Anime Review: Spice and Wolf

After visiting the small village of Pasroe, the merchant Kraft Lawrence meets the wolf god Holo, who says she wants a ride to her homeland in the north. Holo was once the god of the harvest for the villagers, but they have since come to rely on themselves. Feeling lonely, Holo desired to return to the north but has been unable to leave. Lawrence agrees to take her on, seeing potential value in her wisdom and experience.

Plot

Spice and Wolf has a period fantasy setting, and is flavored around business and economics, but perhaps the best way to characterize the series is as a romance. The show does sometimes delve into the details of various business transactions, but not once did I ever feel like I had to know them. It didn’t make me take an interest in economics, nor did I feel that the show itself placed a lot of importance on the subject. Spice and Wolf uses those stories as sets, mere backdrops to show the relationship between Holo and Lawrence. So the question is, why is this relationship worth looking at?

In what is essentially a road movie split into 13 parts, Lawrence and Holo’s relationship doesn’t develop beyond the vague romantic tension stage. Yet I’d call this series a romance because the two characters are clearly in love, and might as well be married. That’s the thing about Spice and Wolf. It’s fiction, but it isn’t. It’s fantasy, but it’s real. There is no mark of the writer’s hand – Holo and Lawrence are set upon the world, and whatever happens, happens. Their journey was not engineered to convey some kind of message or big picture; it’s just a journey, and along the way, a lot of little pictures emerge.

It would be somewhat of an exaggeration to say Spice and Wolf is a naturalistic work in the tradition of Katai Tayama, but there is certainly an effort to portray a world, rather than a story. Every story element is part of the world, acting on its own principles. The church is expanding, establishing a subtext of religious tension. Following from that, some episodes put Holo at risk because of the influence of the church. The changing political and economic climate drive major plot points without becoming ones themselves. Lawrence, expecting to make a huge profit on armor, finds that its value has dropped due to the cancellation of a major military operation. The how and why of this is not explored – these things just happen, and people make bad investments.

What I don’t like about Spice and Wolf is that sometimes, it can get a little too dry. Business negotiations are not really the best source of drama, and the director doesn’t do much to make them easier to stomach. That said, the series at its best is able to eloquently express truths about how people and societies work. The bits and pieces you see of each town add up to a rich texture, ensuring that the viewer learns a little about the world as the show goes on. That, ultimately, is the strength of Spice and Wolf. It is truth embodied, even when showing you a shapeshifting wolf god.

Characters

The vast majority of the screen time goes to Holo and Lawrence, whose tenuous friendship/romance mostly defies genre conventions (especially the Japanese ones). There’s no sappy melodrama here, and their relationship is much more complex than the meeting-breakup-reunion structure featured in most road movies. There are real emotional highs and lows as Holo and Lawrence get to know each other. Their opposite personalities can sometimes lead to tension or hurt, but it never feels forced. The drama is created through lapses of judgment or slips of the tongue, which both characters can be prone to.

The dramatic situations are also played against type sometimes. Holo in one episode gets angry at Lawrence for being too nice, even when it keeps him from paying off a significant debt. Though she’s genuinely angry and confused, the scene is played for comedy at first. This technique not only puts a fresh spin on a situation you’ve seen many times before, it also helps establish Holo’s personality. It makes her lively and amusing, while casting Lawrence even more as a bit of a schmuck.

Lawrence and Holo’s relationship works because Holo is such a well-established character. She is sassy, wise, and somewhat of a hedonist, but is also very open with her emotions. She carries the knowledge and experience of many lifetimes, but is still vulnerable because her godlike status isolates her from meaningful friendships. Instead of asking the viewer to divine all this, Holo shows it honestly. I think this lends her character a lot of strength. Even so, this vulnerability manifests as a dependence on Lawrence, which is puzzling to me. I see it almost as an appeal to males – that even the strongest of females somehow still depends on the male presence. I’m not exactly a feminist, but I think this move cheapens Holo a little. In some scenes, she describes the many faults that human males have. In others, she is fawns over Lawrence, begging him not to leave her behind. I think, given her usual spirit and cheer, Holo should be the driver of the relationship.

Lawrence is not as well written, lacking any real personality traits that I can discern aside from a desire for profit. Sometimes it seems like profit is his sole motivation, and the parts that make him human are just cracks in the armor. In other words, he is very much an anime character. Fortunately he is carried by Holo, whose prods and jabs are at least able to provoke a comedic reaction from him. But if Lawrence was on his own, the show would be unbearably boring. Lawrence falls quite a distance away from being the “spice” to Holo’s wolf.

Given what I’ve said about Lawrence, it really is remarkable that Spice and Wolf is as watchable as it is. Holo carries the show, and she does it well. She is a lively, sympathetic character that breaks from many of the female cliches that have taken over male-oriented anime. Her presence commands attention; her experiences as a god make for great comedy and drama, while her imperfections make her human and relatable.

Technical

Spice and Wolf‘s art and sound design fit well with the roughly Renaissance-era setting. There are no overt CGI elements in any of the scenes, as the series maintains a hand-drawn look for its characters. The background art has an elaborate, pained look which I found very beautiful in 1080p. It reminded me of some of the awe-inspiring backdrops in Sword of the Stranger, except less epic in scope. The music is simplistic, usually having a wind/reed instrument provide a simple melody. I am utterly charmed by the end credits, even if they are in Engrish.

The way Holo’s character is established deserves special mention. The real star of the show (however obvious) is Ami Koshimizu, who voices her. She has an enormous range, and effortlessly portrays many emotions without being hammy. Whether it’s Holo’s usual feistiness, sadness, drunkeness, or even fear, you just completely buy Koshimizu’s performance. She does as much in characterizing Holo as the dialogue itself, which is the mark of great voice acting. The animation works in concert with the voice acting to turn Holo into a living entity. Going from facial expressions to the wagging of her tail and the perking of her ears, you can visually get a sense of Holo’s mood. These techniques capitalize on the medium to establish a character that is almost tangibly real. That’s about the highest praise I can give to a piece of animation.