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Anime That Gets Under Your Skin

It’s usually pretty easy to tell whether or not you liked something you just finished watching. Since I write anime reviews, I also put some effort into figuring out why I felt the way I did. Aside from something more interesting to say than “thumbs-up,” I think it’s important because I want to be able to make a distinction, as much as I can, between things that I connected with on a narrow, personal level because I relate to the material in some way, and things that I just liked because they’re good. Or, alternately, things that grabbed me in some way but I did not necessarily like, perhaps for some personal reason despite objective quality.

Since I’ve decided to toss stuff about process into this blog, I thought I’d put together a few posts based on thoughts knocking around in my head about the different, specific ways in which anime works for me (or doesn’t).

So, to start with: You know that feeling when you finish watching something and it just won’t let you go?

Some anime quite literally keeps me up at night after I watch it, because my brain just won’t leave it alone—those are the shows that I know have something special about them, be it good or bad. That kind of gut-level reaction is interesting to me, and it’s one of the ways I separate simple entertainment from things with more to them—my subconscious doesn’t care that much about fluff.

On account of a couple of things I watched recently I’ve been thinking about those rare cases that it goes a step farther—anime where something hits me on a deeper level. Things that get under my skin in a visceral way, things that I feel for days after I’m done watching them.

They’re not always the things I enjoyed the most, and the emotional reaction is as often bad as good, but I find it intriguing to try and figure out why, exactly, those few things affect me that way. Following are some examples, from which I picked out something of a pattern in how my psyche works. These are all pretty large spoilers for the shows in question, so beware if you’re averse to those and haven’t seen one. It’s also extensive, navel-gazing self-analysis—you’ve been warned

Shadow Star Narutaru

This show has some stuff in the closing episodes that is deeply disturbing, and I found myself being… unsettled by it for quite a while after it was over. Now, in this case, the show has major objective quality issues (bargain-basement animation budget, pacing similar to watching grass grow, stops halfway through, and the author probably has bigger issues than Amano). I didn’t like it all that much, and I certainly didn’t enjoy it (not that you were supposed to). So this was a show that affected me—I expect in the way it was intended to (if you weren’t supposed to be skeeved out by it, I have no idea what the intended effect was)—but wasn’t in any way a pleasant experience.

The why is relatively obvious—you have sympathetic, fragile characters who have horrible things happen to them, and one of them, instead of pulling through, snaps and does even more horrible things to other people. It’s particularly unsettling because most of the bad things—abusive parents and extreme bullying—can and do happen in real life all too often. Even more so because the Carrie reenactment is the sort of revenge fantasy a lot of otherwise decent people harbor, but (thankfully) lack either the will or ability to carry out.

In particular, I think the thing that pushed it past just unsettling and into something disturbing to me on a deeper level was the combination of the reality of the horror and the prospect of salvation being so close, but failing to materialize.

So from an objective standpoint, my reaction means the show was quite successful at what it set out to do, but whether that’s a good thing is a matter of taste. Overall, though, this one would be disturbing to just about anyone with some humanity, so it’s not as interesting in terms of self-analysis.

Spice And Wolf

This show got to me in the good way. In particular, the second season’s first-story-arc dramatic break after Holo’s freak-out had me crawling in my skin wanting to know not just how it was going to play out, but terrified that they were going to screw up a series I so much adored. Which didn’t happen, leading to my reaction at the end of the season’s low-key final moments—what happens next?!

So in that case the melancholy that overtook me after the end of the season was related just a bit to the somewhat ambiguous end, but mostly to really loving the story and characters, both of which had plenty left to do. The question was why I liked it that much—was it a Tokyo Godfathers or Baccano! thing (meaning, I love it because it’s awesome), or was it more personal? In this case, I had to admit a lot of it was personal, because for whatever reason, I simply cannot get enough of Holo and Lawrence, and I do so love improbable romance (because that’s the story of my life). Best I can figure, their interactions remind me of an idealized version of myself and my wife (the demure-to-everybody-else, sharp and sarcastic to me part, with occasional bouts of condescension and childishness).

Therefore, in this case, while I could say with some confidence that it’s a wonderful series riding entirely on those two characters, it’s not going to connect with most people as strongly as it did with me. More a case of straight fanboyish-ness—I want more!

(It’s comforting that, even if a third season never gets greenlighted, the novels are getting translated, so I can find out one way or another. Note, also, that I was tempted to use “moar” above, but then I’d have had to cut my own pinky off in shame.)

Sundome

This one is manga, and not of the sort I usually talk about here (I do intend to write up a quick review at some point), but I thought I’d throw it in because the last couple of volumes have left me with a lingering feeling of gloom. In this case the reason is entirely obvious: Few things I’ve read have had such an overwhelming sense of impending—yet nonspecific—doom. Doom, further, of the tragic, real-world type. You don’t know what’s about to go wrong, but you know it’s going to be very, very sad, and it’s getting ever closer (vol. 8 is the final one, so presumably it’s just about here).

The reason that the foreshadowing impacted me so strongly, of course, is because I really got into the characters. Given the subject matter, I probably wouldn’t give specifics even if I did know what about them grabbed me, but (fortunately?) I don’t have any idea. I certainly don’t associate with anybody, I’m just unusually interested in what happens to them.

A factor, I’m guessing, is the confident emotional strength in the face of physical fragility and, though we don’t know what specifically, some very major past tragedy—again, the theme of overcoming things.

Persona: Trinity Soul

My reaction to this one surprised me quite a bit. The plot wasn’t the reason—that was plenty unsatisfying, but didn’t do more than disappoint me. Instead, I found myself actually feeling depressed for quite some time after Morimoto dies late in the series. Now, her death was hardly a surprise—she was utterly doomed from the start. (Though I admit she was out-doomed by Ryo—if you thought the competent older guy who keeps stepping in to thwart the villains was going to make it through the series you probably thought Dumbledore was going to survive, too.) It was, however, deeply yet understatedly tragic; rather than sacrificing herself, which is your normal heartstring-tugger, she had already made it, in terms of working out her demons—twice. She had already come out the other side, so to speak, only to have fate quietly take away the life she’d won.

Further, the way the series handles it is exquisite. Kayano’s reaction and instruction to Shin—”There’s no time to explain why, just find her and be with her.”—exchange weepy melodrama for a practical response and a touching understanding of what, in someone’s last moments, is most important. To complete the image, it adds her return to her “childhood” safe place for a twist of innocence and the long, quiet shot of the falling snow not melting on her skin next to Shin’s warm body to drive the point home with no screaming or orchestra necessary. It even knows to cut away at the moment disbelieving realization crosses Shin’s face, not after, like most things, which cut on the stock pan to the sky while the surviving character emotes loudly. Powerful stuff. But then, since the entire series was fundamentally about loss and grieving, it shouldn’t be a surprise that it knew how to present it in an affecting way.

Persona DVD 3 Cover

This looks like a sweet image until you see the episode, at which point it becomes one of the most cruelly tragic box covers ever.

All that came together to hit me on a more visceral level than I was expecting. In this case the tragic presentation itself was only part of it; I also liked the character a lot. Can’t say I’m sure why; I expect the combination of her being quiet and reserved, rather than as fragile as she looked at first, and her twice-over surmounting of significant inner demons. (Semi-literally—after the addiction episode, I commented to a friend who hadn’t seen that far yet that she had problems, which turned out to be minor compared to her actual problems.) All helped by uncommonly attractive character design. Toss in a touch of unlikely romance given her “condition” to complete the reasons it made me sad to see her die.

Now, in this case, because of the sort of series Persona is, my reaction was unpleasant but not negative, and it spoke well of the emotional effectiveness, but in analyzing the show I did need to factor in that my personal attachment to that character (and several others, but that was the one that “stuck”) wasn’t going to be anything like a universal for other people. The dramatic presentation, however, is objectively almost perfect so far as you can say anything objective about art.

Toradora

This is a series I did not think was going to have that much of an effect on me (heck, any effect on me—I’d written it off based on superficial appearance), and it’s what got me started on this introspective analysis. See, for a full week after I watched the end I could not get the damn thing out of my gut, and, even more maddeningly, I couldn’t figure out why. Heck, I’m not even sure how much of my reaction was positive or negative, which is kind of ridiculous. Normally it’d be bad enough to be bugged that severely by something you can’t put your finger on, but I can’t very well write a review and close my mental file on the  show if I can’t even figure out why or how much I liked it, much less why it drove me crazy for days.

So I kept kicking theories around in my head.

Part of my reaction was positive—the substantive romance in the final episode was far more than I was expecting from the series. Further, I liked the way it smoothly added a romantic, physical component to what had been an entirely practical relationship up to that point. I always like it when a series takes a superficially shallow character like Aisaka (or Ryuuji, or his mom, or Minori), and then lets on that there’s more to them than that, even more so when something takes relatively asexual characters (again, Aisaka and Ryuuji) and lets you know that, actually, they are real people with physical desires. In Aisaka’s case, taking her from an angry hothead to something much more functional, and then adding a (lightly) sexual component to her and Ryuuji’s “dry” relationship (not to mention doing a proper onscreen kiss, something so rare in anime) was unexpectedly satisfying for the romantic in me. (Aside: yes, I know anime fans will sexualize anything; I’m talking about their personalities and presentation, Rule 34 aside.)

But that wasn’t most of what was gnawing at my subconscious for a week.

A big factor was a significant personal connection to the situation that somehow didn’t even register until I really thought about it—I do happen to be married to a very short Japanese girl with an ornery streak and a generally sappari way of relating to people (a good Japanese word—used for food it means something like “clean finish” or “light”; with people it is the opposite of clingy). Moreover, I made similarly major life commitments at a similar age, and in a similarly logical, “this just works” manner,  so there was the angle of “Hey, for once a romantic profession that relates to my life experience!” (It even so happens that, in my case due to circumstances and immigration law, I was mostly separated from my wife-to-be for two years between the making of commitments and married life proper.)

So, although it took me a while to realize it, part of what was “bugging me” was a powerful sense of nostalgia; that would be positive, but in a very personal way that only applies to me.

The other factor seems to be a combination of the last-episode separation and where it ends. From a purely narrative perspective, the end makes complete sense, and it would have taken serious contortions to get it to fit together any other way without completely jettisoning Aisaka’s parents from the equation.

As a result, I didn’t immediately realize that it was missing something substantial.

See, we had been personally introduced to her dad at length and her mom briefly (I really liked that Aisaka had previously claimed she and her mom got along great, which was suspect but the series didn’t even hint was a lie until the very end when her mom shows up in person). Further, her abysmal parenting was the core of her entire character, and overcoming it what half the series was about. So, while I can understand the decision to show that she’s developed to the point she’s ready to take an active role in working things out, then hand-wave past the actual messy stuff offscreen in an effective epilogue, that was a bit unfair—we already knew all the players, so I feel some entitlement to details on how, exactly, they work things out. If Aisaka’s parents had been offscreen concepts, it’d have been different, but they most definitely weren’t, and we did get to see Ryuuji and his mom get their issues worked out onscreen.

I’m also not quite sure how much sense Aisaka’s running off to clean up her childhood before moving on as an adult makes within her character. Again, from a narrative standpoint, it was important to have her stand up on her own while trusting Ryuuji to wait for her, but I’m not positive it aligned with where she’d developed to as a character by that point.

I’m pretty sure that dissatisfaction is a major component of my nebulous… thing about the end, but I think the bigger part is that after all it had done to develop and advance the characters, it owed us a little more about what they were going to do with their lives. Had it been about childhood promises and whatnot, the “what they do after graduation” epilogue is unnecessary. In this case, however, it was about making lifelong commitments, so at bare minimum I think we were owed some info about what Ryuuji planned to do (college? straight to work? house husband?), not to mention what happened to Ami and Minori post-dustup. Minori, in particular, seemed a jettisoned plot thread—most of the second season was about her cracking around the edges, but then (unlike all four of the others) they never did tell us exactly what makes her tick, or what she’s going to do with life. Allowing herself to cry once is not sufficient—there was clearly way more going on than that (some of it apparently bad) and after that many episodes hinting at it leaving the details out is bad form.

I also really wanted to see at least a little of how Aisaka and Ryuuji run their lives once they’ve made their big decision. Since their relationship was already pretty domestic, it would only have taken a bit of screen time to show in what subtle ways their day-to-day life changed once they added a romantic component.

Really, the only character that did get completely addressed was, somewhat ironically, Kitamura, who did his emotional thing earlier; that gave us enough of a picture to know where he was going from the brief epilogue note about going to America (which I really appreciated). The fact that some of the video game adaptations, at minimum, offer an epilogue with the main couple having children shows that I’m not the only one who thought closure of that sort was necessary.

So I’m thinking that in addition to romantic nostalgia, my feeling was a general dissatisfaction with what was omitted from the end in order to wrap up the narrative in a tidy fashion. Since it would have been difficult to do otherwise, I can’t exactly blame the series for most of this; rather, I feel like I want a sequel OAV or TV season along the lines of New KOR—something that tells us more about where things end up. Come to think of it, given the parallels between KOR and Toradora, this isn’t entirely surprising, as that series really wasn’t complete until New KOR, even though it superficially looked like it (and it also continued into their adult lives in the novels).

I wonder if the Toradora light novels did more with Minori and Ami, and/or give some more details about life-after-school.

In Closing

There was an obvious pattern I noticed in these examples; the things that really got under my skin all featured characters I got attached to in one way or another, and all related in some way to either people confronting and overcoming major personal issues, unlikely romances, or both. The former is no surprise—apart from hard sci-fi or action, most things we watch are really about the characters. The latter presumably speaks to the kind of stories I like most on a gut-level; I’ve had an admitted fondness for unlikely romance for a long time, while my penchant for traumatized characters pulling themselves together was something I didn’t realize explicitly until more recently.

Finally, I’ll add that I have one additional reason for analyzing why the things that affect me the most deeply do: when I’m writing a story myself, if I could manage to get even one person to feel as strongly as I did in these cases (hopefully the positive examples) I’d consider it a success, so I’m interested in what works.

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.

Spice and Wolf Season 2 Follow-up

The increase in emotional drama around halfway through the first (of two) story arcs in Spice and Wolf season 2 had me riveted, but also afraid that it was going to step onto the wrong side of the drama line and start going downhill.

Boy, did it ever not do that. Turns out that the things popping loose dramatically speaking made far more sense to the characters than it seemed at first, and indeed the strong characterization itself is what made it seem that way—they essentially dupe you into making the same rather obvious mistake that Lawrence does. The second story arc has fun for a little while, then takes a melancholy turn that—this time more obviously—fits completely with the characters, and is every bit as entertaining.

Lawrence messing with Holo

Lawrence sometimes gets the upper hand, and it's usually Holo's ears that tell you when--so expressive you almost wish she didn't wear a hat so often.

That’s an interesting thing about this series; when characters are broad, however entertaining and appealing they may be, the viewer can excuse a fair amount of out-there behavior without it really seeming out of character. This makes it much easier to write things around them, since you can nudge them one direction or another easily enough without breaking anything for the viewer.

The more real the characters seem, though, the more precise and careful the writing has to be, because even things that are slightly out of character will stick out exponentially more. In a way it’s limiting (I’ve run into this writing stuff of my own), because realistic characters sort of write themselves—and if you don’t let them do what makes sense to them, the audience is almost certain to pick up on it.

Getting back to Spice and Wolf, the concept sounds broad but the characters are so well-realized that it is very much in the latter category, to the point where even a slightly off note is going to stand out. This is a good thing overall—it means that the characters work, and come across as real. But it also means that it gets harder and harder to write around them without screwing up. As of the end of the second season, though, the series succeeds at not doing that—I still bought the characters entirely, and am every bit as in love with them as I was at the start. More, really.

Its only real mistake it makes is going a little easy on some background justification that, had it been hammered in a little more, would have made you think less about whether some of the things the characters do make sense or not. They do make sense, it’s just that the reasons aren’t implied strongly enough beforehand. This was also an issue in the first season—Lawrence’s blow-up after being turned away from every merchant house in town; it was implied that the reason was him having a woman with him, which was considered inappropriate for a merchant in his situation, but if they’d made the point a little more strongly you wouldn’t have had to step back and process that Holo was the reason, not his getting stuck in a very bad deal.

There’s considerably less physical drama in the second season, but interestingly, due to the heightened emotional content, it actually feels more dramatic, at least to me. It also makes complete sense—if every story ended in a wild last-minute escape thanks to Holo’s supernatural abilities, it’d start to seem contrived after a while (indeed, she never once turns into a wolf in this season, and its no worse for it). What it does do is start to acknowledge what happens when a human and a wolf deity start to do more than just goof around and enjoy each others’ company; she will outlive him by centuries, which, when you think about it, does give a realistically bittersweet little twist to her perception of the whole relationship.

And, again, this deepening of the relationship is another situation where the well-developed characters could be dangerous—it’s easy to blow the chemistry if the characters are strong enough you can’t just have them stare lovingly at each other by way of motivation. And, again, it definitely doesn’t—everything rings true, and indeed the subtle romance is hugely effective. Really, in a way, it’s about as romantic as anything, with romance being defined as a real relationship, not just heat.

Getting cozy in the chilly weather

The increasingly chilly weather mirrors the emotional tone, to a degree--cozy, but melancholy.

That’s another great thing—it establishes that, while Holo’s thing isn’t quite being a merchant, she does see herself as a partner, not just a hanger-on, and consistently works to hold up her end of things. This degree of partnership is uncommon in romantic stories, and one of the things that makes the whole series work so well. (An amusing aside: They didn’t drive this home, but Holo’s previous occupation was of course land management—she wasn’t just the god of the harvest, she explained that she specifically manipulated things to keep the soil healthy and the people as well-fed over the long haul as she could.)

There were only two things I can’t say I unreservedly liked. One is that I wanted to see Lawrence show a little more interest in some books Holo got to look for legends about herself. Admittedly, that’s not really his thing, and it’s entirely possible he didn’t want to know too much about her past—might weird him out, or scare him (indeed, he pointedly doesn’t ask much about her past), but while it may not have been out of character I’d have liked at least a bit of time spent with him looking over her shoulder or a more specific acknowledgement of why he wasn’t. Heck, I want to hear some of the legends myself, too.

A shadowy fellow merchant.

Not all the merchants Lawrence meets are cheerful and outgoing. Which is good, once you shake the feeling that Zelda is traveling incognito in the wrong series.

The other is the end; it ends on an unusual note; positive, but a little sudden and very open as to how this particular mercantile caper will close (Holo pretty strongly states she’s not about to just walk away). It’s entirely possible the series is leaving something open for a third season (which would be awesome, and indeed this season starts with a bonus episode 0 wrapping up the previous, so that’s quite possibly the intent). It’s just that after the absolutely fantastic up-note the last scene of the first season ended on, I was hoping for something similar.

Speaking of episode 0, that right there demonstrates why Spice and Wolf is something special: An entire episode spent with the main character sick in bed, dreaming and talking to the couple of people who come to visit her—and a lot more of the latter than the former. Sounds like a recipe for a dirt-cheap cop-out review, but instead there’s almost no repetition, it tells us a lot about Holo and what she’s thinking (sets up the entire second season, in fact), it’s at least as good as any other episode in the series, and it’s also periodically hilarious. That may not be quite the tour de force of Genshiken spending an entire episode with Madarame’s internal monologue during an awkward silence, but it’s close. It even works in a variant of the humors when Lawrence explains the road to health.

Now, the fact that episode 0 of season 2 wraps up the final story arc of season 1 leaves me with hope of two things:

  1. That the final story arc of season 2 will be wrapped up with an intro episode in season 3, and
  2. That there will be a season 3.

That second possibility has me both all kinds of hopefully excited, and nervous. See, I have my Given Enough Rope Principle—if you give any good idea enough time, it will eventually hang itself. And “enough time” for anime seems to be “more than 2 seasons.”

Seriously—I can count on my fingers the number of anime TV series that have gone past 26 episodes and remained good to the end, and I can count the ones that aren’t status comedies (Ranma 1/2, say) on one hand. The four seasons of Twelve Kingdoms is the big exception and, given its novel-based heritage, the example I desperately hope Spice and Wolf will follow. But, given the overwhelming evidence of the slim chances of pulling that off, I’m almost as afraid that they will make a 3rd season as I am that they won’t.

Here’s hoping that Spice and Wolf is the exception to the rule.