It’s 1991 and you’re balls deep in this anime stuff, there’s just one problem: It’s not translated and you don’t speak any Japanese aside from “konnichiwa” and “teriyaki,” so what do you do? You could try and track down the handful of subtitled anime available in the US, but they’re all expensive and Madox-01 and Gunbuster are so two years ago. And don’t even think about watching those anime titles that were dubbed and released in the 1980s, because they’ve all been hacked up and edited by assholes like Carl Macek who have no appreciation for real art. Your only option is to find yourself some synopses and your best bet for that is to pick up the authoritatively-titled Anime Reference Guide.
Any English language anime magazine of the early 1990s was going to have a good portion of its content devoted to synopses, and a lot of fanzines did the same. And while I’ve never had to sit through Nausica as narrated by the ubiquitous Friendly Guy With Beard, apparently that was de rigueur back in the day. Somebody at one of our panels at Anime LA mentioned how he memorized the entire script for a film just so that he could watch it in raw Japanese without any distractions.
So with that said, it’s probably safe to say that the biggest hurdle of a Western anime fan in the late 80s and early 90s after actually finding anime, was understanding it. Toren Smith’s Baycon 86 Japanese Animation Program Guide was the forerunner to the Anime Reference Guide, as it was a book of synopses from the anime video track being run at Baycon 86. Smith would later go on to achieve fame by appearing in Gunbuster and helping to build the foundation of manga in the US with Studio Proteus, but his Baycon guide remained an important reference to anime fans for years to come.
Similarly, the Anime Reference Guide was produced in conjunction with AnimeCon ’91, the first large-scale anime convention in the U.S., which was co-funded by Gainax and planted the seeds that would create California’s original feudin’ anime cons, Anime Expo and Anime America. Produced by Cal-Animage, an anime fan club with chapters at multiple California colleges (and one in Australia, oddly), the Guide‘s production values are impressive considering its fan origins.
Squarebound with a glossy cover by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, the interior pages are black and white with a clean, three-column design. Minimal interior art is provided by official lineart ostensibly taken from artbooks. Over 70 anime episodes or films are featured within, and they give you a pretty good idea of what was popular among fans at the time. Ranma 1/2, Project A-ko and Bubblegum Crisis get lots of coverage, although some of the choices are a bit weird. Only Gunbuster volumes 2 and 3 are covered, and if you’re looking for information about Maison Ikkoku episode 96 it’s got you covered, but only episode 96. I assume this has to do with what was being shown at AnimeCon ’91, but it’s worth pointing out that the Guide was still being offered after the convention wrapped up.
The middle of the book features autograph pages for the guests of AnimeCon ’91, which I’ll list off here just to make you furious that you weren’t there: Johji Manabe, Leiji Matsumoto, Haruhiko Mikimoto, Toshio Okada, Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, and Kenichi Sonada.
This particular Anime Reference Guide is listed as Vol. 1, Issue 1, and from a cursory Internet search it looks like there were at least three more issues released over the next few years. They’re available on eBay for fairly cheap, although I’m not sure why you’d want to buy them. As an actual resource, it’s largely unneeded today as every anime title covered (aside from Osamu Tezuka’s Jumping and maybe Dream Hunter REM episode 4?) has been released officially in the U.S. or is available via fansub. As a bit of nostalgia for anime fandom of days past, it’s not exactly the most gripping thing to read, as it’s a play-by-play of things you’ve already seen, or could easily go watch.