This opening chunk is always the hardest part to write, because I could go in so many different directions with it. In the past, I’ve talked about my personal experiences and biases with whatever I’m reviewing, or more generally about its broad prominence in the anime/video game community, or (and this is my personal favorite) just gave a short spiel that coincided with the relevant themes and subject matter. The problem I ran into this time is that I didn’t think any of those routes would be particularly memorable for you, the audience. For example, *ahem* “Spice and Wolf is a reasonably popular fantasy series that ended up on my radar just by nature of that reputation. I knew nothing about it besides the fact that some wolf girl is involved and everyone wants a third season”... yadda, yadda, yadda. See, I told you it wouldn’t be interesting. So, let’s just make due with that for today, and jump right into the review, shall we?
As always, the review is provided in video format and transcribed directly below. I would like to note that my reviews are written first and foremost to be experienced as videos (that is, read aloud), so no guarantees that jokes, grammar, or anything else will transition entirely smoothly to text.
Don’t let the gray hair fool you, Kraft Lawrence is 25 years old and starting to get a little lonely. He lives as a traveling merchant in the land of, well, it’s not all that important, but since he moves around quite a lot as part of his job, he never gets the chance to settle down and make any real friends (with the possible exception of his horse). Like most peddlers, Lawrence’s dream is to one day open his own shop and graduate to the level of town merchant, an occupation which would bring no shortage of life changes, but also no shortage of acquaintances, perhaps even a wife. But stepping away from those distant fantasies and back to the present day, Lawrence has arrived in the pagan town of Pasloe, a regular trade destination of his and one in the middle of hosting its annual harvest festival to honor the local wolf god, Holo.
Lawrence makes his transactions as usual and heads off to take a rest with a bountiful surplus of wheat in his wagon. Suddenly though, something is amiss. It seems almost as if someone has nestled themselves among his cargo. Lawrence steals himself, ready to shoo away whatever it is, but stops. It’s not an animal, or even some kind of burglar, but a gorgeous young girl, in the nude no less, with a flowing tail and wolf-like ears. After a bit of confusion and even fear on Lawrence’s part, the girl identifies herself as Holo, the very same as the local god of harvest. Confident that her presence is no longer needed nor wanted in Pasloe, she implores Lawrence to bring her back to her homeland of Yoitsu, far in the north. One thing leads to another, and to no one’s surprise, the pair end up on the road together, at the mere beginning of a long, long journey ahead.
No matter what the show, if it doesn’t have characters that make you care (at least to an extent), then it’ll probably fall flat. That is anything but the case with Lawrence and Holo. The two have this great dynamic between each other, with Lawrence’s proper, mercantile nature making him a ripe target for Holo’s constant playful teasing. The banter and verbal sparring between them is some of the best I’ve seen in any anime in a very long time, and worked wonders to endear me to the pair almost immediately. It felt so down-to-earth, the exact kind of cheerful squabbling I’d expect to hear from two people on a long voyage.
Of course, it goes without saying that not all their dialogue is good-natured chitchat, and as they spend more and more time together and get to know each other better and better, the topic of conversation does diverge into more serious areas, whether it be how to overcome immediate obstacles or trying to figure out exactly what there is between them. Are they colleagues? Friends? Even lovers? Unfortunately the anime is not a complete adaptation by any means, and so does not cover the full extent of their relationship, but even in this relatively short span of time (26 episodes, and less than a quarter of what is covered by the light novels), there is a palpable sense of growth. As such, Spice and Wolf naturally contains some strong elements of romance, but I’d be hard-pressed to describe it as only a romance.
Primarily, this is because for better or worse (usually better), Lawrence isn’t just a merchant in name, as a convenient framing device for the story. No, they make it very clear from the very beginning that he is a merchant. Hard, numerical (and sometimes dull) economics are part and parcel of the show, just as much as the budding chemistry between our leads. Almost every bad situation Lawrence and Holo find themselves in is tied directly or indirectly, not to justice or a good vs. evil conflict, but cold, hard coin. This can range from a crippling debt that needs to be repaid in two days to manipulating supply and demand to cause a crash in the market and devastate the competition.
In this way, Spice and Wolf becomes one of the most unique fantasy series I have ever had the pleasure of viewing, in that it’s not about swords and magic or epic fights between armies or bringing a cruel dictator to justice. It’s just a simple merchant making his meager living, as he works his way north with a wolf goddess in tow. Sometimes you get economics with a dash of romance, sometimes you get romance with a dash of economics. Hell, sometimes you get a lot of economics with only a smidge of romance (or vice versa), and that’s really the best way I can describe Spice and Wolf, in terms of its actual content, that is. But as we all know, content itself is only half the battle, and presentation is just as important.
Luckily, the series fares well on that end as well (aurally, at least. Visually, on the other hand, is a discussion for another time). What I’m trying to say is that Spice and Wolf has a good dub. Lawrence is played by J. Michael Tatum, who has provided his voice to Baccano’s Isaac and Steins;Gate’s Okabe. His work this time around isn’t nearly as bombastic as those performances, but no matter where he goes, Tatum is still Tatum and hands in a great voiceover, but the star of the show is Brina Palencia, who absolutely kills it as Holo.
That’s not to say these two are the only part of this dub worth watching, because they aren’t, with a sprinkling of many other solid voice actors throughout; one of my personal favorites being Ian Sinclair as the town merchant Mark. The only complaint I have with the dub is Ryan Reynolds (the other Ryan Reynolds) as Fermi Amarti. Her voice just sounds amateurish and, to put it bluntly, poorly acted, which would be the only possible sticking point in my dub recommendation because Amarti is a character that hangs around for six or so episodes, roughly a quarter of the series. Otherwise though, the dub is stellar, and if you prefer the English language or just want a change of pace, check it out.
That said, while I have not personally watched even a minute of the subtitled version, I have heard equal praise for the Japanese actors, and I’m sure that reputation is well-founded, considering the voice talent behind Lawrence and Holo in the Japanese cast (Jun Fukuyama and Ami Koshimizu).
But don’t you worry, our deliberation on Spice and Wolf’s audio isn’t over just yet. I haven’t even talked about the openings and endings, all of which are charming in their own way, but the indisputable highlight is the first opening theme, “Tabi no Tochuu” by Kiyoura Natsumi (which translates to “On a Journey”). The song has this amazingly calm but dramatic and somber atmosphere, and somehow so perfectly fits the show itself.
Not to imply that the second opening is bad, because I don’t think it is, but it’s the important distinction between a good opening and a great one. Coincidentally, both endings are also ones I would consider good but not great, no matter how cute the Engrish gets. Likewise, the soundtrack too fits the moniker of “good but not great”. I didn’t find that it really came to the forefront, being content to just stick to the background and set the mood, but when I did take note of it, it fit the scene and the setting remarkably well, usually with some kind of traditional instrumentation that felt appropriate for a medieval landscape.
The first season of Spice and Wolf was produced by Imagin, whose résumé before and since is so short it might as well be nonexistent, while the second was handed off to Brains Base, who’s done a bit more (namely, Baccano and the first seasons of Durarara and SNAFU). Now maybe I’m just being unfair because I’ve been watching a lot of seasonal anime lately (which by and large tend to look pretty good), but I was rarely all that impressed by Spice and Wolf’s visuals, particularly in the first season.
From a glance, I had guessed it dated from the mid 2000s, maybe ‘04 or ‘05. It was in actuality late 2000s, ‘08 and ‘09, which is hardly a ringing endorsement. I mean, this isn’t a fair comparison by any means since one is an OVA and one isn’t, but it’s a little funny that this came out in the same year as Kara no Kyoukai (a visual treat of an anime, if you weren’t aware). But I did take care to note that most of my indifference stems from the first season, because once Brains Base takes over, the whole production steps up a notch. Not enough to be jarring, but enough to be noticeable, in my opinion.
Being that Spice and Wolf has such a heavy focus on economics, unless you know your stuff when it comes to that field, this isn’t something you can just put on in the background and follow along perfectly fine. The show demands your attention if you want to keep track of everything that’s happening, and while it does take time to more or less explain the various economic concepts along the way, it can be hard to follow character motivations or plot twists if you’re not on and ready to put the pieces together, to figure out why buying on margin there leads to being in debt here leads to coming away with riches over there. In fact, depending on the viewer, the marketplace babble could even become outright boring, though the blow would naturally be lessened by the sheer strength and wit of the character interactions.
Speaking of characters, I gave Lawrence and Holo their due praise, but most people beyond that main duo are in this weird limbo zone of having too many episodes to be mere characters-of-the-week, but not nearly enough to get fleshed out to a satisfying degree. The way it worked in the light novels is that each volume focused on Lawrence, Holo and a handful of local side characters that are usually never seen again come the next volume. Of course, the anime follows that story structure, but it’s a little more apparent and a little more disappointing that each quarter of the series or so is pretty much self-contained. Every new character, after being introduced, will in fairly short order be flushed out of the story for one reason or another, to rinse and repeat for the next arc. This isn’t exactly a bad thing, but it does lead to most characters not having much longevity or depth to them compared to our leads (with a small handful of notable exceptions).
Which brings us to the final and most prominent problem with the Spice and Wolf anime: it is not a full adaptation. It adapts only four volumes of a seventeen volume series. The best I can say in this case is that, due to the aforementioned nature of the source material (in that each volume is more or less self-contained), there aren’t any glaring plot threads left hanging, beyond the big central one, being that Holo never actually makes it home by the end of the anime. I would assume she does at some point in the light novels, or the story wraps up in some other way, but as it stands (and as it will likely continue to stand), anime-only fans will never know. The author has pretty much gone on record saying that a third season will never happen, so chuck it in the bin with the rest of those great series that deserve another season and won’t get one. Luckily, that doesn’t mean we Westerners are completely hung out to dry, because official English releases by Yen Press have been in progress since 2009, with the final volume in fact scheduled for release this April.
Understandably, with how I went on about them at length, it might seem that Spice and Wolf has some pronounced flaws, and I certainly wouldn’t argue that it’s flawless, but so much of what it does right (chiefly, the great banter and hard economics) combine to create a touching, worthwhile experience, even if the ending leaves you chomping at the bit for more. It’s not one of the absolute best anime I’ve ever seen, but it’s still a very good one. Oh, and one more thing I didn’t mention anywhere else but might as well go here is that, while Holo is naked a number of times throughout the series, it was always presented very tastefully and never played for some kind of cheap fanservice, which is something a fanservice-hater like myself can tremendously appreciate.
So, after taking everything into account (as well as my own subjective enjoyment), on a scale from F to S… Spice and Wolf? You get an A. All I can say is, god damn you, Spice and Wolf. I’ve had enough on my plate already, but you were so good that I’m gonna have to sit down for seventeen whole volumes, about 4000 pages, of your light novels, because I just don’t want to leave this story behind. Why do you have to do this to me?
To check out the series for yourself, Spice and Wolf is currently available for legal streaming on Funimation and Hulu. At one point, I believe it was on Netflix as well, but that is unfortunately no longer the case. Let it be said that, no matter which language you go for, I think you’ll find something to enjoy.
For some reviews of the light novels, check out the links below. I have’t read all the novels yet, but I can vouch for their quality.
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