There are some anime that convey deep meanings; there are others that are crazy masses of gags, jokes and fun. And then there is the perhaps neglected category of shows that simply tell stories for their own sake. Spice & Wolf (2008; Imagin) is one such show. It’s nothing deep, it’s not raucous and loud; it simply tells the story of two people as they live their lives and learn to understand each other.
Spice & Wolf was an infinitely pleasant watch for me. It’s a well-executed show that made its proficiency and likability evident early on. As such, I was able to simply relax while watching, confident that the story would carry me through on its own terms. For all this, I give Spice & Wolf a 7/10, with its comparative ranking in the Ongoing Anime Rankings.
Spice & Wolf is the type of show that doesn’t lend itself easily to being talked about. It truly is a simple show; there are basically only three major pieces of the show that happen the whole way through. 1) Lawrence and Holo’s relationship. 2) The medieval economics. 3) Whatever the plot is. It’s not, by any means, a complicated structure or a complicated show. While it makes for easy watching, it also makes it very difficult to talk about the show at length (or so I thought when I wrote this paragraph). There’s definitely something to be said for simplicity in storytelling (especially as I work through the current season, muddling through–perhaps overly–complicated shows like Mekaku City Actors and selector infected WIXOSS), and Spice & Wolf seems to have mastered this kind of story.
So, what is the show actually about? To my eye, thematic exploration is basically absent from Spice & Wolf, and not in a bad way. It’s not trying to divulge some great secret on life, nor is it really a primer on medieval economic and politics. Rather, it is just about the relationship. That’s all. It’s about two people and the way they relate to each other. That’s it. Really, that’s all the show wants and needs to do. Fortunately, both Lawrence and Holo are good characters, with Lawrence falling a little more out of step with conventional anime archetypes than Holo.
Lawrence first. He’s a merchant, and that’s basis of his character. It’s quite clever, actually, because using his job as his defining characteristic opens up his mental processes for our viewing. He thinks about everything, even his relationship with Holo, in terms of profit and loss. It also provides him with a concrete goal: making money, and the show never lets go of this. That’s not to say Lawrence is a bad person; he’s just a pragmatic and realistic one. The beauty of this set-up is that it provides Lawrence with space for growth as a person. Over the course of the series, he expands his interests beyond just money, and begins to consider the consequences of situations for other people. I would argue that these attitudes are absolutely contingent upon Holo’s company, as she is the first person whom Lawrence learns to care for above his own profit. Lawrence is also, because he has an actual goal to pursue, a happily active character. He schemes, makes decisions and choices, and takes action. And these motions of agency not only move along the plot, but also reveal information about Lawrence himself. Through his actions, we are allowed to see both the person he is and the person he is becoming.
Now, Holo. At square one, Holo is automatically an interesting character because of her origins as a sort of local god. Though she is hundreds of years old, she has essentially had her time frozen during her guardianship of the village of Pasloe. And so, when she emerges from her bondage and embarks on the journey with Lawrence, she maintains her pride as a creature of wisdom and longevity, as well as a certain level of naïveté about the world. As such, she is able to maintain an equal relationship with Lawrence, one where she can both give to and take from him. Like Lawrence, Holo also has her own goal (returning to the north), and again like Lawrence, her goal and her loneliness give her room to grow. She’s a fun character to watch, and almost always has the upper hand in the teasing matches she engages in with Lawrence. But, beneath all the capriciousness, we are allowed to see her fear of being left alone; very rarely spoken of in explicit terms, but always evident in the moments when she drops her guard and honestly asks for what she wants.
For me, Spice & Wolf was an experience similar to sitting outside on a warm spring day. The proficiency in the character writing ensured that every moment, even those filled with bantering, was interesting and worthwhile to listen to. It’s a confident, comforting show that invokes trust through consistency. And the relationship between Holo and Lawrence is the cool glass of lemonade that makes the whole instance special.
Before I finish off, I should also mention that I watched the majority of the show with the English dub, with J. Michael Tatum as Lawrence and Brina Palencia as Holo. I watched the first episode and the fifth episode twice, once dubbed and once subbed. Jun Fukuyama as Lawrence and Ami Koshimizu as Holo are both excellent, as are the English actors, so it really came down to preference for me. For me, the English voices just seemed to fit better with the setting, and I loved Brina Palencia’s restrained delivery as Holo. Tatum and Palencia actually sound as if they have an actual relationship, their conversations avoiding the dub pitfall of sounding like two people talking without listening to the other. You really can’t go wrong with either duo.
Spice & Wolf is a lot like Non Non Biyori; solid as a total package, but exceptional in one particular aspect. Where Non Non Biyori has its incredibly soothing effects, Spice & Wolf has Holo and Lawrence. The two of them make the show, and anyone who likes a good story and/or strong character writing should give Spice & Wolf a watch.
Reasons to Watch:
- Lawrence and Holo form one of the best partnerships/relationships I’ve seen in anime.
- Peppered with fascinating facts about the nature of medieval economics.
- Strongly and confidently written; well-done plot lines that illuminate character.