Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Spice and Wolf - Season Two (2009)

Introduction:

After taking the unusual and engaging trip with Holo and Lawrence in the first season of Spice and Wolf I was ready for another trip. The world created in the first season of the fantasy series was intriguing, and so were the economic based storylines. But I had grown really attached to these characters and was looking forward to seeing where their adventures took them and if they would grow closer or get pulled apart.

Summary:

Kraft Lawrence (Jun Fukuyama) the crafty peddler and Holo (Ami Koshimizu) the wolf goddess traveling in human form, continue their journey to the north. While the final goal is to reach Holo’s homeland, Lawrence isn’t going to shy away from any deals on the way there. At their first stop, they meet a dashing young merchant, Amarti (Saeko Chiba) who falls head over heels for Holo. Soon he engages Lawrence in a contest of merchant guile involving pyrite. The winner will end up traveling with Holo!

After managing to wiggle out of that predicament, the duo arrives in the far north in a city where fur trading is king, and the powerful church hangs like vulture over everything. They meet a sly merchant, Eve (Romi Park) who entices Lawrence with a very lucrative deal. If it works out, Lawrence will finally have enough money (and a location) for a full-fledged shop. He will achieve his life long dream, but does that mean the end of his journey with Holo?

Good Points:
  • Maintains the easy going tone of the first season
  • Holo and Lawrence have some great interactions in this season
  • Introduces some interesting supporting characters and antagonists

Bad Points:
  • The two storylines seem too thin to be supporting the full season
  • Dialogue sequences go on way too long and too wordy
  • Lots of reuse of animation from previous episodes and season 1

Overall:

Sadly, this season was a bit of a disappointment. At its core, the characters take an interesting journey, but the execution turns it into a slog. Pacing gets dragged down by too much dialogue that spins its wheels. The resolution feels unsatisfying. There are some good moments and whole episodes that work really well. But it just doesn’t quite measure up to the first season. I’d say, you could pass on this one, unless you are thirsting for more from these characters.

Scores(out of 5)
Visuals: 3
Sound: 3
Acting: 4
Script: 3
Music: 4
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 3
Total:  3

In Depth Review

Well if there is a festival, you know they have to dance.
When I watched and reviewed the first season of Spice and WolfI mentioned that the pacing of the show was very relaxed. It allowed us to enjoy time with Lawrence and Holo, and absorb the world around them. There were plenty of scenes of the duo traveling the countryside, talking about all kinds of things including religion, economics and philosophy. It was interesting to hear two such different characters (a mortal merchant looking to start his own shop, and a immortal wolf goddess who was used to being served by humans), discuss a wide array of topics and get to know each other. It was the charm of the show. The plots involving moneymaking and negotiations gave it a unique flavor that made the series feel different from most other fantasy anime.

I’m restating this, because Spice and Wolf IIseems to take certain aspects of the first season, but modifies them in ways that hurt the overall series. 

What remains the same is the core relationship between Lawrence and Holo. The writing for these two remains excellent. They are more comfortable with each other, and this allows for some easy going teasing and banter. Some of the challenges to the relationship presented by the amorous Amarti and the scheming Eve twist the relationship in ways that force our duo to make choices they may not be ready to face.

Amarth get's bold about gold (fool's gold).
I like how Lawrence learns that Holo’s homeland may no longer exist, and that centuries have passed since she has been there. He knows this will devastate her, and so he has to decide if and when he should reveal this to her. Because he hesitates in telling her, he also must grapple with the fact that he is really fallen for Holo, maybe not as dramatically as Amarti has, and comparing himself with Amarti doesn’t do any good either. 

In that same storyline, Holo is on the receiving end of Amarti’s affections and this puts her relationship with Lawrence in stark contrast. And when she discovers Lawrence is hiding a secret from her, things take a turn. Yes it is a bit soapy, but it really evolves the relationship even further.

"No you can trust me completely..."
The second story arc in Spice and Wolf II puts Lawrence’s ultimate goal in plain sight. Sure he has to deal with the sly Eve, who is obviously up to no good. If anything goes wrong the church is going to come down hard on Lawrence. And if they find Holo, that could be even worse. Even if Lawrence gets the shop, then he will have to end his relationship with Holo (and their journey together). Holo won’t let him give up his dream, and seems ready to end it all with this deal. Again, some great character development moments built into this storyline.

I will also add that the music in this season continues to be very effective and appropriate to the series. Some of the pieces may be borrowed from the first season, but it all works well to build the atmosphere. There is an interesting bit of string dissonance used when Eve is scheming. Unfortunately there is only one variation of it, and in certain episodes Eve does a lot of scheming, so you get a little sick of the piece after a while.

The opening and ending J-pop pieces fit Spice and Wolf II as well. The opening song, Mitsu no Yoakeperformed by one of my favorite J-pop singers, Akino Arai. Her lovely voice gives a wistful performance of this melodic piece. The end song brings Rocky Chack back with Perfect World. While not as catchy as the previous end credit song, it is a nice little tune.

Midnight meeting the Leper's quarter, what
could go wrong?
So lets dive into what doesn’t work for the sequel series. First off it looks like the budget was reduced, or the new animation studio that stepped in for this season wasn’t quite up to the task – because Spice and Wolf II reuses a lot of animation. Sometimes it brings up images from earlier in the season. Sometimes it flashes back to scenes from the first season. And sometimes it flashes back to earlier in the episode. To quote Tom Servo “You can’t flash back to something that happened five minutes ago!” Many times the flashback animation doesn’t seem connected to what is happening on screen (which is dialogue 98% of the time). It feels arbitrary most of the time and it adds almost nothing to dialogue. Even worse, some of those flashbacks to season one are pretty much the same set of images from the very first episode. I swear we see Holo standing naked in the cart about 15 times in flashbacks.

There could be two reasons to include all these visual flashbacks. The first is because the animation budget wasn’t too large, so they compensated by adding these moments to keep costs down. The other is to try to add some visual interest to the long, drawn out dialogues that were spilling out all over the place. I’ll get to those in a moment.

"I told you darn peddlers to get off my lawn!"
The rest of the animation does a pretty good job of creating mood. The two cities that Lawrence and Holo journey to are dark and dower locals. They feel imposing and dangerous. While the first city does have a festival going on (that seems to last for days and days), the joy is contrasted with the night vistas and dark stonework. Much of the dialogue happens in darkened rooms and shadowy corners. We don’t get those lovely pastoral scenes in this series. The second story arc in Spice and Wolf II is even darker visually. The port city seems to be in a constant state of gloom, and the inn where our duo spends a lot of time is nearly 100% shadow. It gives the storyline a very uneasy feeling, and works to its advantage. It really feels like this whole deal that Lawrence is working with Eve could go south very quickly. 

One of the few bright scenes in the season.
In the end the visuals feel very dark in tone. It mostly works, and when we do get some brighter moments, like the dance at the festival or the greenhouse later in the season, they really stand out. I appreciate giving the season it’s own tone and mood, but I did miss the open fields, sprawling forests and towering mountains of the first season.

But the animation can only work with the script, and that is where Spice and Wolf II runs into its biggest problem. The first season spread out a series of adventures for Lawrence and Holo to engage in. We had about four mini arcs over the span of 13 episodes. Here we have two storylines spread out over 12 episodes. While there are some great character interactions built into these storylines, it becomes apparent that there just isn’t enough material for 12 episodes. You have quite a number of episodes where everything seems to stop cold while Lawrence talks with another character (not Holo) for scene after scene, going on and on about the same topic, but not really giving us new insight. It feels like padding

Feathers take on a whole new meaning when
Diana is around.
Sometimes I like the discussion as it starts. Lawrence’s conversations with Diana (Akeno Atanabe) are very interesting. Especially when you learn that she is a bird goddess that is living in human form. Obviously parallels between her life and Holo’s make for interesting character examination. But it takes so long to get to that point, and so little is done with it. Instead, Lawrence spends nearly two episodes worth of time making his way to Diana while pondering his fate (with tons of flashbacks) and then talks with Diana about stories and how she gathers them and the philosophy of storytelling (all fascinating topics, but treated here with a lot of words not adding up to much). Again, many many flashbacks occur during these discussions, and the sum total of what we get is that Diana and Lawrence agree about storytelling, and discuss what she found out about Holo’s homeland. 

"Oh I know exactly what you're thinking... dirty mortal."
Yes, I got really frustrated with the pacing in Spice and Wolf II. I appreciated the relaxed storytelling of the first season, because it felt like we were building the world and the character relationships. Here, it feels like padding dialogue in dark uninteresting rooms. Anime writing can go this way often. Even my favorite series Neon Genesis Evangeiion is notorious for long scenes of characters monologuing about philosophy and psychology. But the difference is that in NGE, the monologues or dialogues feel like they are leading us to a revelation with these characters. The series is a psychological examination of Shinji and his battle against fear. In Spice and Wolf II the dialogues just feel like endless words leading to a whole lot of nothing. The key moments occur between Holo and Lawrence, but the two don’t end up spending all that much time together. What moments we do get are the best of the season. I even like the final discussion at the end of the series where they define what they mean to each other.

Divine wrath!
Let’s look at the ending for a moment. It feels rushed, as if they were hoping to build up to something else, but realized they weren’t getting a third season, and so they just kind of threw in a final dialogue, and had the characters walk off into a city besieged by riots. The key moment where the two finally come to grips with how much they really care about each other is handled well. But I wanted something a bit more, some kind of moment where Holo finally arrives home, with Lawrence at her side. What gets hinted at, in the discussions between Diana the chronicler, and Lawrence never gets a payoff. It is a real missed opportunity, since storytelling, lies, and deception are key thematic elements in the second season. The series ends with a bittersweet finale, I appreciate that. But if doesn’t satisfy, not because we don’t get “happily ever after”, but because it feels rushed. Spice and Wolf as a series is anything other than rushed. 

I did enjoy my second trip with Lawrence and Holo. There are some really good character moments for sure. And fans of the first season will probably enjoy those. But this is one of those instances where the potential feels wasted. Tighter storytelling (maybe throwing in another arc with Holo and Lawrence arriving in Holo’s homeland) would have helped this season immensely. It would have resolved the flashback issues, the longwinded meandering dialogue, and given us an ending that felt earned and satisfying. If you are a die-hard fan, you’ll probably enjoy this season, but everyone else can stick with the first season, the novels and manga that are out there. 

Divine understanding.
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1 comment:

  1. Uncertainty about how long a series will last can throw off a writer’s game. An unexpected notice of cancellation can leave loose ends untied or result in a sudden rush. Joss Whedon handled the situation by twice tidying up series after they went off the air: the movie “Serenity” to wrap up “Firefly” and the two-part “Epitaph” to wrap up “Dollhouse.” “Epitaph” didn’t air but is included in the DVD & Blu-ray sets.

    I suppose that ending for Lawrence and the wolf was in the cards.

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