Once in a while, a rare gem tumbles down from the monstrously huge pile of worthless pebbles sitting on your front lawn and against all odds lands itself next to your foot, carrying with it a much welcomed reminder of why you chose to intentionally clutter your expensive landed property with unsightly stones instead of just getting some pink flamingos or garden gnomes like your less eccentric neighbours.
Spice and Wolf (狼と香辛料), is one of those rare gems. I’ll leave it to you to sort out the rest of that winding metaphor.
Based on the best-selling light novel series by the same name, Spice and Wolf is a unique fantasy romance story set in a fictional pseudo medieval world, billing itself as a fantasy story with neither swords nor magic. Departing from traditional fantasy novels, the central plot device in Spice and Wolf is trade and not armed conflict. The title of the series is derived from that of a reference book on medieval commerce called “Gold & Spices: The Rise of Commerce in the Middle Ages” (金と香辛料―中世における実業家の誕生), which makes one wonder why the official English title is “Spice and Wolf” instead of “Wolf and Spice”…
The main characters in the story are Kraft Lawrence, a travelling merchant, and Holo, the human form of an ancient wolf who travels with him. Lawrence makes a living by buying and selling commodities in the various cities he visits and the story details the various dealings, successful or otherwise, he involves himself in. There is no hero saving the world from evil here.
The author’s personal interest in medieval commerce is evident in the story and he often introduces various early forms of currency and credit systems in the course of storytelling. However, the coverage of this topic is extremely rudimentary and, though it is refreshing and serves to add some unique flavour to the series, leaves a lot to be desired. At times, the series’ overly-simplified depictions lead to some hard-to-swallow plot logic that somewhat irritates my sensibilities. Of course, this is probably akin to complaining about audible space explosions in anime, i.e. something that most viewers couldn’t care less about.
I have not had the chance to check out the original novels, so I do not know if they go into more in-depth discussions of Lawrence’s business dealings.
So while the uniqueness of the setting does make for an appealing detour from the usual clichés — high schools, hot springs, the girl next door — it is by itself too superficial and shallow to stand. As such, it is but the seasoning to the real meat of the series: the relationship between Lawrence and Holo.
Characters in anime often have motives that are made painfully obvious at every turn (“Did I tell you how I accidentally killed my parents when I was ten, thus explaining why I’m an emo prick?”) and this is regarded by many as “character development”. This is arguably an improvement from the days when characters didn’t need to have any motivations at all (“bwahaha I am evil because I am the bad guy”) but that is like saying that sending everyone to the firing squad is an improvement over having criminals run free. And that fulfilled my bad analogy quota for the day.
The story of Spice and Wolf is serviceable but nothing to write home about and the true charm of the series lies in the subtle dance of emotions between the two main characters. It avoids both extremes of the spectrum by having believable characters with motivations that the audience can empathize with and at the same time not forcing said motivations down the audience’s throat at every possible opportunity. The relationship between Lawrence and Holo cannot be adequately described by the word “lovers” and yet romance is clearly an important part of the story. That contradiction is what makes the series interesting.
Though she takes on the form of a young girl, Holo is an ancient wolf possessing great power, wisdom and pride. She is playfully manipulative and flirtatious and yet at times vulnerable and needy. This duality makes her behaviour unpredictable and gives her character an alluring aura of sophistication. Less capable writers have long attempted to fake this aspect of feminine duality by using the tsundere archetype to varying degrees of success. Holo on the other hand is often honest with her feelings while maintaining her pride. And while I am not usually a fan of Ami Koshimizu, she has definitely done an exceptional job voicing Holo and giving personality to the old wolf’s archaic speaking habits.
Lawrence is a calm and composed young merchant whose confidence sometimes gets him into trouble. He is initially suspicious and afraid of Holo but eventually agrees to help find her way back to Yoitsu, her northern home to which she seeks to return. As he finds himself emotionally drawn towards Holo, he is stopped by his rational merchant self and the futility of the situation he faces. Holo is a giant wolf who has lived for hundreds of years and will for hundreds more, while he is a mere mortal whose life span is but a blink for her. That kind of puts a damper on things. (Kind of reminds me of Banner of the Stars.)
Still, in spite of himself, Lawrence grows attached to the whimsical Holo, a sentiment that is reciprocated in turn by Holo. But though they clearly treasure each other dearly, they lack the courage to confront the situation head-on, leaving it hanging ambiguously in the air. As they say on Facebook, the relationship is “complicated”. Their journey to Yoitsu becomes an allegory for the magical time they share enjoying each other’s company until the inevitable eventuality when the fairytale comes to an end. In that sense, the love that they share is not unlike the many such stories in real-life where the challenges and constraints of adult life are ever ready to bring another fairytale romance down to earth.
Maybe I am just a hopeless romantic who is reading too much into everything, but Spice and Wolf strikes me as a show which pays a surprising amount of attention to details. Every interaction between Lawrence and Holo is packed with tension and unspoken expectations. Ah, I just love that.
Give Spice and Wolf a try if you enjoy character-heavy storytelling. And there’s no need to be intimidated by the “economics” aspect of the show, because (un)fortunately there is really precious little of it to be had.