Written by Richard Brown
One of the more common tropes to see in anime is the old “Magical Girlfriend” device, especially if you favour romantic comedies. You know the kind; a worthless male lead somehow acquires a super powered female that stays with him thanks to some unbelievable circumstance. Spice and Wolf looks to be made from the same mold, but is something, far, far more interesting. But is it any good? Read on to find out.
The Basic Plot
Craft Lawrence is a travelling peddler, moving from to town-to-town, hoping to make a profit. While visiting a “Heathen” villiage, he discovers a stowaway in his cart, a naked girl with a tail and ears of a wolf. Identifying herself as the great god Holo, she asks that he take her to her distant homeland. With Lawrence’s initial scepticism quickly (and scarily) overcome; the pair begins their journey.
God Bless Booky Street, Viva Booky Street
People get into anime for various reasons; ninjas, mecha, big guns, cuteness, or the mere fact there’s an age restriction on it. After latching on to a particular genre, and staying with it for a while, you try something new, as was what you thought was new and awesome gets repeated in one form or another. You repeat the process for a while, eventually you realise what attracted you in the first place. Anime was something different, and if you watch the stuff for long enough you realise how samey it actually is. You do however learn to love the real exceptions. While Spice & Wolf looks rather like Ah! My Goddess meets the renaissance via catgirls, its something very different. I had no idea how the episodes would play out, and given how jaded I can get, this a good way for an anime to endear itself to me.
The episodes are dominated by two things, character development, and trading. Trading doesn’t sound an especially interesting basis for an anime, especially the trading practices of a peddler in some quasi-european world, but what it does do is provide the framework for the relationship between the two leads. Holo is somewhere between an ancient Greek goddess and a Kitsune, who having grown bored of her harvest responsibilities, has decided to mix with the mortals for a while. She is clever, devious, and while the first to admit she is not god almighty, rather arrogant. She suffers from being slightly behind the times, and a tendency to think with her stomach, but her sharp senses and sharper brain make her a talented merchant, and she isn’t above using feminine wiles to get what she wants. Craft Laurence, a more honest peddler is often surprised by Holo’s intuition and knowledge of human nature, but he has been trading for a long time, and knows his stuff. He also does is best to keep things professional, by treating everything he buys Holo as a loan, being fully aware of how talented a manipulator she is. Holo takes an interest in his dealings as something of a hobby, to his benefit, while he acts almost as a tour guide for her. The interplay between the two is brilliant, as the pair becoming intellectual sparring partners, and a powerful trading team. And once you have good character dynamics, you are half way there.
The other 50% is a bit harder to define, and I find it easier to say what the anime isn’t, rather than say what it actually is. The fact that Holo can change form, for example, implies a werewolf aspect to proceedings, but she only reveals her true self with reluctance. There are none of the usual fantasy clichés being invoked here, and the period setting is so down to earth it wouldn’t be a stretch to plug this into real history. This is especially true of costume design, as the assorted dresses the female characters wear aren’t of the micro-skirt with steel bra variety. Continuing that thread, he amount of nudity the intro implies a large amount of fan service, which the series doesn’t offer, its decidedly restrained in such matters. Yes, Holo appears starkers in much of the first episode, but it’s that un-detailed kind of nudity, non-sexualised rather than naughty. Lawrence isn’t the type of male lead we see too often in mainstream anime either, being mature and confident. In short, this is not an action series, or a comedy or romance, its playing its own game, a slow one. The entire point of the series is the relationship between Holo and Lawrence, no more, no less.
Is there anything wrong with this series? Not really, but there is some room for improvement. The anime is well produced, no obvious shortcuts were taken, and it has some solid supporting characters, but the anime invests so much in its leads that no other element seems to get a look in. As you can imagine this is really bad if you take a dislike to either of them. Don’t get me wrong, its weaknesses are relatively few, but when you get an anime as different as this one, viewer expectations can count against it. When you get down to it, little tends to actually happen in a given episode, which is notable in a series this short. Plotlines are both light and leisurely, a given money making scheme playing out over several episodes. I suppose it lacks a little ambition, as there are a number of plot hooks that aren’t exploited, and this is only a 12 episode series. The series does look and sound very nice while it’s ambling through, and when the pace quickens the quality is maintained. You just have to be prepared to relax and enjoy the series for what it is.
Spice and Wolf sells itself largely on its characters and its dialogue. Its nicely animated, has a good soundtrack, and is one of the more unique animes to come out in recent years. However, if you don’t like the lead characters, there’s little to entertain.