Saturday, March 31, 2018

Spice and Wolf – Season One (2008)


When it comes to fantasy anime, you have a set of tropes that usually come into play. Sure the setting may be medieval inspired (European or Japanese) but at some point laser guns and robots will appear. Someone will end up wielding a sword at least as big as they are (usually larger). And if there are elves in the story they will have super long pointed ears. But this anime goes in a much different direction.


Kraft Lawrence (Jun Fukuyama) is a smalltime peddler in this medieval land. He usually barters his goods for ones with greater value and then obtains surprising amounts of profit for his long travels. One day he stops in a familiar village as they are wrapping up their harvest festival. Before the church really spread this village worshiped a wolf goddess who would favor them with wondrous harvests. These days the folks of the town go through the motions, not really believing, but not willing to anger the goddess.

Good idea, because Holo (Ami Koshimizu) is still around. This long-lived wolf goddess has gotten bored with the little town and decides to take up the peddler’s life. She transforms into the guise of a young woman and teams up with Lawrence, much to his chagrin. But the two work well together. Lawrence is business savvy and knows how to spot a good opportunity. Holo can read people (including Lawrence) very well and uses this to their advantage. Along the way they will encounter a currency manipulation plot, a bad deal for armor, and Holo’s nemesis – a shepherd. In the end will Lawrence and Holo make a profit, fall in love or maybe both?

Good Points:
  • Holo and Lawrence are great characters that work well together
  • The laid back pacing makes for an easy viewing experience
  • The conflicts that revolve around being a merchant make for a refreshing change

Bad Points:
  • Some of the financial scheming is explained very quickly and may lose some viewers
  • Very little action in the series at all
  • Doesn’t really have an overarching narrative, but weaves from adventure to adventure

This series was a great change of pace. Holo is a fun character and her interaction and banter with Lawrence are what keep you coming back to see what happens next. Conflicts are never very intense, but they are atypical of what you find in most fantasy anime. The animation is quite lovely and really gives the world a unique pastoral feel. Looking forward to returning to these characters in the second season.

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

In Depth Review

On the road for fun and profit.
I heard about Spice and Wolf when it first made it to DVD nearly ten years ago. It sounded like a unique and lighthearted tale that was different from much of the fantasy anime I’d experienced. I’ve had it on my radar since then and was pleased to see it appear on Hulu (both seasons). I finally dove in, hoping it was able to live up to the hype.

Hype is really too strong a word for Spice and Wolf. The series is mellow, easy going and for the most part a story about a growing friendship that covers 13 episodes. Yes there are some intense moments in the story, and the world the characters inhabit can be dangerous. But for the most part this series travels along the road slowly but letting the viewer take in the atmosphere and the relationship it is building.

The focus to the series is the two main characters. Lawrence is a pragmatic man with a keen eye for details and the ability to see how these details can be exploited to his financial advantage. But he is not without feelings. In fact his empathy get the pair in trouble, and Holo accuses him of being too kind hearted. Lawrence is obviously taken with Holo, but knows full well that this is some kind of immortal being he is dealing with. The way he attempts to navigate their growing relationship is charming and amusing. He makes the perfect straight man for the more mercurial goddess.

Don't try pulling a fast one on Holo, she got ears like
a wolf... literally.
But the wolf of Spice and Wolf, isn’t your typical over the top anime girlfriend. This is a creature that is hundreds (or thousands) of years old. While she looks like a young woman her experience and keen senses give her advantages over the “youngsters” around her. But she is still the spirit of a wolf, and as such sometimes those instincts overpower her more human aspects. So when she finds something she enjoys eating, apples for example, she will just keep eating and eating them until she makes herself sick. She can be greedy. Other times she can take offense to seemingly minor issues. But she will often toy with Lawrence, teasing him with performances as an ideal partner, before mocking how gullible he is. But through it all, we see how lonely she has become and how much she appreciates Lawrence. By the time we hit episode 13 the two really understand each other and it is great to have that kind of character evolution.

Lawrence is just a nice guy in a love triangle
with a wolf and capitalism.
The other interesting element of the series is the world created in Spice and Wolf. Modeled after medieval Europe before gunpowder was introduced, we have a society in the grip of a powerful monotheistic church. There are trade guilds that wield power over merchants. We see how different kingdoms use different coins (with varying weights) and how this impacts trade as well as currency schemes when one king tries to obtain financial power over others. The world feels like a real place because of these details. But I also enjoy the art style, especially in the open road where we see the lovely countryside or the ominous mountains that loom above the characters. While this isn’t top tier animation, it works very well in the context of the show.

He should have known that a shepherd would cause a
problem for his wolf.
I watched the series in Japanese and most of the cast was very good. Koshimizu makes Holo very appealing and does a great job with a character with so many facets. Fukuyama matches her with his even approach to Lawrence. You can’t help but smile when he gets annoyed or befuddled by Holo’s latest scheme.

I enjoyed the score to the series. It keeps mostly in a medieval style with some lovely a cappella vocals taking over at key moments. It works well in context and adds to the atmosphere of the show. I also like both the songs used in the credits. Tabi no Tochu performed by Natsumi Kiyoura is a melodic piece that sets the opening mood. The Wolf Whistling Song is a cute jaunty tune performed by Rocky Chack. It has charming lyrics and works well with the end credit animation.

"Does this bother you? I'm totally touching you."
On some level I can’t imagine Spice and Wolf working. It seems at times too simplistic in concept or too obscure in execution to really gel. But it does. Part of it is the way the relationship builds over the course of the episodes. The series was constructed with a keen eye to making it all flow together, even if there isn’t a real antagonist for the whole series. Instead you get mini-adventures that last a few episodes. This gives us enough time to hang out with Holo and Lawrence. The characters are the focus and because they are so well realized it brings you back for more.

An atypical anime for me, and miles away from something like Log Horizon or Attack on Titan, but shows that fantasy stories can take many shapes and be uniquely entertaining. In some circles Spice and Wolf is considered a classic, I can see why. I’m looking forward to the second season and where it takes our two entrepreneurs.

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"Here's to good friends. Tonight is kinda special!"


  1. Good review, but I can hardly watch this stuff anymore. I find it too clichéd for the most part (mostly all the exposition a lot of the characters go into ie. stares into the distance and relates some past story or whatever), and also gets to be to cutesy for my taste, which is not to say I can't appreciate some older anime I still enjoy.

    1. Yeah this one is certainly an acquired taste. I enjoyed it quite a bit, but because it was so different from the fantasy anime I've seen in the past. It does hinge more on the romance angle, and when you look at it in that way, it does follow some of the medium's cliches in that genre. But overall, it did enough stuff differently and well, that I enjoyed it quite a bit. The characters really make the series.

      But yeah the backstory moments in series can be a bit much. A lot of times, less is more. But I get the feeling that the writers are so enamored with the characters backstory that they end up going in the direction of over explaining.

  2. Yes, it's really hard to strike just the right note when dealing with an immortal goddess...or a wolf for that matter.

    1. Yeah and the combo of the two proves to be very difficult for Lawrence to navigate. But he managed it for the first season.