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.