One criticism I have for anime as a whole is that it seems like there is a lack of variation in their stories. If you’re exposed to enough anime, it’s easy to identify that certain shows are blatant ripoffs of others. This is why I get excited when I find a series that isn’t like anything I’ve seen before. Spice and Wolf happens to be one of those series.
Spice And Wolf follows a traveling merchant named Kraft Lawrence who one day hopes to get enough money to own a shop. While visiting the town of Pasloe, he meets a wolf deity named Holo. She is the goddess of harvest for the town, but the people there have turned their backs on her and have stopped believing. She explains to Lawrence that she wants to return to her home in the north. After hearing her story, Lawrence agrees to take her.
The way the narrative is structured in Spice and Wolf does not sound that exciting on paper, but the execution is so good that it elevates the story. After the initial meeting between Lawrence and Holo, the two travel to different towns so Lawrence can sell his goods. While in these towns, the conflict comes from two different places. The first is the people with whom Lawrence does business. Some of these people tend to use various forms of deception to try and rip Lawrence off. It’s fascinating listening to the conversations between them and Lawrence as he tries to negotiate deals with them, even when he knows that they don’t have the best intentions. The second form of conflict is from the church. There’s never any confirmation as to what religion this church practices, but Holo being a Pagan deity makes her a target for them. The church doesn’t show up often in the series, but when they do, they make a big impact. This creates an atmosphere that is, for the most part, calm, but during the few times where Lawrence and Holo’s safety is compromised, the tempo picks up and the tension reaches a fever pitch.
What really helps elevate Spice and Wolf is the characters. The only ones you need to know are Holo and Lawrence. There are other supporting characters, but they don’t show up for more than a couple of episodes. Lawrence is a very calm and smart person; he’s good at problem-solving and has a sharp wit when conducting business. He’s easily flustered when it comes to conversations with women, though. Holo, on the other hand, acts like a spoiled brat. She likes to spend Lawrence’s money on expensive food and drinks whenever they get to a new town. She often boasts about being wise, and uses this wisdom to help Lawrence when he’s in trouble with his business.
The chemistry between Holo and Lawrence is absolutely amazing. Their conversations are full of personality and feel so organic. They oftentimes bicker with each other, and it’s always hilarious. As their relationship begins to grow and their friendship gets stronger, the conversations get deeper and more personal. This speaks to a strength that a lot of anime don’t have. Spice and Wolf has excellent dialogue. 95% of the series is just people talking to each other, so these conversations have to be engaging. Watching Lawrence make his sales is great, but it goes deeper than that; they’ve created a pseudo-currency that they take time to explain. This includes different types of coins and the market for certain goods. They explore different economic concepts as a way to build up drama. It all works perfectly because being a merchant is at the heart of Lawrence’s character.
The voice acting is also phenomenal. J. Michael Tatum is able to play up Kraft Lawrence’s thoughtful nature. His constant pondering about his next business venture sounds enthralling coming from Tatum. But Brina Palencia steals the entire series as Holo. Every word she says captures Holo’s playful and mischievous personality. She’s constantly teasing Lawrence, and sometimes that involves pretending to flirt with him. When that happens, Brina is able to capture a certain type of sexiness to pull it off. It’s one of the better anime voice acting performances I’ve seen in any series.
On the technical side, the animation looks good and remains consistent for the entire run of both seasons. This is extremely impressive considering that the series changed studios in between seasons; season one was produced by Imagin in 2008, while season 2 was produced by Brain’s Base in 2009. Not only did the quality of animation remain at the same level, but both seasons look pretty much identical. The music is fantastic as well. I love the use of woodwind instruments to heighten the playful moments in the series. Once the tone shifts and things become tenser, the faster-paced tracks help raise the sense of urgency. I also can’t forget to mention the opening song for the first season, “Tabi No Tochuu.” It is an enchanting song that captures the heart of Spice and Wolf perfectly.
The biggest problem with Spice and Wolf is that it never properly ended. The anime is based on a series of light novels that have completed the story, but the anime stopped after just two seasons. Being that Spice and Wolf relies heavily on dialogue, it’s already a hard series to sell to people. Not having a definitive ending makes that sales pitch even harder, unless people are willing to pick up the light novels when they’re done.
Overall, Spice and Wolf is a beautiful anime. On the surface, it’s an anime about economics and the life of a merchant; they have their own form of currency, along with their own cultures and traditions. At its heart, Spice and Wolf is a story about two people forming an unlikely friendship that begins to grow into something much more. The progression of this relationship is all done with a great amount of subtlety. You can see little differences in the way Lawrence and Holo interact the deeper into the series you go. Brina Palencia and J. Michael Tatum are one of the best pairs of lead actors Funimation has put together. Their off-the-charts chemistry makes it an absolute delight to hear them work. This is an underappreciated gem that deserves more attention than it’s gotten. If you’re looking for something that’s extremely different from the norm, then I highly recommend giving it a try.