Disclaimer: I am not a fan of romance anime. I realize that it's only fair to call this one ~50% romance, but it is a main focus none-the-less. My reasoning for why is discussed and explored in this review. Don't worry, though, as even with my bias against its genre, I still heartily enjoyed it and give it my recommendation. Read on to see why!
Spice and wolf is a series about a traveling merchant, a human persona of a pagan wolf deity, and economics. Does that very odd combination intrigue you? Well, it should because Spice and Wolf certainly comes out as a unique gestalt that cannot be explained away by its seemingly unrelated individual pieces. The anime is based on an original series of light novels. There is also a manga adaptation that is still ongoing, but I believe they are separate adaptations. The light novel series is now completed in Japan, and the anime covers four of the first five volumes. The manga has not even finished going through the material covered in the anime, and I am unsure if they are planning on doing the entire story, or if they will stop at the same point as the anime. This is not the type of show that I would normally watch--mainly because I tend to avoid anime romances, and that does end up being one of the driving themes of Spice and Wolf. With that in mind, I hope that my perspective as a fan of anime, but not of anime romances can give a fresh take on this series. And don't worry, even I had to ultimately admit that it's very good. How about we continue on to explore why?
Animation / Visuals:
Spice and Wolf was brought to us by studio Imagin. The only series I have seen from their portfolio have them credited for the 'in-between animation'. I'm not entirely sure what that distinction means, but it did leave me with no pre-conceived notions going in. I was very happy with the animation quality. There are no jarring scenes where detail forsaken in an attempt to save money, and the picture quality on the blu-ray release is of a very high calipur. The series was released in '08, though, so its impressive visual fidelity is to be expected.
The real star of the visual department is definitely the designs. The style of the characters and the world at large are an absolute delight. The series takes place during the medieval time period in a country very similar to Europe, so there are fortress towns, ornate churches, and little country villages all being expertly brought to life. The characters and their clothing also do justice to the setting. I realize that I am in no way an expert on this period of history, but it all looks close enough and has enough synergy to feel genuine, which I think is very important. I can say that the visual design is objectively very good, but I also need to point out that I really liked it on a personal, subjective level; it simply worked for me.
Let's just plop it right out in the open; the soundtrack for Spice and Wolf is absolutely fantastic. It is, in fact, my favorite aspect of the series. The openings are sufficiently emotive--with the first being the clear winner--the first ending is a ridiculous slice of Engrish--but is just too cute to not like--and the in-episode soundtrack is phenomenal. The soundtrack is very heavy on what we would nowadays view as folk music. There are several flute type instruments, violins, etc. It ends up being epic and exciting when it needs to be, and it can also be incredibly playful and quirky during less intense moments. I would gladly listen to many of these songs outside of the show, and I am planning on acquiring the soundtrack. The playful tone fits so incredibly well with many of the quaint towns and situations that we end up seeing throughout the series. This is definitely a case of the soundtrack not only complementing the series, but almost outshining it.
Spice and Wolf has an odd, yet surprisingly simple premise. A travelling merchant--Kraft Lawrence, the main character--stops off in a little town that he visits from time to time to do business. While he is there, he ends up meeting their wise wolf deity, Holo, in her human personification. She explains that he is her ticket out of there because she is bound to wheat, and he happens to have some in his cart. She asks him to help her get back to her home in the north, and she promises to pull her weight on the trip there. That's honestly the entire premise. It's really quite shocking that something so innocuous--yet still rather fantastical--can turn into what Spice and Wolf turns into.
As they travel ever northward, Lawrence gets himself involved in many a scheme to make money. In some cases he comes out on top, other times he is taken complete advantage of, and things even deteriorate to the point of their lives being in danger multiple times. Given that the main driving point for all of the plot points are simply business deals, it's really quite impressive that they manage to be as interesting and diverse as they are. The one downside to this business focus is that it is very, very easy to lose track of what's going on and get lost in the jargon. They do a good enough job of explaining things, but many episodes require very astute viewing in order to not get lost. The anime covers four of the light novels, with each one representing one arc. Each of these arcs covers one specific business situation.
One of my favorite things about Spice and Wolf is actually the setting. It is set during medieval times--in what appears to be some fictional Europe. Due to this, the technology, ways of travel, food, etc are all completely steeped in the time period. On top of this, there is a certain degree of 'fantasy' that is just an accepted part of the world. Holo isn't the only human personification of a pagan deity that they meet, and there are also giant, intelligent creatures just roaming around the world. This all makes for a very interesting world to explore and learn more about with each episode.
The other aspect of the time period that I really enjoyed was the presence and influence of the church. Now, they make several remarks to the one true 'God', there is discussion of cardinals, bishops, and nuns, and we all know that the Christian church was spreading--and becoming rather oppressive--in Europe during this time period. It is absolutely no secret that the church is actually the Christian church, but it is never named as such--which could be seen as a lack of boldness, but I view it more as a degree of finesse. They have several run-ins with the church that really hammers home how corrupt they have become with their increasing influence. There is even the worry of them discovering Holo because they would likely kill her for being possessed by the devil. It's realistic elements and factors like these that help to make the world of Spice and Wolf so dynamic and engaging.
Now, the business might be the backbone of what is going on, but it really does take a back seat to the romance--especially for the latter half of the series. Holo and Lawrence quickly start being flirty and goofy with each other, and it becomes apparent within very little time that this series is going to have a strong romance focus. I take slight issue with this because I really do not like how anime tends to portray romance. The situation is always a perfect setup that both characters will fall into. At least one of them will be hesitant and very flippant in response to the overt flirting and signs of affection coming from the other one. Every little touch or moment is a big deal and leads to blushing and acting silly. And the couple to be will also always exhibit child-like levels of innocence when it comes to dealing with the opposite sex--or at least one them has to. I mean, I could go on and on, and Spice and Wolf has every bloody trope that I just listed. It always comes off feeling heavy handed, unrealistic, and non-genuine. I feel like the story teller--author, writer, etc--is just beating me over the head with what they are trying to show me and make me feel.
These tropes are not realistic. That's not how people actually act. Now, I realize that not every series and medium needs to be focused on absolute realism--that would be awful, really. But when it comes to something like romance--such a genuinely real human feeling and experience--it can be a bit jarring when it's so far removed from reality. It leads to two things. On the one hand, it leads to a sweet, innocent, and incredibly fun little love story that really couldn't exist in any other medium. On the other hand, though, it also romanticizes incredibly unrealistic relationships as some kind of ideal situation--one that just doesn't exist. With films and live action TV shows--for lack of a better term--the idealized romances are usually unrealistic, but they are still bordering on the outskirts of reality. There will be some overly convenient things that happen, and the guy might get the girl even when he really shouldn't, but the human reactions, the interpersonal communication between the 'couple' is still fully believable. With anime, and certainly with this series, it just simply isn't--for the most part.
And all of this leaves me feeling odd now that I've experienced Spice and Wolf. I am someone that enjoys stories by fully immersing myself in them. If they were an ocean, I'd be drowning in the deepest depths. I think that's why I have always been so incredibly enamored with fictional stories. It's not just a drawing on a screen, a 3d model on a monitor, or a name on a page. Every story that I get involved in I treat as if it was its own absolute reality. So when all is said and done, I need to resolve the experience in my mind--which is to say within that 'real' fictional world. That becomes incredibly difficult for me to do with something like this because of the subject matter. When romance takes the side seat in some kind of action or drama, and is a supplemental plot point, its short comings are easy to overlook because of the circumstances. There is something else going on that is the focus, we accept that the romance is progressing in an unnatural manner, and the extenuating circumstances allow for a lot of lee-way. The romance is front and center here, though, so no such excuse can be made. In fact, for the third and fourth arcs, it is almost the business that has become the supplemental plot.
It is what it is, and it must simply be taken with a grain of salt and put into the appropriate mental box. I want to be clear that I am not trying to be down on the show; this is an issue I have with the medium's representation of this topic as a whole. It managed to tell a very cute love story that I found myself grinning like an idiot while watching on several occasions. I am merely pointing out that it is so far removed from reality, that it cannot be resolved with our real life understanding of these themes and ideas.
The bread and butter of Spice and Wolf really are the characters. The show is carried by the main two: Lawrence and Holo. Lawrence is portrayed as incredibly intelligent, very innocent and pure hearted, and also very well spoken. It is shown time and again that he is not only a very talented merchant, but that he has a surprising amount of grace, and a dangerous amount of kindness. I like Lawrence, and I enjoyed watching him interact with Holo and the other characters that they come across in their travels. I really feel that he only works as well as he does, though, because he is a proper partner for Holo, who really ends up stealing the show.
And then we have Holo, the star of the show. Holo is, if I'm not mistaken, about seven hundred years old. With that in mind, she is actually extremely wise--she even calls herself Holo the wise wolf. She is, however, also out of touch with many aspects of human culture and relationships. This puts her in an interesting position of being far, far more knowledgeable than Lawrence, but also being incredibly naive in other ways. She is devious, haughty, jealous, melodramatic, and conniving. Her rather stuffy way of talking--proper English and such--does a very good job of reinforcing her antiquity, while also making her seem 'different', which is exactly how she needed to be portrayed. It's not all light hearted jests and jabs, though. As the series continues--and as her relationship with Lawrence builds--we come to find out that she still has fears and that she has been grappling with terrible loneliness. I will say this, for as hard as I was on Spice and Wolf's portrayal of romance, there are definitely some moments when Holo opens up that are incredibly genuine and emotive. Her desire to no longer be alone, her fear of getting close to Lawrence because of his mortality, her fear of hindering his chances of opening his own shop, etc. The overall romance may be heavy handed and rather ham fisted, but Holo's development is usually a genuine high point. She manages to be wise and snide, yet vulnerable and sweet at the same time. She is a very complex character, and easily one of the best female leads to ever appear in anime--based on what I have seen thus far.
Other than the main two, there aren't many characters that get a lot of screen time. The normal way of doing things is to introduce a small cast for each new arc. They get some development, serve their purpose, and then it's on to the next arc. Given these character's relatively short screen time--only up to about five or six episodes at the most--many of them actually get a very admirable amount of development. While the supporting cast may be a rotating door, each new set of them are given sufficient attention to be worthwhile. I really appreciated this about Spice and Wolf.
Well, how do I conclude such a seemingly-contradictory review? I spent near equal amounts of time praising the story as I did tearing it down on the basis of being an anime love story. So for my final word, let's ignore that it's one of those--as well as the inherent short comings that are attached. Spice and Wolf is an audio and visual treat. It has an interesting story with enjoyable and memorable characters. There are several funny moments, tense and dramatic scenes, and cute parts that will make you smile like a goon. I may take issue with this portrayal of a love story from the ground up, but I cannot ignore how well this one was done within those limitations--especially given that everything but the 'romance' part is outright fantastic. If you get invested in the story, be ready for a 'read the novels' ending. I went ahead and looked up how they end--there are still a few that are yet to be translated, so all I could do was skim forums. I was quite satisfied with the ending, and I think I'm going to leave it at that. I'm not sure that I need to read the rest of the journey. I really enjoyed what I watched, I got the closure of the true ending, and I think I'm ready to close the book on this experience. And let me be absolutely clear, this is an experience that I'm glad I had, and I would fully recommend to anyone who enjoys anime.