Funimation // 2008 // 312 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // April 7th, 2010
Hunting for riches more precious than gold.
It's hard to stand out in the world of anime. It's a crowded playing field full of robots, ninjas, and naked chicks, with each new show trying to up the other in some measurable aspect of nakedness, ninja attacks, or gigantic robot smackdown. Spice and Wolf: Season One takes an interesting approach to the problem by avoiding it altogether, offering up a medieval mercantile drama about economics and religion. No, seriously.
Lawrence is a travelling merchant searching for profit. He buys and sells goods and commodities, hoping to one day earn enough money to open his own shop -- the dream of every merchant. To his surprise, he opens his cart one day and finds a naked girl with the ears and tail of a wolf, asleep. Her name is Holo, and she claims to be the physical embodiment of a harvest god whom the local villagers would pray to in order to be granted plentiful crops. Unfortunately, the church has all put an end to such practices; the ritual is performed halfheartedly and in kitsch by the villagers, who no longer believe in its power.
To his astonishment, Lawrence finds himself believing Holo's amazing story, agreeing to assist her return to her homeland in the north. Holo may look like a young girl, but her being is over six hundred years old. She has a lot of experience in the ways of the world. Together, the two of them travel the land, buying and selling and chasing endless profit. Soon, they become embroiled in a complex plot involving coinage, greed, religion and politics.
I love being surprised by review titles. There is nothing about Spice and Wolf that sounds appealing on paper. It looks by all accounts to be some strange animalistic fan service drama with a scantily clad vestigial tailed girl with a thing for apples. Once you start to watch it, you realize it's actually far less exciting: a drama about currency exchange, economic policies, negotiation, bartering, and religion. Yet, somehow, it works. It works amazingly well, in fact; this is one of the better animes I've reviewed in quite some time.
Originality counts for a lot in anime, and Spice and Wolf strikes a daring path. Set in a medieval landscape with horses and knights, the series is embarrassingly free from action, violence or conflict. Save for a small sequence at the end, no one even draws a sword the entire time. Instead, we are endlessly embroiled in complex and devious feints, deceptions, and betrayals of the verbal variety as Lawrence and Holo wheel, deal, and scrape a living as peddlers. The two travel from town to town, city to city, buying and selling goods, holing up in taverns listening for gossip that could be used to turn a profit, and sharing long, languid and picturesque travels through rolling hills and countryside. Between Lawrence's naturally gifted charm and negotiation techniques, and Holo's supernatural hearing and total lack of social grace, the two compliment each other's weaknesses quite well. Romance is hinted at, but never acted upon. You'd never call Spice and Wolf: Season One a comedy, but there are some tender and amusing moments between Lawrence and Holo that will certainly make you laugh.
It's hard to put to paper exactly what makes Spice and Wolf so appealing. On paper, it seems rather dull: a merchant and a pagan god travelling from village to village, buying and selling merchandise. Maybe this is precisely the point. There are no evil spirits to destroy, no malicious villain to chase down, no nemesis manipulating scenes from afar; no dragons, no robots, no ninjas. Pretty much any anime cliché you can come up with, Spice and Wolf avoids it entirely. It is confusing at first, because the brain cannot understand, but soon becomes endearing and refreshing. Who knew that a ten minute discussion about currency exchange rates could be so...interesting?
Still, you have to approach this show from the right perspective. This isn't a fan service show. There's no action, no blood, and no violence. This is an anime for people who have grown weary of such things and want something new, something meaningful and genuine. The enjoyment comes from watching Lawrence and Holo as their bond grows, slowly and delicately through each successful business transaction or deception. Holo is brash and impulsive but cunning; Lawrence is good-natured and even-tempered, but reckless when driven by greed. An inexorable bond develops between them, slowly and naturally. It's all the more impressive considering the relatively short thirteen episodic run. You could call it anime for a mature audience, but that would set absolutely the opposite of the expectation being cultivated here. Truly, you will be surprised how riveting a dramatic narrative about devalued currency, merchant guilds, and market forces can be in the right hands.
The presentation here is very strong; colors are vibrant and saturated, detail is sharp and there is no print damage noticeable. Black levels are deep and white levels are crisp. A small amount of edge enhancement issues and aliasing can be detected if you really go poking around for it, but all told, this is one of the better Funimation releases I've reviewed in terms of visual quality. Audio is your standard Funimation offering: 5.1 Surround in English, 2.0 Stereo in Japanese. The native 2.0 track is okay, but the dialogue is a bit on the tinny side compared to the English dub, which rounds things out smoothly. From what I can tell, Funimation uses like four voiceover actors in every single production, and Spice and Wolf: Season One is no exception. The surround sound treatment is nice, and gives the presentation a more punchy and bass-heavy treatment, but the rear channels go pretty much unutilized. This is a quiet and dialogue-driven storyline with little in the way of excitement, so the only action in the back is some subtle environmental details in crowed or city sequences.
Extras are predictably slim; we get textless songs and trailers.
Only commissioned for a single series run in its initial debut in Japan (a second series and OVA were later produced), Spice and Wolf suffers from an unfortunate truncation in terms of its narrative. The storyline doesn't exactly hang so much as dangle tantalizingly in the horizon, out of reach of audiences, which this reviewer found frustrating for the simple reason that he wanted it to continue.
An introspective and unexpected odyssey, Spice and Wolf personifies everything about anime that is worth preserving, cherishing, and sharing with people who hate the genre: subtle character development, complex storylines, and a maturity and sophistication that simply cannot be reproduced in any other media genre. It may look strange on paper, but Spice and Wolf: Season One is something truly original and unique in the anime world. This may be the highest praise of all.
A delightful "not guilty."
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Japanese)
Running Time: 312 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Textless Songs