Loneliness is a disease like few others… The longer it remains untreated, the harder it is to cure. We’ve all felt it’s sting in one way or another… Maybe a long term partner has abandoned us, or been taken away. Maybe we’ve faced a crisis that nobody around us could relate to. Maybe we’ve felt like outcasts in a setting full of people who could get along just fine without us there. But what only a precious few of us have experienced is the kind of lifestyle where we’re alone for weeks or even months at a time, and meetings and reunions with even the closest of friends can be years apart. Such a life would be a godsend for the jaded and cynical among us, but for the naive, committing to such a life can spell the long, drawn out death of the soul. Such is the case with Lawrence Kraft, a man who took on the life of a traveling merchant while on the very cusp of adulthood, and now in his late twenties, has grown accustomed to brief reunions and long good-byes. While skilled at his trade and deft in the ways of business, he dreams of one day opening up a shop and settling down for the long haul.
While on a visit to Pasloe, a rural village famed more for their false pagan reputation than for their high quality wheat, Lawrence’s world is rocked when he picks up the most unlikely of hitchhikers… A naked girl with strange animalistic appendages, who claims… And then unexpectedly proves… To be a human incantation of the harvest god who’s spent an unspecified but undoubtedly staggering amount of decades and perhaps even centuries guaranteeing the quality of Pasloe’s agricultural bounty. They strike a bargain to travel as partners, but both wind up getting more than they bargained for as Holo proves to be more than just a hapless bystander, and Lawrence proves to be more than just another fleeting acquaintance. They slowly learn to trust, respect and eventually even depend on each other with each passing day, but with fortune and profit, they also find themselves faced with deceit, betrayal, and conspiracy behind every corner. Will these two lonely souls from such vastly different walks of life be able to come together to overcome the challenge ahead, or is there nothing in their future but tragedy?
At first glance, I was tempted to believe that Spice and Wolf was one of the better Studio Deen efforts… It obviously didn’t have much of a budget, as even a cursory glance at any given animation snippet could prove, but it still wound up looking damn impressive and uncannily pleasing to the eye. While there are some noteworthy Studio Deen titles that carry these qualities, some of which I’ve reviewed in the past(See my Sankarea and Irresponsible Captain Tyler reviews), the truth behind S&W’s production is nothing short of miraculous. The first season, which is what I’m reviewing today, was produced by a company called Imagin, and if you haven’t heard of it, of course not. Aside from Spice and Wolf, the highest profile work that they’ve done was in-between animation work for Eureka Seven, which is important work but barely counts as a credential. Aside from these titles, I’ve seen two of their eight major works, both of which I’ve toyed with the idea of reviewing; Love Love, whose very existence is hard to defend, and Strawberry Panic, a title that’s popular with yuri fans despite looking like hot garbage.
So it was a pretty significant surprise for me to find out that an anime with such mesmerizing visual execution could have come from such a dismal place. With such a small budget, movement is limited, as still images are occasionally interrupted by flapping mouths and short bursts of motion, and while the backgrounds are heavily detailed and rich with appropriately chosen colors, they’re not exactly attention grabbing. The actual animation is cheap and the artwork feels too much like a still painting to feel immersive, and while you’re probably expecting me to follow that up with an immediate ‘but,’ the visual design is really nothing special either. That’s not to say it’s poorly done or inconsistent, and I do have to praise it for it’s realism, but aside from a certain set of ears and a lovely tail, the characters follow a kind of generic aesthetic that should feel, well, boring. Lawrence’s prematurely grey locks aside, hair colors are fairly realistic, at least in accordance with it’s western setting. Holo was even given a longer face, sacrificing the deceptive element of cuteness that her manga counterpart had going for her. So I have to pose the question, why does this anime look so beautiful, if none of the individual elements are particularly noteworthy?
The answer is, of course, in the execution. The characters may look a tad generic, and the backgrounds may feel lifeless, but the immersion comes from the natural way they blend in with each other. The animation may lend itself to extended periods without any expensive movements, but this is a very dialogue-heavy series, which I,ll touch on later, and with the entire visual package being pulled together by gorgeous lighting effects and a calming, nostalgic tone that matches all of the autumnal colors perfectly, you won’t complain about having to see the same screen for several seconds at a time. It also helps that this show doesn’t need any excessive amount of frames to deliver emotive facial expressions that can at times enrichen the dialogue. People in the background do not just stand around like mannequins, although that’s partially due to the way the framing keeps the focus away from them most of the time, so they didn’t have to pour a waterfall of money into them the way an early Kyoto Animation effort might.
The music from Spice and Wolf is an orchestral blend of Medieval and Celtic tunes, with a heavy reliance on string and wind instruments and soft, haunting female vocals. Some of the more festive tunes are incredibly catchy, such as Tsukiyo no Tategami and Hamu, but some of it’s best tunes aren’t as straightforward. Kenshi to Yopparai, which plays often when Holo is upset or angry, and is yet strangely upbeat, leading to an end result that’s oddly adorable, poking fun at her for losing her composure. Satoki Hito Tachi sounds like a close cousin of the joyous Tsukiyo to Yopparai, despite being played in a much sharper key during any scene of danger or tension. A personal favorite of mine is Kagen no Tsuki, quite possibly the most Celtic sounding song in the series, which acts as the theme song for the long life of sighs and sorrow that Holo has led up to this point in her life. Actually, now that I think of it, this soundtrack is very much like that of a fantasy role playing game, which makes sense because the composer, Yuuji Yoshino, is primarily a video game composer. Spice and Wolf is one of his few efforts, and his ability to diversify a single style of music across fictitious regions is the perfect proof of his qualifications.
Celtic and medieval music in the anime medium are nothing new, but the opening and ending themes are somewhat unique beasts to say the least. The opening theme, Tabi no Tochuu, is a lovely song that’s easy to get lost in regardless of whether you’re listening to the shortened TV version or the obligatory extended cut. I don’t want to underplay just how beautiful it is, but what really sets this op apart is the visual side of it. I can only really compare it to the first op of Higurashi no Naku Koroni as it uses selective imagery as it retells the important aspects of the story by showing sides of the characters that you’ve always assumed were there, but haven’t seen. By doing this, it offers the viewer clues as to the beats of the story that most of us won’t get until the second watch. Holo crying by herself, wolves running through the forest and a young blonde girl walking away from something while turning around to glance back at it hesitantly are images that hit you so hard once you understand the context behind them, as does the fact that through most of the OP, we just see Lawrence and Holo riding alone. The ending theme is Ringo Biyori, and what makes it unique is that it’s a silly, light-hearted childish tune that’s not trying to pander to us or market itself to children. For that, it’s a welcome piece of levity.
Over the years, I’ve lobbed complaints and criticisms at two English Dub writers working at Funimation… you could almost call them my nemesis at this point. They’re the dynamic duo of Jamie Marchi and J Michael Tatum, and I’ve taken them to task multiple times for fucking up their dubs through repetitive writing, a focus on their own styles over the material, and a number of other tendencies that I’ve had a rough time forgiving them for. However, if you were to put a gun to my head and ask me to pick which one is the better of the two, the answer would undeniably be Jamie Marchi. I’m not just saying that because I hate Tatum’s slew of memes and lazy internet references… It’s because while they both have conventions that piss me off, Jamie Marchi at least has the ability to put that bullshit away and take a project seriously when called upon. If you’re curious about how Tatum does when the pressure is on to accurately represent the speech patterns of a time period, whether fictional or not, look no further than Romeo X Juliet, where the Elizabethan speech is arbitrary and inconsistent, with some people saying things like “wherefore” while others just say “why.”
Marchi, on the other hand, takes to such a project with a much more delicate touch, leaving all of her slang behind to employ much more down-to-earth dialogue, but at the same time, she doesn’t let it get stilted, either. She’s able to employ a more timeless feel, creating speech patterns and terminology that are impossible to pin down to any sort of specific real world setting. The exception to all of this is Holo, who carries a hint of a more noble, proper accent, but instead of speaking in vaguely Elizabethan terms, like she does in the manga(all your ‘tis and thou’ and whatnot), she instead uses a thoughtful turn of phrase that speaks of some long lost era that existed specifically in this world, rather than anything that can be tied to our history. Her way of speaking and insightful prose fascinates many people throughout the course of the series, and yet it never comes across as pretentious or indecipherable, nor does she ever feel the need to use it on her traveling partner, with whom she shares a much more familiar tone. She does tend to love her double talk and innuendoes, though, and Miss Marchi took to the challenge like a champ.
I’ve already spoken about the dub at length in a list of my top ten favorite dubs, so I’ll be brief. The lead actors are Brina Palencia, who shines like a classic Hollywood icon in her role as the wise and wily Holo, bringing just enough of her honeyed tongue to a performance that I honestly consider to be one of the all time greatest, and the very same J Michael Tatum that I mentioned earlier. As I’ve said in the past, he’s a far, far better actor than he is a writer, and his soothing, kind voice goes a long way in making the excessive dialogue infinitely more palatable. The true star of the cast is not either one of them as individuals, but their chemistry. Whether bickering or bantering, they speak so naturally that you tend to forget that either of them have ever played anyone else. Several other famed Funimation actors pop up throughout the story, such as Leah Clark, John Burgmeier, Chris Sabat, Chuck Huber and Jamie Marchi herself, a list that’s already sure to make any respectable voice chaser salivate with anticipation, and that’s before you find out that every single one of them is right up there at the top of their game for a dub that I’ve already championed as one of the best.
I’m not the first person to make this observation, but the reception that Spice and Wolf received is baffling to say the least. That’s not to say it did poorly, or hit an unexpected market… On the contrary, the success of this series has been overwhelming, striking a chord with both audiences and critics alike, both at home and abroad. It’s praised as a series full of beauty, depth and maturity, and yet it also found it’s way into the hearts of people who normally only watch anime for the more shallow aspects of the medium. It pleases both indie and mainstream audiences, those who are new to anime as well as those who’ve seen it all before. It’s been a major merchandise pusher for almost nine years now, and while you could blame it all on sex appeal with the vast majority of the merchandise being centered around Holo herself, with posters, plushies and lavish figures still selling like hotcakes, but that wouldn’t explain how it’s come to be one of the few light novels to be translated and exported overseas successfully. This is a series that’s defied almost every possible limit while lurking just below the mainstream, and it’s kind of hard to see why.
In terms of overall quality, Spice and Wolf is comparable to the criminally underrated Kino’s Journey, another mature show about traveling and exploring human nature. In terms of popularity, however, it’s much closer to the bombastic Baccano, despite the fact that the two shows have almost nothing in common. I don’t mean to sound cynical, but I don’t see S&W as being fit for mainstream success. It would make more sense as an underground show, passed around between pretentious elitists while they(Let’s be honest, we) chortle and laugh at the dumb masses as they cry over shallow tragedy porn and give 10/10 scores to popcorn munching material while praising any Naruto fight scene that actually had enough of a budget to look mediocre. So why would so many people latch onto a series where a good portion of the dialogue is about the economy of a fictitious land that we’ll never be able to visit? One that, I’ll once again be honest, is explained to us about as well as remnant in RWBY was? What is it about the adventures of an average man and a pretty wolf girl that everyone can’t get enough of, and has people clamoring for a third season despite the lackluster quality of the second?
Well, much like the show’s visual quality, the answer is once again execution. There’s a reason people sit still and watch attentively through dialogue about economics, and there’s a reason they don’t need jokes and fanservice every five minutes to keep the story interesting. The focus is where it needs to be at all times… On Lawrence and Holo. This is a story about them, and as such, everything that happens in the story, without exception, has something to do with them. Not only that, but it caters in the classiest possible way to one of the basest instincts of the anime fandom. Everything that happens in this series, whether it involves them directly or indirectly, revolves around the developing relationship of the two main characters. That’s right, when you break the series down to it’s lowest common denominator, it’s less about economics and more about shipping. People want to see Lawrence and Holo transcend they’re status as traveling and business partners and cross the line into something more romantic and dynamic. The show knows this, and caters to it openly, while never compromising the writing with cheesecake, forced romantic conflicts, or mushy dialogue… At least this season.
I don’t care who you are. When it comes to romance in anime, you can only take so much contrived crap about a guy walking in on his love interest changing and fan-pandering, plot-unrelated love confessions in shows like Love Hina, Haganai and Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood(sorry, it’s true) before you expect to see something more subtle and realistic that you can actually relate to. The fact that they become an item isn’t technically a spoiler, either, because it has nothing to do with the trials and tribulations they face throughout the series. There’s no certain moment in the series where you can definitively confirm that they’ve become a couple, but as much chemistry as these two characters have, and as well written as they are, they don’t need anything obvious like grand, sweeping romantic gestures to convey it to you. At some point, they just are, and you have no idea when or how it happened, and yet you can point to at least a dozen instances that made it obvious that they would.
There’s a little exposition about the currency of the land, but none of it is important to remember, because all the audience needs to know to follow the plot is the basic idea of gold being more valuable than silver, and the rest can be taken on faith. The only reason such conversations are even held is because it illustrates yet another bond being built between Lawrence and Holo… It’s one of many examples of one teaching the other about their way of life, and the other finding a way soon afterwards to improve upon it through trust and mutual understanding. Thus, even dialogue about fictitious currency never becomes boring. conversations about church power and debt-related technicalities don’t bother us or frighten us because we’re shrewd financial experts who understand the ins and outs of trading, but because we care so much about Lawrence and Holo’s future together. The idea of Holo turning back to her wolf form and escaping into the wilderness to avoid the trouble that Lawrence brought upon himself isn’t enough for us, even if we’ve convinced ourselves that we love the show because of her. It’s not about Lawrence or Holo, it’s about Lawrence AND Holo.
You can even point to their arcs being weirdly parallel to one another’s. They both made a commitment that led to them developing crippling loneliness, which caused them to share an immediate spark when they finally crossed paths. They came together tentatively, having been burned before, make sacrifices for each other, challenge each other’s pride, and find success as a team. When that success comes crashing down due to their overconfidence, they both wind up prostrating themselves before the very people they thought themselves to be among the best of, with one begging for money and the other bowing for mercy, all for the sake of each other. They each had long term plans to escape their lonely worlds, with Holo longing to return to her childhood home in the north and Lawrence planning to settle down and open his own shop, but both are forced to acknowledge that should these dreams ever come true, their time together will have to come to a bitter end. These two characters were made for each other, which is why we root for them… On their own, if Holo were to fade with the last few grains of wheat, or if Lawrence was to die in a coal mine, it wouldn’t be such a big deal, as either could be considered a beautiful tragedy, but together, we want them to succeed… They HAVE to succeed.
Of course, this focus on shipping over plot does, at times, create some plot related problems. Certain details, such as how sheep are specifically used in the final story arc, are glossed over so as not to muddle the pace of the story. But even if the plot were removed entirely, it would still be a fun watch. Take episode seven, which is technically an OVA, as it never aired on TV and was saved specifically for the DVD release. It has almost no connection to any other episode aside from explaining how Holo got her new set of clothes, and can be skipped entirely with only that detail going unnoticed. It contains no traveling, no plot, and can be seen almost as a bottle episode featuring the development of Lawrence and Holo’s bond, and here’s the kicker… It’s probably the best episode in the series. It would be totally fair to complain that the plot, supporting characters and economic teachings get overshadowed by the dynamic and chemistry of the two main characters, but is that even a problem at all? I mean, those other elements are definitely good enough to deserve more attention than they get, but overall, it still holds up exceedingly well.
Spice and Wolf is available from Funimation on multiple formats, including an individual DVD set, a DVD/Bluray combo pack that includes the entire series, and a recently released Anime classics combo pack that’s available for just around thirty dollars. A second season is available from the same company, although it is a bit of a step down from the first season. It was produced by a much more well known animation studio, and from what I’ve been told, it deviates from the books with a made up an ending that’s more than a little unsatisfying. The series can also be viewed on Funimation.com and for free on Netflix. The original light novels by Isuna Hasekura are available stateside in English through Yen press, and yes, all 17 volumes have been released. In addition, 12 volumes of the manga adaptation have also been released stateside by the same company.
Spice and Wolf is an exemplary anime, simple in it’s story and yet complex in it’s characterizations. It’s been one of my top ten favorite series ever since I first saw it, so when it came time to review it as one of my seasonal offerings, I knew I’d end up praising it and giving it a high score. What I wasn’t expecting, however, was that it would prove to be even better than I remembered. Yeah, it glosses over some details here and there, but not in any crucial ways. Yeah, It deviates a bit from the books, but only in good ways, like adding in a much needed episode seven, and swapping out a character from the novel with a much more interesting female counterpart named Chloe, whose inclusion added a lot of gravity to Holo’s remark that Lawrence is easily fooled by women. The quality is a bit lopsided, but I can hardly complain that one great element overshadowed several other good elements. In fact, that’s what makes this series so beautiful… It’s strengths and it’s weaknesses both work together perfectly. Granted, it’s second season was a bit of a letdown, but that’s not this season’s fault. It didn’t even really need a second season, as the way it ended left you wanting more, but not needing more, and that’s a pretty big difference. All in all, I can’t think of any significant reason to give this series anything less than an enthusiastic recommendation and a 10/10 score.