Spice and Wolf Review

The partnership at the centre of Spice and Wolf is an unusual one even for Japanese anime in the fantasy genre. Set in the usual generic middle-European medieval setting, we have on one side a peddler, a wandering trader of goods to outlying villages who is known for his trading in quality spices, and on the other we have… well, a wolf of sorts, but in the guise of a young woman. If the relationship between the pair is somewhat uneasy at first, it reflects however the wider themes being examined in the series, which uses its setting and its characters to contrast the world of men, commerce and religion with the world of nature, tradition and paganism. While this might sound like a good idea that lends a bit more depth to the characterisation, the series unfortunately gives too much emphasis to the metaphorical level of the relationship, takes its theme a little too seriously, and forgets to actually make the characters and their exploits fun and exciting at the same time.

The team of Spice and Wolf come together in the first episode, when the peddler Lawrence arrives in the village of Pasloei bearing nothing more than a consignment of furs, but crucially, a sheaf of wheat. He has arrived at harvest time when the villagers are celebrating the season by giving thanks to Holo, the wolf god who governs the success of the crop. It may be a tradition, but Holo is very real, and as the god of rich harvests she is able to use the sheaf of wheat in Lawrence’s wagon to convey herself out of the village into the wider world, transforming herself into the semi-human shape of a beautiful young woman with pointed ears and a red bushy tail (looking more like a fox than a wolf, but anyway…). Lawrence doesn’t seem too put out by this or by the arrangement, even when he agrees to share the journey and his room with Holo, who likes to walk around naked a lot during their initial encounters, the two of them passing themselves off as man and wife at inns along the way.

The reason why they agree to work together initially - there might be more to the relationship later - is that they have a lot to learn from each other. Holo is aware that the world of ancient tradition, where nature holds power, is giving way to the ways of men and commerce. Lawrence wants to get on in the world where knowledge is power in the hands of someone who knows how to read and manipulate the trading market, and he finds that the ancient wisdom of a wolf-god might just give him a little bit of an edge - to say nothing of protection when he comes up against some rather more unscrupulous dealers. The rival merchants, trading companies and associations however don’t pose as much of a problem to Lawrence and Holo as the church, who hold an almost unassailable place in this society and have considerable power. They are unlikely to tolerate any threat that confronts them in terms of influence through money that Lawrence poses, or indeed the threat to their belief system that Holo the wolf-god represents.

There’s clearly potential in this dynamic arrangement and certainly some real-world relevance, but - initially at least - Spice and Wolf spends far too long on expounding the dry theory of finance and economics to the detriment of the adventure. Holo displays very few wolf-like or indeed god-like characteristics, and instead appears to be nothing more than an innocent sounding-board for Lawrence to educationally explain the background of business methodology relating to currency exchange rates, bartering, trade, tariffs and the concept of profit and loss. Their first adventure relates to Lawrence getting involved in insider trading and speculating on the devaluation of one range of silver coin currency, each episode consisting of tedious business talking, plotting and economic theory, only to be enlivened eventually by Holo revealing her true form and the extent of her powers when the deal turns nasty. This first arc would seem to set the pattern for the series - the second involving a shepherd Nora exploring other areas of investment, loan repayment and employment issues - although with each successful business dealing, the series should gather momentum and, one hopes, eventually leave behind all the talky, educational stuff.

At the moment however, there’s little to get excited about in the early part of the series. It’s not just the storyline - which doesn’t exactly have you gripped - but the characters don’t really display any compelling characteristics either. It’s hard to relate to the hopes and ambitions of either of these figures, and it’s difficult to even understand the nature of their relationship, which isn’t convincingly established. With some holding of hands and a growing closeness, it clearly has ambitions however to push this into a romantic area. The animation style reflects the overall tone of the subject, breathtakingly detailed in the backgrounds - the countryside and medieval villages looking terrific - but the figures of the main characters are relatively simplistic. The character design and voice acting isn’t really strong enough to make the dry dialogue sparkle or breathe any kind of life or personality into the characters (the English-language dub even less so), the animation remaining fairly static with little dynamism, movement or action for the majority of the time. At this stage, it’s hard to get involved with the characters or excited about a peddler and a wolf-god’s adventures in medieval economic theory.

Spice and Wolf: Complete Series One is released by Manga Entertainment as a two-disc set, containing the first 13 episodes of the series, spread across two dual-layer discs. The release is in PAL format and encoded for Region 2.

The series is presented widescreen enhanced at a ratio of 16:9 and the image quality is excellent. It could hardly be faulted for anything other than the fact that it’s not High Definition. The colours and tones are fine across the range, handling darkened, candle-lit interiors well, but being particularly spectacular in the colours and lighting of the countryside. There are no noticeable issues with macroblocking or artefacts (although some minor banding may be evident during fades at the end of scenes) and movements are relatively smooth with no interlacing. The actual animation of movement itself isn’t quite so smooth, but that’s not an issue with the transfer, which is stable.

The audio tracks are Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 and English Dolby Digital 5.1, both of which are fine, the sounds clear and well-toned. The voices in the English dub seem to match the characters relatively well, but I found them a little bit more lacking in personality, mainly on account of the dry and unrealistic dialogue they have to recite. English subtitles are optional and are yellow.

The only Extra Features are the standard Textless Opening and Textless Closing on Disc 2. It might have been more useful to provide a translation of the Japanese/Chinese credits, since there is no information in English on the director, animation team or the voice actors.

Spice and Wolf covers the basic principles of finance, banking and economics well, taking it right back to its roots in trading to put it into practical easy-to-understand terms, without making it overly simplistic, and successfully showing that those basic principles are still relevant today. What it doesn’t manage to do, at this stage, is find characters or storylines that are strong and entertaining enough on their own terms, and you aren’t going to enjoy an anime series that just seems to be lecturing you. You may however find yourself warming to the characters of Lawrence and Holo as the series continues, and if it manages to get the dry economic theory out of the way, there’s always the possibility - as there is with most anime series - that it could always turn itself around and surprise you.

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Last updated: 07/08/2018 01:54:09

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