Reviewby Theron Martin, Dec 23rd 2009
Spice and Wolf
DVD - Season 1 Complete Collection
Centuries ago, the great wolf Holo journeyed south from her northern birthplace and became the goddess of the wheat harvest after striking a bargain with a young man in the village of Pasloe. For ages she insured rich harvests in most years and traditions built up around her, but as time passed and a new local noble developed more advanced farming techniques, lonely Holo came to feel that her commitment was no longer needed. Taking human form as a teenage girl with wolf ears and tail, she hooks up with Lawrence, a traveling merchant who regularly does business in Pasloe, and convinces him to allow her to accompany him on a journey as much about companionship for both as it is about providing a convenient means for her to return north. Along the way she helps the enterprising Lawrence as he gets involved first in a complex (and ultimately dangerous) scheme involving currency devaluation and later when, after getting caught by surprise by price fluctuations, he must struggle to find a way to save his career, an effort which brings him into association with the shepherdess Nora – the one type of person Holo hates more than any other. When a spice-transporting merchant and a wolf come together, things are never dull.
The notion of a sexy, playful wolf girl who thinks nothing of showing nudity (she only dons clothes because “this form gets cold easily”) might seem like classic otaku bait, but the soulful opener provides the first clue that this may be something entirely different. By the end of the second episode – and possibly even by the end of the first – viewers should realize that Spice and Wolf has no close kin amongst anime series in general, much less fantasy ones, and that is a Good Thing. Based on a series of novels by Isuna Hasekura, this is a surprisingly mature tale which has a certain playful spirit and does involve some action, fan service, and supernatural elements but ultimately depends far more on the strength of its characters and on plots heavily ground in economics to keeps its viewers involved. And that it does wonderfully well.
Ever watch a series where an entire episode can pass with little more happening than the two leads just talking to each other, and yet at the end of the episode you wonder where the time has gone? Spice and Wolf can do precisely that. The chemistry which quickly develops between Holo and Lawrence is an ideal example of the correct way to portray progressing character dynamics: let it happen naturally within the boundaries of the personalities of each character and without being forced by outside stimuli. Through the lengthy (but never tedious) conversations, Holo and Lawrence each show their distinct viewpoints and how they mesh or contrast with each other: he is a merchant who looks at things not necessarily from a silver-and-gold-coins point of view, but from one ground in the ebb and flow of trade; she is an extremely long-lived and temperamental wolf goddess who may have taken humanoid form, and delights in human pleasures, but is still very much a wolf. Within that confluence a thoroughly enjoyable anime duo is forged, with each one gradually learning how to (and not to) play off of the other. By the end of this first series they have not quite become a proper couple but are certainly headed in that direction.
For all that the practical-minded Lawrence brings to the series, the true star is indisputably Holo (whose name is often transliterated instead as Horo, although Holo seems to be the official version). She cuts a fine visual appeal with a sleek teenage physique, adorned with wolf ears and tail, that she does not mind showing off in nipple-less fan service scenes, but for her the nudity is much more an expression of character than prurient fan-pandering: it simply does not occur to her that being naked in Lawrence's presence might be an issue. Whether clothed or not, Holo is delightfully playful, sly, vain (especially about her tail!), easily jealous, and regularly quite clever, yet at times she also shows a deep loneliness borne of centuries of isolation from those who might understand her, from which comes a yearning for companionship which underlies everything she does. Her responses to certain situations also gives her a more natural and well-rounded feel than anime heroines typically achieve; in one scene in episode 2 where she goes too far in teasing Lawrence, the hurt on her face when Lawrence reacts negatively is that of a scolded child. This highly unusual blend of traits sets her well apart from the typical tsundere heroines anime fans have recently been accustomed to seeing.
Imagining that any anime series built around economics – much less a fantasy one – could possibly have much appeal is, admittedly, a stretch, which makes how smoothly the plotting flows, and how much tension it can generate, all the more impressive. It pulls off intricate plots involving making a profit off of the devaluation of currency or trying to adapt to unexpected market forces with great aplomb, fascinating the viewer even while the intricacies of what exactly is happening may go over the heads of most. Oliver Stone's Wall Street showed how much of a thrill gambling big on market manipulations could be, and some of that same excitement carries through here. That the series does not have the confidence to let the conflict rely solely on that, instead insisting on infusing a distinct element of mortal danger into the two major story arcs, is one of the minor failings of the writing, but it does allow for ramping up the tension and gives the series' heroine excuses to strut her stuff in wolf form. Those scenes certainly do not disappoint, either in the action sense, the Holo-is-a-badass sense, or in terms of the impact her wolf form has on others, especially Lawrence.
The structure of the story consists of two major story arcs, the first covering episodes 1-6 and the second covering episodes 8-13, which each correspond to one of the first two novels. Sandwiched in between is “Wolf and a Tail of Happiness,” an essentially plotless interim episode which explores another aspect of trade economics and is most significant for explaining Holo's modifications to her apparel between the first and second arcs. It was skipped in the original TV broadcast, instead being offered only as a DVD release special, but is included in proper order here. The commonly-cited minor knock against the writing generated by this structure is that the two novel-based arcs have repetitive structures: new characters are introduced in the first couple of episodes, the middle episodes involve Lawrence getting in deep in some kind of trade scheme that ultimately turns deadly-dangerous, and Holo has to take on her wolf form in the last episode to help bail out the situation. Given how much else Hasekura's original writing and Naruhisa Arakawa's screenplay adaptation do right, though, this fault can be overlooked. The sharp, witty byplay between Lawrence and Holo never gets old, the characterizations are a delight, and the plotting smoothly transitions between its typical leisurely pace and the more tense parts.
While the series has few true action scenes, it shows off its attention to animation detail in more subtle ways. The twitch of Holo's ears, or the swaying of her tail, in response to certain stimuli may seem like innocuous details but contribute to her character just as much as anything she says and can certainly help endear her to viewers. The animation also gives both Holo and Lawrence an unusually high variety of facial expressiveness by anime standards, though it takes some shortcuts elsewhere. Studio IMAGIN, which has not taken the lead on any other anime likely to be widely-recognized by American fans, does a fine job with that and other aspects of the show, especially Holo's intimidating wolf form, while retaining the visual style seen in the illustrations in the original novels. The artistry is arguably the series' weakest aspect, but even so it still presents distinctive and nicely-rendered characters set against convincingly European Middle Ages-styled backgrounds and with amusing little details, such as the miniature barrel-shaped mugs (complete with a “to go” stopper) seen late in the series. A slightly more earthy color scheme also helps. The lack of nipples shown in Holo's nude scenes is a throwback to an earlier era when such accommodation for TV-broadcasted series was more common; unlike with most recent series, which have made a habit of artificially obscuring things for the TV broadcast only to reveal them in the DVD release, the DVD version has not been spruced up.
If the artistry is the production's weakest aspect, the soundtrack may be its strongest. Yuuji Yoshino, whose only previous soundtrack effort of note was for .hack//Legend of the Twilight, turns in an amazing effort here by producing one of the most novel and distinctive soundtracks ever likely to turn up in an anime. It grounds itself primarily in fiddle and accordion pieces occasionally complemented by banjo and/or mandolin, with recorder instrumentals for more playful moments and airy vocals for mystical moments, together creating a very folksy sound which suits the series supremely well. The melancholy “Tabi no Tochū” by Natsumi Kiyoura, which opens each episode, speaks to the underlying loneliness of Holo and Lawrence with both song and lyrics, while regular Engrish closer “Ringo Biyori ~The Wolf Whistling Song” provides an excellent closing complement by speaking to the series' less serious side. That this series' soundtrack is not commercially available in the States is criminal.
English voice actress Brina Palencia had big shoes to fill as Holo, as Ami Koshimizu's original rendition is one of the finest female seiyuu performances in recent years, but she handles it as well as can reasonably be expected. Her take on Holo gives the character a certain haughtiness which seems perfectly in line with Holo's personality, albeit at the sacrifice of the archaic style of speaking Holo had in the original performance. Brina hits all of the right emotional notes, though, and is generally on the mark with the quick, subtle shifts of tone and temper in Holo's fickle demeanor. J. Michael Tatum is a fine fit as Lawrence, as is Leah Clark in a key second-arc supporting role as Nora and John Burgmeier in a first-arc role as Zheren, with other significant supporting roles varying from mediocre to excellent in casting and performance. Both dubs clearly use recordings of actual wolf howls for scenes where Holo gives voice to her wolf side. The English script does some modifications in places, such as glossing over a couple of references to the name of Horo's home town (not so important in this first series, but much moreso in the second) and clearly putting into words one event in episode 13 which is only implied in the subtitles and original dub, but the only change likely to be a significant issue is one scene near the end where changing what Holo says causes her pose in the scene to lose context. Another slight issue is a scene where a fellow merchant calls Lawrence a “son of a gun” in both the English dub and subtitles, which may be an equivalent idiom but creates an anachronism given the apparent Renaissance era-patterned setting. (That idiom did not come into use until the 1700s.)
Funimation's release of the title includes no Extras beyond clean opener and closer on the second disk and some interior cover art; a shame, since an audio commentary on this one might have been interesting. Unlike most of Funi's seasonal boxed sets, this one comes in a regular DVD case with the first DVD on a hinged plastic divider. In the past such attempts have generally not worked well because the hinges easily break, but this one seems much sturdier. The front cover uses the original cover artwork for the second Japanese DVD, while the back cover uses cover artwork from the first Japanese DVD but with the green field in the background exchanged for a field of ripened wheat. Notably, this artwork shows Horo in younger-looking and more innocent poses than what she ever appears as in the series.
The naked wolf girl might get your attention, but the wonderful character dynamics and unique plots will keep you coming back. For those who have not yet had enough, a second season widely-acknowledged as being even better awaits. Help encourage Funimation to license that one, too.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A-
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : A
+ Holo, byplay between lead characters, unique plots, musical score.
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