Well, it’s May of 2017. You know what that means. Convention season is nearly upon us. Right now it’s less than two weeks until Anime Central, the biggest anime/manga convention in the Midwest. And what better way to ring in the season than covering the anime that’s a tribute to crummy cosplay.
“Spice and Wolf”
Speaking of Anime Central, it seems every year I go there they end up really pushing a new anime or manga with the hopes it’ll end up being big. Some of them, like “Hetalia: Axis Powers”, end up following through. Others like this one…er…not so much. For me personally, while I appreciate romance being a good part of a story if it’s relatable and heartwarming, romance in anime/manga, especially a series devoted to it, is something I tend to avoid like the plague. I’ve only really ever seen two romance series: “Please Teacher!” (which I may get to one of these days…) and “Spice and Wolf”.
This anime is technically two seasons, but considering the fact that both seasons are 13 episodes, leading to your standard 26 episode series…yeah, it’s a one -season. The setting is purely fictional but very reality-inspired, appearing to be locales in Northern and Central Europe in a time and political climate vaguely around the post Middle Ages. A major factor in this universe is “the Church”, but although it has a similar hierarchy as the Roman Catholic Church, they refer to God a lot, and their associated religious orders are major players, the absence of crucifixes and referring to what could be statues of Mary as “goddess” indicates this is more of a parallel universe to real world places and things, similar to the normal setting itself.
The plot centers around a traveling merchant, or peddler, named Lawrence. While conducting business in one of the last remaining pagan worshiping towns, in particular one that venerates a wolf goddess of fertility named Holo, he gets a rather shocking surprise that evening to find that Holo herself has taken human form and is sleeping in his cart. After a bit of a rocky start, Lawrence eventually works out a “contract” with her to take her to her home far in the north, and until that time she’ll be living with him as his travelling companion. This is a little rough on Lawrence. Being a travelling peddler, his livelihood depends on constantly meeting and talking with people, analyzing them for clues on how to make better and more profitable deals and disarming them with his wordplay, and now he suddenly finds himself not only in the unusual position of having an attractive young girl following him around everywhere but, worse than that, the fact that even in human form Holo always has wolf ears and a large bushy wolf tail.
So the plot centers on Lawrence and Holo travelling from town to town and conducting mercantile business, all while having occasional arguments, running afoul of local trouble, and, most of all, constantly getting into wars of words with each other in which either one tries to tease the other to show they’re the wittier of the two. And…that’s pretty much it.
It’s actually rather awkward. The series feels like it has a definite beginning and a middle, but…rather than an ending, it sort of just stops. Of course, if you see the series and final episode, one could make the argument that was the intention all along, but…no spoilers.
So what did I think?
When I saw this series being advertised around Anime Central, I expected something far more dramatic and fantastic. I also expected something far more risque, since most of the artwork around the convention, in typical anime fashion, focused on Holo when she’s nude. (And like I said, Holo is probably one of the easiest cosplays to do, as all the cosplayer has to do is put on wolf (or even fox) ears and a tail…and there you go.) The series, content wise, was actually quite the opposite. Aside from the first couple episodes, the most the viewer will ever see of Holo nude is, really, in the opening theme. She usually sleeps with all of her clothes on, even. However, content wasn’t what I picked this up for. I expected it to be a bit cute and energetic and heartwarming with bits of the supernatural and fantastic all over the place.
As it turns out though, there really isn’t anything that amazing or supernatural about it either. There’s a handful of times throughout the series where we get into something magic or mythological, but honestly? Almost all of it is grounded in reality. More grounded in reality than most animes I’ve ever seen.
The landscapes and cityscapes are beautifully animated and detailed. From the clothes to the streets to the environment, you get a feel for the size and scope of this world. You can see the dampness, the dryness, the cold, and the warmth from scene to scene. That’s one of the big parts of the series.
Plot-wise, as you might have already guessed, this series is a romance. Yet I have to give it credit for being only in part a romance, and for putting it right in the middle of something rather unexpected: mercantilism. This series devotes a lot of time to mercantilism. Speculating, price inflation and deflation, buying and selling on futures, and, above all, the idea that what a merchant or trader really deals in is not the price of a product but rather the value of a product, which is really two different things that we nowadays don’t really think about going to and from Walmart. And…it’s honestly kind of ‘smart’ in that regard.
Mercantilism, and the idea of being able to read people, make deals, takes risks, and survive from day to day by your own wits, is the real core of this series. Not just in the constant trading, but in the characters of Lawrence and Holo themselves. They’re constantly ribbing each other, teasing each other, trying to trap each other in speech and manipulate each other. Basically their favorite pastime is sharpening their wits against one another before applying them to the world (“As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” Proverbs 27:17). Of course, there’s also real-life mercantilism too, and lots of it and all of the concepts associated with it. If someone was going into being a trader, I’d almost recommend this anime to start getting an idea of how it works. I’m sure the stock market doesn’t operate nearly in the same way as merchant trading did in those days, but a lot of the basic ideas behind everything is the same. In fact, this series is so devoted to these things that this is really one of the least action-orientated series I’ve ever watched. Instead, I’ll go so far as to say this is one series you want to watch dubbed, because so much is going on in the dialogue and on screen that you constantly have to keep your eyes and ears open to catch it all. This is a series that, plotwise, tries to pull the wool over your eyes just like the crafty traders. I compliment it for being so surprisingly intelligent in that regard.
Unfortunately, those two are the only things that are really good going for it. To me? What drags it down is ultimately the romance.
The issue is that this is your standard anime/manga romance played out with characters doing things that don’t really help to make up for it, and who aren’t really likable to begin with. The constant teasing and tricking that they do of each other, after a while, stops coming off as a playful game and starts just looking…mean. Lawrence himself isn’t much to write home about. He’s shrewd about trading and clever at his work, but…that’s it. Holo continuously tries to point out that he’s “a good person”, but, aside from his interactions with Holo, that really doesn’t come out. Because he’s so shrewd and so eager to make money, a lot of his actions are borderline morally questionable, and some just plain cross the line. In the second arc, there’s no dancing around the point–he exploits a nice girl to make himself a profit. And the only justification we ever get from that act is Holo throwing out some balderdash about her being “stronger than she looks” and that she can get herself out of any trouble they cause.
So…the moral is go ahead and use people if they’ll be alright afterward?
Look, if you’ve watched one romance anime, you know the drill. You know every single trope you’re going to see. If the guy catches the girl in a compromising position, he’s being jealous and is a fool for doubting her. If the girl catches the guy in a compromising position, he’s a dirty cheater who needs to give her a reason to come back. If the guy says something careless that hurts the girl’s feelings, he should be ashamed of himself and do anything possible to comfort her and atone. If the girl says something careless that hurts the guy’s feelings, he’s too sensitive and he should have realized it was just a joke…and by getting upset about it he’s a jerk for hurting her feelings anyway. If the girl takes out her anger on the guy and says or does something emotionally hurtful, it’s because she’s in deep pain and needs the guy’s warmth and compassion, and he should be sensitive to that and respond accordingly as quickly as he can. If the guy takes out her anger on the girl and says or does something emotionally hurtful, it’s because he’s an a-hole. Bottom line: the guy is always wrong; the girl can never be wrong.
This anime has all that and then some. Like I said, the two of them are constantly teasing each other to try and outwit each other in wordplay, but of the two Holo is the one who makes it the most mean spirited. In addition to showing off her cleverness, she almost always calls Lawrence stupid or dull while bragging about herself as being the “wise wolf”. Whenever Lawrence tries to make a decision on her behalf that considers her independence and demeanor, any decision, ANY one at all…it’s always, always, always something she gives him a physical scolding for and calls him an idiot about, even if it’s something she would have gone along with. At no point in the series does Holo really become sensitive about other people and, aside from Lawrence, there’s really no point in which she becomes empathic toward other people. She always sees them as stupid and inferior to her and doesn’t hide it. To her, there is no moral quandary ever about exploiting people or playing on their emotions to get her own way. To her, if people don’t want to be exploited, they should be smarter and should learn a lesson from the experience.
Now, if Holo applied this sort of standard universally, including on herself, that would be one thing. But no, she takes that double-standard I outlined above and ramps it to 11. It’s never ok when it happens to her. Just as one case in point, one of her favorite things to constantly berate and insult Lawrence about are claims that he wants her to act like a helpless, weak, innocent little girl so he can get a thrill out of comforting her, because “that’s how he likes women”. So take a wild guess what happens whenever Holo is going through emotional distress or sadness and Lawrence doesn’t instantly jump to hold her and comfort her? That’s right…she flies into a bigger rage that he’s not more caring and responsive. Even the rare occasions in which she shows remorse for what she’s done to hurt Lawrence are rather half-hearted. Her usual method of “apologizing” is doing something to try and make amends to Lawrence behind his back and then going off on her own without a word or a look. I’ve done stuff like that before myself in the past, and do you know what that is? That’s being too prideful to face up to your mistake and admit you were wrong, let alone apologize.
I dealt with this pretty well for the first half of the series, especially in the second arc when Holo was faced with the realization that her often selfish and self-centered behavior (because, in addition to everything else I mentioned, Lawrence is constantly buying her nicer things to wear and groom herself with as well as treating her to lots of food and alcohol…leading to him also needing to put her to bed after she gets drunk every night and care for her when she’s sick) had actually potentially ruined Lawrence, she actually became apologetic and, for once, it looked like some of the anger she vented on Lawrence was really her being furious with herself. But that went away in the second season really quickly when Holo took out her emotional distress on Lawrence, saying a number of accusations that were both hurtful and all together untrue, and all before going off on a scheme behind his back that made him feel like crud for not treating her better and led to a multi-episode arc in which he thought he had to regain her trust and affection, where other characters were urging him to go after her and “gamble everything on her”, and forced him through a great deal of distress and heartache. And for what, you may ask?
Another physical scolding. Because Lawrence was supposed to realize that Holo meant this:
“I acted totally inappropriately when you’ve been nothing but good to me and I said a lot of hurtful things that were totally untrue because I was emotionally distraught. I’m sorry and I hope you forgive me. To make it up to you, I’m going to go along with your current scheme and look completely, even to you, like I’ve left you to side with that man you’re trying to get money out of, and I’ll make it look so convincing that I’ll even have a document written that I intend to marry him as soon as you release me as a legal guardian, when in reality what I’ll be doing is going behind your back and buying up the very goods you’re trying to get in order to make your latest money-making deal work and ensure everything works out for both of us…but of course I won’t try to tell any of this out in the open at any time because someone could be watching us and the illusion that I’ve gone over to him has to be perfect.”
When she said this:
(Staring blankly into space and half-vacantly muttering in such a way that this could apply to anything) “…sorry…”
Because…you know, obviously. You can’t win with Holo.
In addition to all that, the fact of the matter is this series is a bit too hard to follow. I had to pause it multiple times and occasionally rewind in order to know what was going on. Oh, you can try to ignore the gist of everything and just know where that leaves the characters at the moment, but that’s too confusing and you lose all the drama. And, unfortunately, in spite of my best efforts, things still left me scratching my head. There’s swindling the audience and then there’s leaving them too confused to know any better.
So what we’re left with, to me, is something that’s unique and even a bit intriguing, but ultimately something that won’t really appeal to anyone who picked this up. If you expected a supernatural fantasy, you’re out of luck. If you expected your traditional romance anime, you’re out of luck. If you expected something with more action and emotion, you’re out of luck. The only way you’ll get what you paid for is if you’re someone who wanted an anime about being shrewd and clever in trading, and even then things will probably go too fast for you to catch up with. But odds are if you were looking for one to begin with, you wouldn’t start by snatching up a box set with a wolf-girl on the cover smiling sensually.
The irony is that this anime itself might be a bait and switch. Perhaps one that would make Lawrence and Holo proud.
Rating: 2 out of 5
It certainly is a unique flavor of spice, but not really the kind that will make you want to wolf it down more than once.
What You Should Do With This DVD: If you’re a romantic anime fan, watching it once won’t be a totally wasted venture. Everyone else should hope they bought it low so they can sell it high.