Spice and Wolf Review
There's not much that happens in Season II of Spice and Wolf, but that's ok. My expectations weren't particularly high after Season I, but rather were adjusted to allow for a pace that is far from typical for an anime series. It's not just the medieval setting that dictates this pace - there are plenty of sword-and-sorcery demon-slaying epics set in this period - but rather the characters themselves and the relationship between them that set the tone for how the series is developing. As one of them, Lawrence, is a travelling trader buying and selling whatever might be most profitable to take from one town to the next, and the other is a wolf god - Holo the wise wolf - in the shape of a young woman, that's an unusual team, but one that, particularly in this second season, is starting to acquire a little more charm and personality.
If the odd couple of the trader and the wolf god were a little hard to warm to initially in Season I, it was I think on account of the series being overly insistent on depicting Lawrence and Holo more as symbolic forces representing commerce and nature, exaggerating their incompatibilities, but showing that they can be made to work together for a greater good. That's all very well, but the nature of their "adventures in economic theory" didn't so much talk down to the viewer - it's a relevant subject with good educational value - as much as overshadow or neglect the development of the characters and the nature of their journey together. The opening of Season II with an Episode 0 then may recommence a very leisurely pace and not be terribly compelling, but it proves to be a good way to reacquaint the viewer with the two main characters and set the tone well for where it's going to go over the next twelve episodes.
Despite the heavy allegorical nature of the first season, a bond was clearly developing between Lawrence and Holo, and even if its nature wasn't fully established, this reflected to some extent the complexity of their backgrounds and outlooks. There was the suggestion of romantic attraction of course, but also some rivalry, a hint of jealousy, the two of them tiptoeing hesitantly around each other but also sometimes directly confrontational. Nothing was committed yet while each has something to learn from the other and for the time being, both are happy to keep the partnership going until they achieve their goals. For Lawrence, that's having enough money to establish his own settled business as a tradesman, for Holo it's finding a way back to where she originally came from many years ago, a place in the north called Yoitz, which may now not even exist any longer.
Nothing significant appears to happen in the initial episodes then, but as well as reestablishing who the characters are, what they are about and even develop them to some extent, the series also does well to depict the rather unstable nature of the medieval religious and economic situation that they are caught up in, with elements of unrest and conflict that could come into play as they make they continue to journey to the north. The main tension initially however is of the romantic kind, with neither character prepared to openly admit their mutual attraction, even though the intrusion of others provokes strong feelings of jealousy within them. Naturally, the series can't help but view even this in terms of basic economic theory, bartering coming into play, as well as manipulation of the stock markets, when an enterprising young merchant, Amarty, takes a shine to Holo and agreed to buy her out of her "contract" to Lawrence by repaying the loan she owns him.
It's typical of this series then to regard Holo as a commodity, but it manages to make this situation work well to describe the complex nature of the forces of attraction and deeper unfathomable personal motivations as well as the unpredictable nature (and modern day relevance) of an economic system that relies largely on the intangibles of credit and trust. This "adventure" is expanded upon in the second half of the series, where Holo becomes collateral in a deal to resolve protracted negotiations over the trade of furs. These two story arcs reflect the framework of the first season but, surprisingly, this time neither of the resolutions relies on Holo turning into her Wolf-God form to pull them out of the difficult situation they find themselves in. If this makes Season Two sound even less action-orientated than the previous season, it's true that this is a bit anti-climatic, but the situations are better developed and integrated with the characters, progressing them on that little bit further, while maintaining its own unique sense of pace and tension.
At the very least however, Spice and Wolf also manages to maintain the quality of its attractive artwork and show itself to be rather more subtle in its character expression than I initially thought, both in terms of the telling little gestures made by the figures, as well as in the restrained delivery of the voice actors. The background art is very impressive, not only showing tremendous detail, but also succeeding in capturing a sense of atmosphere in all its locations - whether indoor by natural firelight, outdoor in the wilds of nature, or in the dark towering narrow alleys of a medieval town. Although the character designs appear relatively simplistic when set against these backgrounds, their movements rather limited and often restricted to talking heads, there are often surprising little touches, looks and gestures that bring these characters to life, suggesting a degree of intelligence and of something much more going on behind the eyes. Combined with the growing dangers of the trip to the north, the increasing religious, economic and political conflicts, all of this suggests depths and intrigue that you'll be interested to explore further.
Spice and Wolf - Season II is released by Manga Entertainment as a two-disc set on DVD only, containing the a further 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. The image is clear and sharp, showing up the remarkable detail that has gone into the backgrounds, even if the character designs are relatively rather more simple in design. The colours and tones are fine across the range. 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. This is well up to expected standards
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. I'm warmed more to the English dub this time around, finding that it handled the subtle issues of unspoken attraction between the two main characters fairly well. It does still seem a little too restrained on occasions when something a little more expressive is called for, and the Japanese track seems to strike a better balance in this dynamic. English subtitles are of course optional and are unfortunately yellow.
In addition to the the standard Textless Opening and Textless Closing, Disc 2 also contains two 'Studying with Holo' mini-features which persist in putting across some educational value. One covers the variety and the nature of bread and wine in this medieval society, the second on the health benefits of stretching exercises - although there is some humour to be found in the unique 'Yiotz' style that Holo brings to the latter.
The progress in the relationship between Lawrence and Holo is slow in developing but it remains intriguing, as does the growing unrest that is becoming more evident in the conflict in the social, economic and political world that is vividly depicted here. There's still a tendency to put everything across in terms of economic theory, and the series is probably still too laid-back and lacking in traditional thrills, but the indications are that Spice and Wolf is building towards something bigger. At the very least, this is a beautifully animated series, that's closer to the Miyazaki style of storytelling and themes than your more traditional action-adventure fantasy anime, with enough charm and style to keep you on board for the rest of the journey.