Spice and Wolf Season 1
Taking place in a fictional medieval world, Spice and Wolf centers on Kraft Lawrence who works as a traveling peddler. While visiting a village, Lawrence happens to pick up a stray girl in his cart named Holo. The local goddess of harvest, she has been providing the villagers with plentiful wheat for years but now that they have converted to the one true god and have found ways to grow wheat for themselves, they no longer need to rely on her. Forgotten and abandoned, Holo asks Lawrence to take her with him as he travels to the north so that she can return to her homeland. Following the pair for thirteen episodes, the first season will take the audience into different towns as Lawrence sells his wares and attempts to avoid swindlers, robbers and the church who would love to destroy the heathen goddess.
Good and the Bad
It’s been very difficult to avoid Spice and Wolf talk this year. Ever since Funimation announced the license, the series’ loyal fans began talking it up at every opportunity. Ignoring the chatter as much as I could, all I knew before I started was that it was a period series about a merchant and a wolf goddess. This also left me completely unaware of just how quickly these two characters, and the series for that matter, were going to grow on me.
You had me at apples
Based on the light novels by Isuna Hasekura, the premise here isn’t really something that sounds that impressive initially. Honestly, I’ve tried to describe this series at least a half dozen times to people and have yet to even get past ‘a traveling merchant and a wolf goddess’ before I see eyes begin to glaze over. While the trade business is the central driving force behind the story, the series itself is so much more. Starting slow (and pretty much staying there for the entire series), eventually Spice and Wolf uses that foundation to build the lead relationship proving early that it will make for great viewing but it’s going to require some effort on the part of the viewer.
Taking place in an entirely fictitious world, there are a lot of things in the beginning that the audience apparently needs to be educated about. This means a lot of shop talk from Lawrence as he attempts to educate his new traveling companion and, in turn, the viewers about the currency being dealt with, trade practices and bartering. Unfortunately, being a peddler in this world is difficult business which means there will always be new lessons to be learned and more talks to be given making for some occasionally boring scenes or even just quite ruthlessly confusing when it wants to be. Completely ignoring all of the confusing talk about trade agreements and currency, even when Spice and Wolf tries to be exciting it has a habit of tripping all over itself. In the first half of the series, Holo is taken captive and a rescue operation has to be formed in order to get her back. Almost instantly after this plot seed is planted, Spice and Wolf gets an immediate bump in intensity and you prepare yourself for a sequence of thrilling heroics. Instead, it’s five minutes of plan discussion and a series of chases.
As one would imagine, this has a devastating effect on the pacing of the series. With every stay in a new town, Spice and Wolf will spend two to three episodes focusing on the latest financial endeavor. Lawrence will do his best to explain along the way but if it weren’t for Holo being there to sum it up and act generally cute, is anyone really taking all of this in? Does the audience really need to know that much about coin purity and currency conversion?
Despite these early challenges, Spice and Wolf quickly manages to be charming and successful thanks to the many things that it does correctly early on. In the first few episodes, it was difficult for me to get into the animation style. Lacking any sort of polish, the lines were rough and little things like hair shine stood out as distractions. As the series progressed further, this became less and less of a problem as the world that these characters inhabit becomes clearer. Helping to create the rich fantasy setting, the rustic animation eventually becomes as much a part of the world as the buildings and backgrounds it presents. Rich in character, the animation stands as a benefit to a series that is trying to win its audience over through other means.
And it’s with the characters that Spice and Wolf steps forward and sets itself apart from the other releases that have hit store shelves this year. While the story of what brings Holo and Lawrence together to begin with is the merchant business, the story of their growing relationship is what keeps things moving forward and makes it such a joy to watch.
Individually, Holo and Lawrence would make for terrible leads. Lawrence spends almost all of his time talking about business and Holo goes from 0 to rip your balls off bitchy about every 8 seconds. Putting these two characters together however creates a wonderful balance of strong personality dynamics that’s hard not to find charming. Holo is a very typical tsundere right down to the catch phrases. She will constantly remind the audience that she is ‘Holo the wise wolf’ and will resist few opportunities to take a verbal jab at Lawrence for something that he has or hasn’t done.
Discarding the general notion of the weak willed male lead, Lawrence is written as the perfect foil for the goddess and provides plenty of entertainment as he learns to push Holo’s buttons. Listening to the banter between these two characters is where the heart of this series lies. The setting, the lessons on economics and the journey to the north all have their roles in shaping things but boiled down, this is a series about two characters and the growing impact that their relationship is having on themselves.
This in itself can be something of a double edged sword for the series as a whole. On one hand, having Holo as a classic tsundere keeps this series watchable throughout. Her teasing verbal jabs are never said with a malicious tone making her easy to find charming and her summaries of Lawrence’s trade monologues are a literal scene saver sometimes. On the other side, Lawrence would put audiences to sleep if he was alone but he serves a strong role in giving Holo something to become emotionally connected to. By not giving the audience something else to latch onto beyond the two leads, Spice and Wolf a very narrow opening for the audience to settle into. If someone in the audience finds either one of these characters irritating, they will write off the entire series.
Always doing its best to match the setting, the score composed by Yuuji Yoshino accomplishes that with a score composed mostly of string and wind instruments. With consistently distinct feelings to each melody, the score is powerful in a not always good way. The strings that accompany Holo’s sad scenes and the flutes that match many of her happy tail moments are wonderful for adding drama or an extra sense of levity but the issue is just how overpowering it can be in so many places. Generally Spice and Wolf is very soft even in its tensest moment but rarely does that describe the background music.
Dub vs. Sub
For my initial viewing, I watched the entire series dubbed and had a wonderful time listening to the cast. Capturing the soft and playful sides of Holo wonderfully, Brina Palencia does an amazing job with recreating the character while J. Michael Tatum plays off her well as Lawrence. With such a flat personality, it’s hard to imagine how difficult it was to make this character likeable but the two voices together are a wonderful pairing.
Finishing off season 1 the only major complaint I was left with was my desire to see more. Ending on an incredibly open note, the world opened up during the first season leaves audiences wishing that more story paths had been explored along the way. Passing by quickly, Spice and Wolf is a series that I would gladly push towards anyone who needed a cute and enjoyable period romantic comedy. Slow, overly complicated dialogue early on might drive off some but this is a release that deserves to be at least given a chance by everyone. The buzz is right; Spice and Wolf is another gem of 2009.