single Roman Album is done on only one specific television series or movie. The first few pages of a Roman Album were always packed with dozens upon dozens of shots of almost every major scene from the anime production being covered.
Then that’s followed by pages upon pages of character designs sheets of every major and the most minor figure from the show. Also crammed are tons of detailed sketches of every bit of related bit of mecha (robots, spaceships, guns, motorcycles, and the like) that you could imagine. The back of the book would always feature interviews with key talent, like the director or voice actors. Then to top it off there would always be some sort of extra “goodie” like a fold out poster!
The books were always very well designed and reminded me of the quality that you might see in an expensive hard cover fine arts book. What also made the Roman Albums so great was that you got to get a real taste of all of the work that goes in behind the scenes of an animated production, in fact some books would even show you the exposure sheets used in filming the animation or show you notes from the musical score.
Because the books weren’t dumbed down and done in such loving detail it would almost make the owner of the book feel like they had some secret insider knowledge. In fact when I was going to art school back in the 80s, many of my friends who were studying animation loved Roman Albums as they acted as a mini-textbook on how to make anime.
The first time I spotted a Roman Album was a bit after I discovered Star Blazers (Space Cruiser Yamato) in 1979. I had a friend Thomas Pignetti who had traveled to Japan (his Mom was Japanese and his Dad worked for Pan Am, nope can’t get get any more lucky than that!) and had quite a cool collection for the day. He showed me the Roman Album for Arrivederci Yamato which had come out the year before in 1978. In America the coolest thing you might have seen up to that point was something like the Star Trek Star Fleet Technical Manual (Ballantine Books 1975) or Starlog magazine, so I was blown out of the water.
As the 80s started I became a very hard core anime fan for that era. I never had too much money to collect goodies, but every time I went to a Japanese book store in Manhattan (like Books Nippan) buying a Roman Album was a special treat for me. In fact given that most of the anime I owned at that time were blurry 5th generation VHS tapes, the Roman Albums were about as close as one could get to see what the anime looked like without static or tape hiss. When you owned a Roman Album you felt like you owned a bit of the show for safe keeping. In fact my guess would be that the term “Album” is a bit of a reference to scrap book more than anything else.
Flash forward over 25 years into the future: Having been around the track I’m very picky about what anime I love. I’m no longer a kid, so most of what I see doen’t impress me anymore. But the great thing about anime is that just when you think that you’ve seen it all something new comes along that blow your socks off. For me Cowboy Bebop was one of those shows, which of course made me a natural fan of Samurai Champloo (well that and I like old school hip hop as well). While I might plunk down money for the DVD box set, I know there’s no realistic hope that I might spend some lost weekend in the future watching the entire series all over again. So then it hits me: Get the Roman Album of the show, and thus I got to celebrate a little bit of Christmas on February 19th!
Update from my good friend Nicholas D. Kent:
“I’m 99% sure “roman” in question is the French word for novel – or better in this context “story” and “album” of course is in the photo context of the term “album”. Actually if you don’t know, 78 RPM 12″ records averaged about 4 minutes per side so you had a song a side. When you’d by a collections of songs or a complete classical “album” it would literally come in an album that looked like a photo album and had sleeve pages you could flip – you know like those CD wallets. LP records introduced in 1948 reduced a whole album to one disc.”