Spice and Wolf Anime Review
Spice and Wolf
/ TV Series / Drama / 13-up
A smart, genial mix of casual romance and economic adventure built entirely on sharp-tongued, witty banter.
...An anime romance takes a casual stroll with a Renaissance economics lecture.
Ookami to Koushinryou
Wolf and Spice
US Release By
Economic Fantasy Romance
13 25-minute episodes
2008-01-09 - 2008-03-26
What's In It
- Fun-loving Harvest Gods
- Charismatic Merchants
- Heroism Through Negotiation
- Frail Shepherdesses
- Currency Exchange Schemes
- Believable Renaissance Locales
- "Swords and Sorcery" With Neither Swords Nor Sorcery
- Violence: 2 (moderate)
- Nudity: 2 (moderate)
- Sex: 1 (mild)
- Language: 1 (mild)
Kraft Lawrence is an itinerant merchant who dreams one day of saving enough to open a shop in a town. Until then, he lives for the thrill of the deal, traveling the lonely roads from town to town and country to country with a cart full of whatever commodity his sharp wits will let him turn a profit on. His life changes when one day he discovers a stowaway: A girl named Holo, who has the ears and tail of a wolf. She claims to be the harvest god of a small town who changing times have rendered unnecessary, and so has decided to travel to her homeland far to the north--and she's looking for a traveling companion. Traveling with her, Lawrence will cross paths with great opportunities for profit, with all the dangers such deals entail.
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Spice and Wolf offers a thoughtful twist on mundane fantasy that takes a melancholy slice-of-life premise and spins it into an intelligent, funny, sharp-tongued economic adventure with an undercurrent of flirty romance. The series is built around the relationship of Holo and Lawrence, a wickedly perceptive, fun-loving displaced harvest god and a serious-minded yet charismatic merchant. Neither is a stereotypical anime protagonist, and their ongoing verbal fencing match is endlessly entertaining to watch. The series is unabashedly about dialogue, and every component of the production comes together to make this work: spot-on Japanese acting, witty writing, beautiful yet understated visuals, and a perfect-fit medieval chamber-music-style soundtrack.
Spice and Wolf never tries to be more or less than what it is--a personal-scale fantasy adventure about merchanting and playful romance. While the low-key drama and tight focus isn't going to appeal to everyone, it is a roundly entertaining and near-perfectly executed series if it strikes your fancy.
Full ReviewSwitch to Quick Review
Spice and Wolf sounds, superficially, like it might be either of two very different sorts of generic anime: haughty wolf-girl fanservice or melancholy fantasy slice-of-life. In fact, it's an intelligent, funny, sharp-tongued economic adventure with an undercurrent of flirty romance. The sort of thing that in theory should be boring and in practice could scarcely be more entertaining. A thinking man's twist on mundane fantasy, it is easily one of my all-time favorite series.
The characters define the series
The first thing to understand is that Spice and Wolf is light-hearted and fun. The set-up sounds anything but--a harvest god cast adrift by changing times, on a meandering quest to return to her homeland in the frozen north. But while Holo, being a well-developed character, harbors some bitterness and melancholy, she is above all a lover of life--good food, good wine, and good company. She's also flirty, wickedly perceptive, and never tires of playing about with humans, her new traveling companion Lawrence in particular.
Lawrence, for his part, is an even more uncommon sort of protagonist: A merchant in both profession and spirit, always haggling and in pursuit of profit. Don't take that to mean he's a greedy caricature; rather, his passion in life is the thrill of the deal and the battle of words and wits involved in negotiation. As a result, he's about as far from a "hero" as you can get--he approaches every conflict from the negotiation-and-compromise perspective of a merchant. When things do occasionally come down to action instead of words, he's woefully under-equipped, and knows it.
He's also no teenage adventure-seeker--in his mid-twenties, Lawrence has plenty of experience on the road. Serious-minded and thoughtful, but also genial and talkative, he's a fitting adversary for Holo--clever enough to spar with her, but not wily enough to actually win.
Words over action
Lawrence and Holo's relationship, and the whole series by extension, is a sort of verbal fencing match. The constant back-and-forth of thrust, parry, reposte is what almost every scene is built on, be it between Lawrence and Holo, or during the mercantile negotiations that make up the external drama in the story. As in fencing, the goal is to score a hit, not injure the other party, and the losing participant is often the first to acknowledge when they've been bested.
While Spice and Wolf does have some action, its focus on conversation is something quite unexpected in a fantasy story--really, in any anime--and the series never feels the need to substitute physical drama when verbal interplay is sufficient. Don't mistake this for a series about something bigger being constrained to dialogue by budget--it's a series unabashedly about dialogue.
Given that focus, the acting is a make-or-break component. In the original Japanese, it's definitely "make"--Jun Fukuyama and Ami Koshimizu (previously paired up in Code Geass as mastermind Lelouch and his hotheaded subordinate Kallen) are simply perfect as Lawrence and Holo. The talented Fukuyama does a marvelous job of giving Lawrence casual charisma and personality, and Koshimizu is spot-on as Holo--her intelligence and wit are believable, and her archaic way of speaking feels smooth and natural.1 The rest of the relatively small cast is equally good, with a range of lively voices and effective performances. A cursory examination of the English dub told me that, while acceptable, it just isn't as good.
Also necessary for the focus on dialogue to work are a sufficiently intelligent script and well-developed characters. Fortunately, this anime adaptation is extremely faithful to Isuna Hasekura's witty original material. The conversations and banter have a casual flow combined with a calculated self-awareness about who is winning or losing that sets it apart from average TV fare and keeps things plenty engaging.2
The characters' self-awareness is part of what makes them feel like real people. Holo, for example, is somewhat unrestrained with her emotions, but explains, reasonably, that it comes of centuries of isolation. She does things that make her colorful and endearing--pouting, yelling, and occasionally giving in to tears--but never to the point of caricature, and always with an understanding of how it comes across to Lawrence.
More importantly, the majority of her endearing behavior turns out to be an act--she has more than enough experience with "males" to know just what sort of things they like to see in women, and to play the part until she gets the upper hand.
The anti-fanboy fanboy series
On that note, it's interesting to contrast Spice and Wolf with the average "fanboy"-type anime show; it sets up things that would usually be an excuse for fanservice or moe-fodder, then refuses to play the game. For example, Holo isn't at all ashamed of being naked, yet the camera never leers, and after a reasonable introductory scene she's consistently fully clothed. Even her wolf ears--the motions of which are an indicator of her mood and personality--are covered by a hood more often than not.
Coming back to Holo's emotional manipulation, the series itself uses it, slyly, to challenge the stereotypical male viewer. It will trot out the sort of thing that gets them attached to anime girls, then smile wryly and point out how simple-minded that is. And, again, Holo feels real enough that it doesn't come across as the least bit out of character.
Lawrence, similarly, isn't just a bland proxy for the male viewer. He's an interesting character with personality and charisma, and much of the show focuses on his interactions with other people, male and female.
No more heroes
The plot consists of two story arcs corresponding to the first two novels, and is remarkable for the solid focus on mercantile dealings. Lawrence and Holo aren't saving the world; the former is trying to take advantage of an opportunity for profit (or dig himself out of a deal gone wrong), while the latter is mostly trying to enjoy herself on the way to her homeland. Both of which are hugely entertaining, so long as you embrace the relatively relaxed pacing and get involved in the characters.
The setting goes along with this; a well-realized fantasy world styled after early Renaissance Europe, it has history, depth, and a sense of reality. Notably, Holo is the only supernatural thing we ever see, and even her abilities only rarely. There also aren't any outright villains, just varying degrees of unscrupulous and unsympathetic. The Church--an obvious monotheistic stand-in for the Catholic Church--is powerful, inflexible, and somewhat corrupt, but even it is treated as an unpleasant organization to avoid crossing rather than blatantly evil.
The only flaws in the show are a couple of rough spots in its screenplay. A minor issue is that it's harder than it should be to keep up with the complex currency exchange situation that the first story arc revolves around.3 My only real complaint, though, is with the follow-through at the very end of each arc. The novels each include a short epilogue that wraps up the loose ends and logistics that happen after the adventure is over. The anime almost completely omits these, which leaves you with a few lingering questions that could have easily been addressed in a couple minutes of exposition.
The adaptation is otherwise nearly scene-for-scene. The only real change is a tweak to the first arc that gives a much better emotional hook in the climax.4
Almost-perfect visuals, absolutely perfect music
The visual artistry of the series deserves a great deal of the credit for how well it works. While animation studio Imagin had a relatively modest budget to work with, and the visuals aren't flamboyant, the execution is admirable. The backgrounds capture the down-to-earth fantasy setting, from subtly beautiful establishing shots of scenery to spare candlelit rooms. The character art, likewise, is crisp and precise, and does a superb job of capturing nuanced facial expressions. The animation is wonderful given the budget--plenty of life and flavor, as well as subtle things like the twitches of Holo's ears under her hood that signal what she's feeling. Interestingly, even though there isn't much dimensionality in the art--the compositions often have a slightly "flat" look--it works with the style (it reminded me a bit of the isometric-style artwork of the middle ages). The memorable character designs are relatively faithful to Juu Ayakura's illustrations in the novels, but have a more mature look that is, frankly, far better suited to the characters and story.
The final component is the soundtrack, which couldn't be better. The series opens with a lovely, haunting song by Natsumi Kiyoura. That's bookended, both emotionally and literally, by a playful end theme by Rocky Chack.5 Everything in between is handled by Yuuji Yoshino's evocative background score, inspired by medieval chamber-music. Played by a small ensemble of traditional instruments--fiddle and flute mixed with bagpipe, crumhorn, and wistful vocalizing--it has everything the series needs: lively festival tunes; aggressive string pieces full of tension without seeming overblown; nostalgic, melancholy melodies that evoke the distant, frozen northlands; and Holo's wonderfully playful and mischievous penny whistle theme. The range of emotion and mood accomplished while maintaining a coherent period feel is admirable, the small scale is just right for the story, and all-around it's such a perfect fit that it doesn't just complement the production, it's an integral part of it.
Spice and Wolf never tries to be more or less than what it is--a personal-scale fantasy adventure about merchanting and playful romance. The emphasis is on dialogue and battles of wits more than physical action, and every component of the production comes together to make this work: spot-on Japanese acting, witty writing, beautiful yet understated visuals, and a perfect-fit medieval-flavor soundtrack. While the low-key drama and tight focus isn't going to appeal to everyone, it is a roundly entertaining and near-perfectly executed series if it strikes your fancy.
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There are few series so focused on character interaction, fewer still with such laid-back, flirty romance, and not many more that feature fantasy settings with such a strong undercurrent of realism. On the fantasy front, Twelve Kingdoms is set in a richly detailed world with a lot of attention to realism, but the mood, scale, and level of supernatural influence are nearly opposite. On the dialogue-focused front, the wacky multi-genre series Durarara!! and to a lesser extent its cousin Baccano! has quite a bit of talking, but also quite a bit more action, and is all-around a far wackier series. The closest series in general feel is probably Allison and Lillia, although the scale, setting, maturity level, and actual plots are wildly different.
Notes and Trivia
Spice and Wolf is a relatively large franchise based on a series of light novels by Isuna Hasekura, with illustrations by Juu Ayakura. The story was declared complete after seventeen novels, published between 2006 and 2011; Yen Press is in the process of releasing them in English, with the first six available as of this writing.
The novels spun off two single-season anime TV series, of which this is the first. There is also a manga adaptation written by Hasekura with illustrations by Keito Koume; it is ongoing as of this writing, and is available in English, again from Yen Press. There are also a couple of DS games that combine dating sim, economic sim, and visual novel.
This 13-episode series covers the first two novels. The seventh episode, which bridges the first and second story arc, was included with the DVD release, and doesn't appear in the corresponding novels. There is, similarly, a bonus episode that ties this series and its sequel together; while it is usually counted as episode 0 of the second series, it serves as an epilogue to Nora's story in addition to setting the stage for the events of the second series.
The bonus episode, "Wolf and Tail of Happiness" is a perfect microcosm of what makes the series what it is. A bit of downtime between story arcs, the entire episode consists of Lawrence walking around town shopping for new clothes for Holo, while explaining the tactics he's using to save some money on the purchase. In any other series that would be dull; in this one it's a roundly entertaining mix of the tricks of the mercantile trade, colorful banter, and playful romance.
The entire series can be watched free, as of this writing, on Funimation's Spice and Wolf page. It also aired on the Funimation Channel.
I found it interesting and/or disappointing that the full version of the Natsumi Kiyoura's opening theme song includes a rather harsh synthesized lead-in and -out that detracts from its haunting quality. The TV version effectively cuts out everything but the best vocal parts, changing the character of the song and, in my opinion, improving it.
A few additional bits of interesting information from the finale of the second novel that didn't get mentioned in the anime but presumably still apply: After paying back his debts and "apology" money for being an annoying borrower Lawrence ends up a little bit behind breaking even; as for the fate of the sheep, the plan also involved slaughtering them and paying off the butcher. The reason Lawrence went out of his way to stop Holo from killing any of the attackers was because he didn't want some family member with a grudge against him popping up down the line some day.
On a more general note, the novels mention that Holo looks about 15 years old. The anime--very wisely--leaves her external age entirely ambiguous; since she doesn't look memorably young in the anime character designs, and behaves like an adult, this comfortably dodges any of the unnecessary anime-youth-fetish undertones that could have otherwise resulted. Lawrence is 24, and has been a traveling merchant for 7 years.
Footnote 1: Holo's Japanese dialogue is quite colorful; she uses archaic terms and generally speaks a little differently than everybody else--appropriate, given her age and centuries of isolation. Somewhat mystifyingly, Funimation's English translation (subtitles and dub script both) does almost nothing to capture this. Particularly glaring is that her use of the archaic "you" pronoun "nushi" would have mapped perfectly to "thou" in English.
Holo also uses a made-up word for "I," "wattchi." Since it sounds similar to "washi," a dialect pronoun used almost exclusively by old men, it comes across as old-fashioned but not masculine. While a bit gimmicky, unlike most such gimmicks it actually works.
Footnote 2: There's also an interesting air of "differentness" here and there in the exchanges; a bit of it comes from difficulty with translating Japanese to English, but mostly it's also there in the original material. I could imagine it tripping some viewers up, but I thought it added to the flavor of the long-ago, culturally distant setting.
Footnote 3: Holo has as little experience as the viewer with the medieval money market, so the mini-lectures required to keep up with it are in-character and interesting enough, if you roll with it. It's just that the novel makes the same material easier to understand, even if it does benefit from the fact that you can read more slowly as necessary.
Footnote 4: Unlike a lot of adaptations, the Spice and Wolf anime is a perfect complement to the novels. A large part of the novels consists of Lawrence's internal monologue as he analyzes situations and changes tactics in verbal jousting. Impressively, the anime doesn't replace this with voiceover narration; it leaves the acting and animation to imply what Lawrence is thinking. Exchanging detailed internal monologue for external nuance means that the books and anime offer different perspectives on the same scenes. So, while they each stand alone well, if you take in both you're not just watching (or reading) the same thing over again.
Footnote 5: The lyrics, interestingly, are in cleverly written English directly appropriate to the story. The singer's weak English pronunciation is the only thing in the soundtrack I could possibly complain about, but her voice is still a perfect fit for the tune.
US DVD Review
Funimation's multiple releases are all similar, but have the bases covered. The two DVD releases (regular and Viridian edition) only really differ in the packaging; both include Japanese stereo and English 5.1 audio tracks, an accurate English subtitle track, crisp anamorphic widescreen video, all 13 episodes, and textless opening and closings for extras.
Funimation's Region A Blu-ray release is straightforward and solid with the exception of their unfortunate video master.
The disappointment is the video, which is only an SD upscale to 1080p. It's interesting and somewhat unfortunate to note that the show was originally mastered in lower-spec HD (either 720p or 720i), but while the Japanese blu-ray release is based on the highest-resolution masters, Funimation's isn't. The same, notably, is not true of their release of the sequel. On the plus side, the art in the series is relatively low on detail, and Funimation's upscaling algorithm does a very good job keeping edges sharp, so at least you're not losing all that much. It looks quite nice, overall (better than the DVD, to be sure--less compression artifacting, and it's better upscaling than almost any TV or Blu-ray player is likely to be able to do). You can check out our the screenshot gallery for a couple of examples of what it looks like up close.
The audio, which features the same stereo Japanese and 5.1 English as the DVD, has been bumped to ultra-crisp Dolby TrueHD quality. The two discs come in a standard single-wide blu-ray case with a slipcover, and the price is, generously, exactly the same as the DVD version.
Notably, Funimation released a combo BD/DVD complete set of both Spice and Wolf series in late 2012 at a price not much higher than the individual seasons. It's not clear whether the BD version of the first series in this release used the improved-resolution masters, but it doesn't appear so--the box still lists it as "SD Remastered." The re-release, interestingly, is region A and B, so it'll not only play in the Americas, but Europe, Australia, and Africa as well.
Rated TV-14 by Funimation, which is about right, if on the strict side, based on some mildly sexual implications, a handful of violent scenes, and a modest amount of casual nudity early on.
Violence: 2 - The small amount of violence is serious, but not graphic, and there is significant attention to the ramifications of it.
Nudity: 2 - Holo is unashamed of being naked, but only appears so a few times, and detailed bits are covered by tastefully placed hair.
Sex/Mature Themes: 1 - Nothing more physical than holding hands, but sexual attraction is acknowledged.
Language: 1 - The occasional mild expletive.
Available in North America from Funimation in a variety of forms: It was originally available on a 2-disc bilingual DVD set that was later re-released in different packaging as a Viridian edition. A bilingual 2-disc Blu-ray set was also released a while after the DVDs. Most recent is a September 2012 complete collection of both this series and its sequel in a bilingual, combo Blu-ray/DVD set.
The series was also available streamed free from Funimation and Hulu at last check.
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