Akemi's Anime World

Akemi’s Anime Blog AAW Blog

Spice and Wolf Season 1 Notes

Spice and Wolf is, according to the back-of-box blurb, about a traveling trader who stumbles across a wolf god who people have stopped believing in, and their journey as he tries to take her back to the land she originally came from. I’d seen the DVD set on sale a couple of times, and almost bought it. But then I thought “You know, this sounds like it will be about a pleasant trip running into various people for an episode or two, somewhat melancholy, and, probably, not as interesting and more generic than the idea sounds.” Then I noticed Hulu had it streaming free—subtitled, no less—and figured I’d give it at least a shot.

It took me exactly the length of the first episode to get hooked. By halfway through the season, I wasn’t just hooked—I adore this series. See, it turns out that I was mostly right about it—it is indeed pleasant, pretty, and about traveling the countryside meeting interesting people—but it’s also cheerful, smart, a touch exciting (the life of a merchant isn’t always dull), full of attitude, and has what may well be my flat-out favorite fictional romance ever. It also manages to completely dodge what appears to be a predictable character mold.

See, the titular wolf—Holo, by name—looks like she’s out of a fanservice book: Pretty girl a head shorter than the guy, has wolf ears and a bushy tail, is actually a wolf god who until recently lived (in a spiritual sense) in the wheat of a small town as the god of their harvest, has some ego, and may like her human traveling companion (Lawrence) but isn’t directly saying so.

Except she is so not a generic moe tsun-dere catgirl it’s sort of amazing. See, she’s also known as the Wise Wolf Holo, and, indeed, she’s quite smart, playfully flirty, almost always knows what’s going on with the people around her, and takes every opportunity to prod at Lawrence and see how annoyed she can get him without actually making him mad. Lawrence, for his part, is much older than the average anime guy and plenty smart and world-wise himself, but still not quite a match for Holo when it comes to playing with human emotion to get what you want, though he tries—and, occasionally, manages as he learns more about her—to get the upper hand.

The series is, it turns out, about two things: Their constant verbal and emotional sparring—uniformly entertaining—and the various involved trade schemes Lawrence gets involved in, either intentionally or not.

Drama about merchants doesn’t sound like much, but at least for me, having taken a class or two on the topic and being at least vaguely aware of the way markets work, is almost shockingly entertaining. At one point an entire midseason bonus episode is spent with the two wandering about town chatting and Lawrence explaining to Holo how you can lead people into cheerfully giving you a better deal than they’d intended with enough crafty positioning. Holo, for her part, catches on quickly, and periodically works in her own, somewhat different, methods of adding a little extra profit to a deal. There is also some much more direct physical drama on occasion—some merchants play dirty—so it’s not all shop-talk, either.

Then there’s the other half of the show, which I absolutely love. Lawrence and Holo do like each other somewhat, and they’re not hiding it, but they’re both cautious, and in no hurry to move things into more serious ground until they’re good and ready.  So, in the mean time, they spar—each pushing the other’s buttons, seeing how much false emotion will get a reaction—and then explaining exactly where in the verbal joust the match was lost. It never seems to get old watching Holo do something predictably cute and/or emotional, then (whether Lawrence bites or not) breaking out of the calculated act to smirk or be disappointed in her failure to hook him. It’s a smart, cautious sort of romance, and unique in that it puts all the posturing and manipulation right up front—both characters know the game, and both are willing players.

This also isn’t to say that they don’t have genuine cute or romantic moments in there, just that 90% of the time it’s quite calculated, which makes the other, usually accidental, 10% all the more endearing.

The characters—Holo and Lawrence at the center, plus a small selection of additional faces they get involved with—ring remarkably true, which makes the whole thing work, to a degree; they feel emotionally complex enough to be real, if slightly broad.

The world is also a well-developed, interesting place—a fantasy early-Renaissance Europe clone with all manner of intricate politics, customs, and lands, it feels quite real. It also is amazingly low-key on the fantastic elements; despite having a literal wolf deity (albeit a low-key one) as the main character, there is literally no other supernatural elements that appear—the Church (an obvious monotheistic Catholic clone that’s universal if realistically a little shady in its heavy-handed political dealings) is powerful and not big on such things, but we don’t in any way get the feeling that they’ve stamped them out so much as that they’re just not out in the open, when they exist at all. People occasionally talk of magic and monsters, as they would have in reality a few hundred years ago, but we never actually see any of these things other than Holo herself, if they even do exist. Refreshingly unique, and one case where I approve of setting it in a Europe clone rather than the actual period, because it frees them to play with quasi-religious elements without offending anybody.

The first season is uniformly good—the only downside is that it goes by all too quickly, consisting of two large plot arcs and a couple of establishing and intervening bits, leaving the overall story wide open at the end (the closing scene, incidentally, is one of my all-time favorite now—hilarious).  Normally I like stories that get where they’re going and then call it done before they hang themselves, but this is one series that I was very, very glad to see already has a second season (which, while not yet out, has been licensed as well).  I’m now a little nervous, because part of me absolutely wants a third before even seeing all of the second season (which could happen, as the light novels it’s based on are still in progress), but I can count on one hand the shows that have successfully managed more than two seasons without screwing something up horribly.

I’m also a little unsure how, when I review it properly, to rate it; from a raw quality and construction standpoint it’s probably a 4. Except from a personal, gut-level reaction, it’s an easy 5, so do I call it that, in that it’s how I feel, accept that others aren’t so likely to see it the same way and go with the lower number, or average them?

It also took me a while to figure out why I like it so much. The attractive art and fun characters are part of it, the general intelligence of the whole thing is another, and I do so love unbalanced, unlikely romances, such as between a traveling, world-wise merchant and a capricious but very smart wolf god hundreds of years his elder. But I now think that it’s because, personality-wise (and in her relationship to Lawrence), Holo is about as close to the real world Akemi as any fictional character I’ve seen, albeit in exaggerated form. So, I suppose, of course I like her.

In terms of how much I like it, in absolute terms rather than flashy adjectives, I can say the following: There’s stuff I watch and enjoy, stuff I wouldn’t be at all disappointed after having bought it, and then this category, stuff I watch and love so much I’m buying my own copy just because. The only reason I haven’t already ordered it is that I’m holding out hope of Funimation doing a Blu-ray release, which would be even better (and may well happen, given that one exists in Japan and Funi has done a few other not-entirely-obvious choices in high def already).

It’s still on Hulu both subbed and dubbed, but won’t be for much longer based on the expiration dates, so if you want to take a look for free, now’s your chance. If you end up running out and buying the DVDs, don’t blame me, though.

Mission E Post-Viewing Notes

Wrapped up the final episode of Mission E, and I’ve got to say, that was aggravating. If ever a series needed 13 episodes instead of 12 it was this one; the last episode omitted both the opening and ending credits, and still cut it down to the absolute bare minimum. Honestly, the series should’ve either cut several less-vital episodes out of the middle or gone into a full second season; the only legitimate reason I can think of for a finale that rushed is that they’d planned on stretching the plot out over two seasons but only got one funded.

There are sub-plots and loose ends left lying all over the place, including some hints at substantial backstory with one of the villains that don’t even appear until the final episode. Even the main plot feels like it got shoved into conclusion mode way before it was ready. Oh, it tried to give an in-story reason—the main villain’s backers decided to get uppity and forced him to play his hand early—but the series just didn’t feel anywhere near ready to wrap up.

Or rather, it didn’t wrap up. Even if you accept the rather abrupt, massively unsatisfying, and left-wide-open main plot, it does nothing to conclude such major things as what happens to Milis or anything resembling a satisfying progression of Chinami and Kotaro’s too-shy-to-get-anything-going-without-being-forced relationship (though you have to love Chinami’s flat-out order in the next-to-last episode in an attempt). Don’t even get me started on the fact that we never even get to meet Sonomi’s husband and kids, Yuma (the shrine maiden) not getting anywhere near enough screen time and her significant other showing up for all of five seconds in the last episode, or the whole Brimberg background hinted at earlier going nowhere at all. I’m also rather disappointed that after Code E had such a prominent role for Chinami’s family that Maori’s family is a complete afterthought. If she’d been a little older that would have been forgivable, but she’s not, and initially it made motions about doing something in the same area that it never delivered on. Heck, they didn’t even pay lip-service to the fact that they’ve got a minor playing secret agent without letting her parents in on any details whatsoever.

That last one is particularly bad since they established Oz as pretty much the worst secret organization ever. Worst as in they’re just plain too nice—they invite their captive enemy to the Christmas party and have picnics with the lackeys. Having them go out of their way to give report cards or something to Maori’s parents would have been fun and funny, instead of having Oz come across as being far sketchier than there was any indication they were. Ignoring their poor parental consent policies, however, that was one of the things that was fun about the series—Oz and the heroes are terrible superspies, and the bad guys aren’t afraid to point it out. But, they’re ok with that—that’s what you get when people like Chinami and Kotaro try to go badass, and that’s how they run things.

I also liked that the evil organization is neither all that evil, nor all that secret—they’re just a big corporation with some mildly unacceptable science experiments going on to try and get a competitive edge. Turns out they really don’t want to take over the world, or even do anything too illegal—they just happened to hire a mad scientist rather more malicious than the board intended. I found it particularly amusing when one of those sinister conversations between shadowy corporate backers pulling strings behind the scenes takes place, and you realize that they’re actually trying to stop the mad scientist from doing anything too bad. Ends up they’re greedy and shadowy, not evil. Again, amusing for the relative low-key-ness of it (Mission E retains some of Code E’s mellow groove, just in an entirely different way).

Other strong points are some decent character development with initially-dead-to-the-world Type E Maori coming out of her shell, unexpected romance, and entirely expected if completely incompetent attempted romance with Chinami and Kotaro. One of the best scenes in the whole show—practically worth the price of admission—is about halfway through when Chinami gets asked about her plans for the evening—nudge, nudge, wink, wink—and smiles blankly for far too long before realization slowly creeps across her face, and then she nearly boils herself to death in the bath she’s sitting in thanks to her inadvertent Type-E microwave effect.

Speaking of which, while the Type Es in this series have much better control of their abilities than Chinami did in high school, the show still does a great job of dropping hints as to mental state by the side effects of them. Everything from an excited Chinami sparking a code red panic on the loading dock as the minions frantically try to get the expensive hardware away from her to a great little bit that goes by so quickly you might miss it—a gunshot startles Maori, causing the lights in the room to flash for an instant.

It’s not that the series couldn’t have told its story in 12 episodes, it’s that it seemed to be going out of its way to introduce sub-plots and drop hints about backstory for many of the secondary characters, which it proceeded to follow up on exactly none of. Still, as bizarre a follow-up to Code-E as it was, and for all it blew at the end, it’s still a lot of fun, and I did enjoy it. I just really, really wish they would make a sequel. Maybe a prequel that fits between Code-E and Mission-E, for that matter.

Aside: I’ve finished my fansub of the final episode, which I’m a bit surprised to note took approximately as long as I expected—about an hour and 45 minutes to do the timing, about four and a half hours translation and on-the-fly touchup (I just translate directly onto the subtitles to save time), and another 30 minutes tidying up. I’ll probably spend another hour tweaking, but that’s not too bad. Had Akemi actually watched the rest of the series it might have gone a little bit faster, as would it have if I wasn’t rusty working with the software I was using.

If somebody wants to help distribute it drop a note.

New Site Design Preview

The editorial we has been hard at work reformatting, cleaning up, and adding stuff to hundreds of pages in preparation for the new 2010 (I hope!) look and feel. We’re pretty exited about it, and about 90% done (the worst 10% is left, of course).

So, to start off the month of April, here’s a sneak preview of what’s to come!

Hope you like it as much as I… er, we do!