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Spice and Wolf Novel 1

I’ve already established that I love Spice and Wolf. I don’t tend toward fanboy-ness, but if I did it’s the series I would be obsessed with. It so happens that Spice and Wolf is based on a series of light novels, which it also so happens are being translated into English. Nice.

Spice and Wolf Book 1

This is what the book should look like, and what it will if you order it from RightStuf or somewhere that is in on the promo.

Now, I’m not a big reader. Or rather, I’m not a big novel reader—I read plenty, just not in long, uninterrupted chunks of fiction. So it’s saying something right off that I liked the series enough to actually buy, then sit down and read the book once I got my hands on it. Says more that I finished it almost immediately because I couldn’t put it down. (It is, admittedly, relatively short—hence the “light” in “light novel,” I assume.)

The verdict: Surprisingly good. Further, it’s similar enough to the anime adaptation to be entirely familiar, while adding enough that it feels like you get something extra out of it.

Now, unlike anime or manga, a translation of a novel relies heavily on the quality of the writing in the translation. There’s also a whole lot more room for creative liberty that will go unnoticed by readers—you can tell exactly the same story using wildly different words, to drastically different effect. It made me a little nervous that Spice and Wolf doesn’t credit the translator on the cover, but that was unwarranted.

The writing is quite nice, with a smooth, casual flow that nonetheless feels noticeably “old fashioned,” in keeping with the roughly Renaissance-era fantasy setting. Indeed, the prose does a notably good job of feeling not-modern without reading like it’s trying too hard or being hard to understand. It also doesn’t particularly feel like a translation from Japanese, which in this case (on account of the European-esque setting) is a definite plus; Japanese prose translated into English usually has a distinct (not negative, just noticeable) sort of structure, which Spice and Wolf has little evidence of.

There are only a handful of typos I noticed, so there’s only one real complaint I have about the translation. Or, I should say, probably have, based on the dialogue in the anime, as I haven’t gotten a look at the original Japanese yet. In the anime, the dialogue generally sounds like standard, straightforward Japanese, with the exception of Holo, who speaks in a significantly more archaic, quite colorful dialect. The novel does give a bit of the flavor of this, but since all the characters sound somewhat old-fashioned there isn’t much room to make her sound different without going full-on Shakespearean (though her use of nushi (ぬし) for “you” pretty closely translates to “thou”).

Admittedly, neither the anime nor manga translations do much to differentiate her manner of speech from everyone else’s, either. There’s also the disappointment that her unique use of the word “watchi” (わっち) for “I” isn’t indicated in any way, but since I can’t think of any way to do that in English given our single available pronoun I suppose I’ll have to let that slide.

Now, comparisons.

I really like that I felt like I was getting something unique but complementary out of both the novel and anime adaptation. Normally when comparing a book to an adaptation of it, you have one of three situations:

  1. The adaptation is functionally identical, so it just feels redundant.
  2. The adaptation cuts a bunch of stuff out, so it feels abbreviated or shallow in comparison.
  3. The adaptation makes substantive changes so they seem like different stories, and you need to pick which you prefer as the “real” one (usually whichever you saw first).

Spice and Wolf is none of the above. The first half of the first season of the anime exactly mirrors the novel, almost scene for scene, and cuts nothing at all (in fact, it ads a little at the beginning). But, where the anime has the strength of its art and the smooth, well-acted dialogue to offer, the book lets us listen into Lawrence’s thoughts as he works things out in his head. (And, since most of the story is about verbal sparring, there’s quite a bit of working-out to do.)

This means that reading the book lets you hear explicitly what the anime implies through facial expressions and tone of voice. Both equally legitimate, both enjoyable in different ways, and either one complements the other. Similarly, the anime fleshes out the world through the realistic images of cities, buildings, and people, while the book has bits of trivia and background information about culture, history, and politics added. Both, again, complementary to each other.

The one thing the book has over the anime are the descriptions of various trade schemes and economic systems, which seem to be easier to understand. It could be because I’d already heard it once, but I think it has more to do with the fact that you can easily slow down and read carefully when things get complicated, where in the anime it’s at full conversation speed and if you get lost you probably aren’t going to go back and watch the explanation a second time. The mentions several times of how much trouble Lawrence had grasping these concepts originally also makes you feel better if you just don’t get it (not to mention emphasizes how smart Holo is, one of her many charms as a character).

And the one thing the anime has over the book is the only significant plot adjustment, which gives you a slightly better emotional hook into the situation and a more visceral explanation of the lonely life of a traveling merchant, without exposition. In the book, Lawrence never visits the town with the festival to Holo at all, as they don’t allow outsiders during it, and the aspiring merchant from the town, who is only mentioned rather than introduced at the beginning, is male. Switching him to a her in the anime, and having Lawrence visit the town and introduce her as a potential romantic interest, gives you a much better emotional hook later in the story arc and a better feel for the disrespect of Holo by her nominal worshippers. This also increases the impact of the dramatic climax significantly.

There is one other difference that I generally liked. The anime, so far as I remember, never explicitly mentioned how old Holo looks, while the book puts her physical body at around 15, mentioned more than once. While her wit and wisdom is, of course, intended as a contrast with her youthful appearance, by never mentioning her age in the anime (and the fact that she doesn’t look memorably young) it bypasses any of the potential creepy vibe you can get from series with characters hundreds of years old who just happen to look prepubescent. (Kanokon and Dance in the Vampire Bund, I’m looking at you.) Actually, in the handful of illustrations in the novel, the character designs are recognizable but a little young-looking all around, Lawrence included; the outro of the anime used the same style, while the show itself goes with a more realistic look, a wise decision if you ask me.

The bottom line is Spice and Wolf is a pleasant, easy book to read, one I expect would be enjoyable even if you hadn’t seen the anime, but is a nice companion piece if you have. I recommend it and am anxiously awaiting the second book, which I immediately pre-ordered but appears to be delayed in getting to the store.

On that note, one last comment about the presentation of the book: What the heck were they thinking with the cover? See, the dust jacket, which appears to be a sort of “early bird” bonus if you buy it while supplies last, features the same beguilingly innocent-looking picture of Holo that the Japanese edition used. Under the jacket, however, the softcover art—featuring the shadowy photo of a girl below—looks weirdly dark and, frankly, like cheap clip-art.

Spice and Wolf Book 1 Regular Cover

This is what everybody not in the know gets on the cover. Technically all the elements are there--girl with tail, grin, pouch, naked--but what on earth were they thinking?

Given that the art inside is anime-style anyway and the “real” jacket is better-looking and already extant, I have no idea why you’d intentionally pay money to have someone design a morbid-looking photo cover. I’d say maybe they were looking to pick up a few clueless Twilight fans browsing at Borders or something, although I expect they’d be hugely disappointed when they realized the story was a playful mix of romance and economics. Maybe they just thought a naked girl would sell better. Again, I sense disappointment.

Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler Live Action

I’m not the biggest fan of Japanese live action TV and movies, but these days it seems like an increasing number of things based on anime and manga are popping up, with a lot more English-language exposure than that sort of thing used to get. Since Akemi watches J-dramas now and then anyway, I figured why not toss in her thoughts and the contrasting perspective of an American anime fan. I should also warn that, not being the biggest fan of Japanese live action fare (neither is Akemi, actually), I’m likely to make snide comments here and there about the state of Japanese film and TV.

On that note: Kaiji (aka Kaiji: The Ultimate Gambler). It’s based on a seinen manga series by Nobuyuki Fukumoto, which was adapted into an anime series, and now there’s a live action movie starring some of the cast of the Death Note live action adaptation. I’m not familiar with any of the above, so I went into the film with nothing in the way of expectations.

The plot is pretty straightforward: Loser and general wastrel Kaiji gets trapped into a weird, scary gambling cruise when a big, scary mob organization comes calling for money they’re owed. Turns out that if you lose at the game, you get shipped off as slave labor, from whence the unlucky—but modestly clever—Kaiji ends up gambling with his life to escape. The movie consists of three lengthy gambling drama sections (two very simple card games, one a rather more physical sort of gamble, all of which are cast as microcosms of society), plus some intervening set-up and drama.

On the obvious plus side, the production values are relatively high—it doesn’t quite have the polish of a big-budget Hollywood film, but it’s otherwise a perfectly solid movie in terms of places you can see money and talent. The sets are fine, the camerawork is acceptable, the directing and editing are smooth, and the actors don’t seem to have been hired based entirely on how pretty they are (that last one is, sadly, a big compliment—it’s depressing how much J-drama casting seems to be based on a HotOrNot rating).

Actually, I like the casting—Yuuki Amami (a former Takarazuka member) turns in a memorable performance as a low-level mobster who’s not entirely evil, veteran Teruyuki Kagawa is quite good as the villain (a smug, thoroughly evil upper-level mobster), and Tatsuya Fujiwara (Light from Death Note) is pretty, but also pretty good as Kaiji—he’s reasonably believable as a blubbering loser who nonetheless has a little bit of hero hiding inside and a couple of tricks up his sleeve. The supporting cast is all rather solid, and they certainly did a good job filling a room with a variety of pathetic losers gambling with one another for their lives.

The final big scene—a tense, high-stakes showdown over a simple game of cards—is also decent. Listening to the internal back-and-forth in the villain’s head is an interesting way of approaching such a scene—rather than from the perspective of the hero—and the sort of “I know that you know that I know that you know…” psyche-out almost reminded me of Code Geass’ Lelouch doing his thing (well, if Lelouch was half-asleep and having a bad day when it came to clever schemes, but the same general idea).

Unfortunately, that scene was pretty much it when it comes to anything worth watching. Mostly, I kept wondering whether the movie was intended from the beginning to be hilariously bad, or if they actually thought they were doing drama. Akemi was even less thrilled—the things she singled out as awful were slightly different, but her first comment during the end credits was “I want that two hours back.”

I could complain about the series of loosely-connected holes that make up the so-called plot, but the whole concept is so broad maybe I should just let that slide.  Seriously, the villainous organization’s plans make even less sense than Dr. Evil’s. “We will go to elaborate lengths to enslave losers to dig us a subterranean city in which we will create our own civilization!” I can see no down side. That said…

Major problem #1: Is this schlock supposed to be serious? The opening scene is broad and kind of silly, which made me expect a comedy. The epilogue is definitely light, and again, seems like the punctuation you’d expect at the end of a comedy. Everything in between seems to be far too dark and psychological-allegory-ish to have been intended as anything but drama.

Which left me trying to decide if they realized that the movie was shamelessly cheesy and tried to lessen expectations and give the audience permission to laugh at the drama by sticking silly endcaps on it, or if it had been intended as straight and the opening and closing were just wildly out of synch with the rest. I don’t know which would be worse.

Major problem #2: The entire middle gamble is an endless mess of blubbering “drama” that would have been funny if it weren’t so boring.

Major problem #3: The same scene manages to blow a cinematography opportunity so obvious a high-school film student wouldn’t have missed it. This is one of the points Akemi disagreed on—I’ll get to why in a moment.

Now, normally I’d avoid trying to give away too many spoilers at this point, but all the plot twists are so obvious it’s not fair to call them twists, so I’m not even going to apologize.

This big scene consists of a bunch of the debt-trapped slaves trying to walk across girders between two high-rise towers, with freedom and money waiting on the other side.

(Aside: They’re electrified girders, so they don’t try to crawl instead of balance, which is fine… except electricity does not work that way, dammit! If it did there’d be a lot of crispy bird carcasses sitting under every power line, but then it’s not like the last century of Hollywood movies have done any better.)

Now, I’m almost certain the audience is actually expected to be in the mental role of the rich sadists paying to watch the deadly spectacle rather than the guys on the girder—we’re expected to enjoy everyone but the hero and two other characters we recognize falling to their deaths. Which they do quite quickly, making room for the three actual characters to stand around on a balance beam over the abyss talking for about fifteen minutes. (Actually, two of them stand around talking—the third one waits quietly off-camera for no logical reason whatsoever until the plot needs him.)

That was just annoying. The blown opportunity is how this is filmed: We see the characters either in close-up or from the waist up, which has the effect of watching two guys standing there waving their arms around like idiots pantomiming balancing on something. Had they pointed the camera just a few degrees downward, or even just let us see their feet, the beam, and a little open space below, it would have given a powerful, subconscious sense of tension to the entire scene—even if you didn’t realize it, a primitive part of your brain would be poking you, feeling nervous the whole time.

How you can walk past an opportunity like that is a mystery to me. Akemi’s opinion, however, is that it was on purpose. She thinks the whole scene was so clearly silly anyway, and the outcome so obvious, that the filmmakers didn’t want to try and add any actual drama to it—they wanted you to just pay attention to the actors emoting and the lines. Even if she’s right, I’m not sure that’s any better.

That brings me to an interesting cultural thing Akemi commented on. In this same scene, there’s a sympathetic ne’er-do-well that Kaiji has been together with up to that point who’s too paralyzed with fear to go on, and is busy being dramatic about having Kaji go forth and live and be someone for him or something like that. Eventually he falls (of course), and does so silently so as not to spook Kaiji. Kaiji then marvels at his bravery.

Now, my reaction and Akemi’s was exactly the same—falling quietly isn’t bravery, getting up and walking across the damn beam is bravery. (It’d have been different if he’d gotten stuck or injured or something, and wasn’t physically able to go on, but they made it abundantly clear he was just too scared.)

Akemi, however, noted that she thinks many Japanese people who’d never experienced another culture would, indeed, think that was brave. (My analogy is a sort of a modern take on seppuku or something vaguely like it.) She thinks that her reaction—Get up and move, you pansy!—was in part because she’s lived in the US, and has come to see perseverance as more of a virtue than bravely giving up in the face of fate. Phrased differently, that living in shame and trying to make up for your sins is braver than dying to atone for them. (This isn’t to say that all Japanese people think noble suicide is great, just that there’s a cultural bias in that direction.)

Moving on, the final major issue with the movie is the complete lack of any worthwhile message—the takeaway is either “Good people will get screwed by bad people, no matter what they do or how hard they try,” “You can’t win,” or maybe “Life sucks, then you die.” Not saying that those aren’t necessarily true, just that they’re not much of a message. Not even getting into the fact that only the mid-level villain gets any sort of comeuppance—the big evil psycho and all the decadent socialites into snuff films continue having a grand time enslaving and killing people, and the remainder of the slaves remain slaves.

(I also like that the villains broadcast the whole final showdown to the other slaves for dramatic effect, which is completely contrary to even what passes for logic in this movie. I suppose it’s intended to make you feel better for them, you know, having no hope whatsoever of escaping.)

Speaking of which, I’m sure Kaiji is too apathetic to do this, but if I were him at the end I would devote my life to hunting down the person who ripped me off and killing them in their sleep. Or maybe exposing the evil organization or something worthwhile. But maybe that’s just me.

Anyway, the bottom line is that this movie sucks. I’m not saying there aren’t people who will enjoy it—if you really like movies about the downtrodden gambling with their lives or the “simple gambling games as a microcosm of society” theme a lot you’ll probably love it, or you might just enjoy the over-the-top cheesiness of the execution. Personally, though, I’d call it a complete waste of time.

Did make me want to rent Maverick again, though—now there’s a movie about gambling and double-crossing that knows exactly what it’s doing.

Persona Midpoint Notes

Persona is taking a while to get going, but having passed the halfway mark of the two seasons, I’m actually liking it more. It initially looked to be very moody, somewhat repressed, and sprinkled with incongruently-shounen-action in the form of  mecha-like summoned creatures.

Two ghostly Personas getting ready to fight

Battles like this may be pretty unusual in terms of the avatars being ghostly and weird-looking, but they still seem kind of out of place.

Then there were some episodes around the middle of the first season that added more personality to the kids, but also seemed to add elements from a lighter sort of series sort of weirdly out of synch with the rest of it. In particular there’s an episode to humanize the man-in-black older brother that seems to be out of a less-serious show. It’s been hammered as hard as possible to fit the realism and mood of the story, but it still feels like something from a significantly broader show hammered into place here. (Then again, the creepy, dispassionate MIB in a bear suit is a memorable image, and I’m a little impressed that Persona was willing to go there.)

On the plus side, apart from that and a couple of a-bit-too-anime-standard other things (obligatory haunted school episode, which is admittedly rather creepy), the strong focus on interpersonal drama and downplaying of monster-summoning has me surprised and pleased. Further, the kids for the most part are doing what they should—trying to figure out what’s going on, experimenting a bit, and—shock—sharing notes. If there’s anything we’ve learned from watching anime, it’s telling everyone else what you know and what you think is going on is a good idea, and keeping things to yourself either leads to tragedy or taking way, way too long to get to the point. Despite rather taciturn characters, for the most part these folks do, with the exception of the older brother, and not talking about anything is sort of his schtick.

In fact, while it’s never once mentioned any kind of moral about teamwork or talking to your friends, it’s done a remarkably good job illustrating (subtly) that when you don’t talk things over and get organized, bad things happen, and when you do, things work out better. Unfortunately for the protagonists, the bad guys are better at talking and teamwork…

I’m also liking the cast a lot. The middle brother is a little low on personality—I’m sort of guessing video game protagonist effect, but hard to say—but otherwise decent, his Nabeshin-relative friend is colorful but believable, the two girls are likable and have some substance to them, and youngest brother Jun is steadily edging into creepy territory.

Two female characters from Persona

Maybe it's just my taste, but these are some of my favorite character designs, period.

On the same note, I really like the character designs and character art—even the Nabeshin-lookalike is growing on me. The two girls in particular remind me of toned-down takes on Yasuomi Umetsu’s style, which is a high complement as I think his character designs are some of the most attractive in anything, period (too bad his stories are what they are—best-looking action-porn you’ll ever see).

The backgrounds are beautiful, too—I particularly like the pervasive sense of season—winter, cold and snow in the first season, heat and summer in the second. The character animation isn’t quite as good as the art, but still above average, and the little bursts of action look good.

The youngest two of the three brothers in Persona

Even when nothing notable is going on, the backgrounds are often remarkably pretty.

It also seems to be doing particularly well when it gets into emotional drama—mostly some of the darker corners of the two girls’ lives. An episode casting friendly soul-gnawing in the place of drug addiction is in structure pretty much the classic addiction story, but manages to stay clear of “This week, on a very special episode of Persona…” territory through the combination of raw emotion and a strong overlay of sexuality and cheerfully willing debasement to the addiction theme (it’s portrayed as much as desperate nymphomania as chemical addiction). I also like the fact that the character in trouble is sort of quiet and fragile-seeming, but has been dropping unsettling hints the whole time.

That episode showed that the series can do emotional drama well, which made me wish it had been doing more with the other opportunities—I wanted to see some of the previous plots dug into with that degree of uncomfortable frankness, and less of the vague “something dark and creepy is going on under the surface” moody atmospherics. I’d also like to see a little more discussion and investigation of what all is going on, but that’s probably asking too much in a series trying to draw the mystery out over two whole seasons. (Speaking of which, it’s not often a show makes it well past the first season without mentioning anything specific about several major background points.)

It’s also doing better, rather than worse, with the creepy stuff as it goes on—that’s pretty unusual. Definitely liking that—even the “haunted school” episode twists a standard anime theme into something lower-key, yet still decidedly unsettling. Come to think of it, the hotsprings/vacation episode is so not a hotsprings episode I didn’t even initially realize that it probably qualifies as one.

I’m still not convinced that it needs two seasons to tell its story—there’s an awful lot of atmospheric filler that could have been compressed—but better slow than rushed. Only remaining complaint other than that is I keep wanting a little more chit-chat about what’s going on and a little less exchanging-of-knowing-looks.

So far better than expected overall. Also, firing up a Funimation DVD reminded me of how awesome NIS’s truncated lead-in is—after being forced to watch 10 seconds of unskippable FBI warning, a title switch, a full 30 seconds of unskippable logos, another title switch, and then a trailer (which at least can be skipped), that 12 skippable seconds and then straight to the show is refreshing.

[Addendum: Full review now available.]