Please excuse Judge Josh Rode. He's off to play Oregon Trail.
Our review of Spice And Wolf: Season One, published April 7th, 2010, is also available.
Still hunting for riches more precious than gold.
It took a couple of years, but thanks to our friends at Funimation, Season Two of the mercantile-based anime Spice and Wolf has finally made it to our shores.
Facts of the Case
The first episode of Spice and Wolf: Season Two isn't really an episode at all; it's more of a refresher for those who either didn't see or don't remember season one. It's even labeled "Episode 00," and is all about reestablishing the main characters: Lawrence (J. Michael Tatum, Fullmetal Alchemist), the traveling merchant, and Holo (Brina Palencia, Romeo X Juliet), the ancient wolf in human form.
Beyond that, Season Two is separated into two distinct halves. Gone are the days when the pair was on the road about as often as they were in a town; instead, the two discs are split evenly between two cities. In the first half, Lawrence and Holo travel north to the city of Kumersan, where a festival promises money-making opportunities, and a brash young merchant prince makes a bid for Holo's hand in marriage. The second half leads to Renos, a fur-trading town in upheaval over trading rights, where our duo runs into a trader with a dark history and a plan for a haul so big it could lead to Lawrence's dream: owning a store of his own.
If you watched the first season of Spice and Wolf, you already know this series is a rarity among anime titles. Sure, some minor anime conventions are present—a medieval setting, featuring an attractive, large-eyed woman with the ears and tail of a wolf (which more closely resemble the ears and tail of a fox—but there's no animated kung-fu action, no robots, and no mention of anyone's inner chi nor using it to shoot energy beams. Instead, Spice and Wolf is filled with philosophical discussions, trade maneuvering, and many lessons in the art of finance, including a rudimentary overview of how a typical stock market works.
Sounds like a lot of fun, doesn't it?
Actually, it's much more engaging that any description can properly describe. The key to Spice and Wolf's success is in the chemistry between the implacable Lawrence and the equally hot-tempered Holo; these opposites don't attract so much as they meld. Lawrence sighs a lot when Holo is at her most impetuous, and Holo becomes likewise exasperated by Lawrence's occasional mulishness, but each is only truly complete when they're together.
Which is a bit of a problem, because Season Two goes through long stretches without Holo's presence. Where Season One did a great job of building both characters, these episodes are mostly concerned with Lawrence's growth. In the first half, he learns the value of true friendship, a commodity he never gave a passing thought to before he met Holo. In the second half, he grows to realize the ultimate futility in living for the sole purpose of making money. In both situations, Holo is placed in situations where she is forced out of the direct storyline, and the show's energy suffers for it. Lawrence's character arc is well conceived and organic, and the conniving double-dealing schemes are interesting, but the show really shines only when Holo's fire is present to offset Lawrence's cold calculation. The irony of the episode titles is that all of them start with "Wolf and…"—even the ones that don't really deal with Holo.
There are other minor quibbles to be had here as well. Early on, Holo has nightmares about her home in the north, but they disappear without a mention. And since the show is about "Spice and Wolf," other carefully built characters are dropped as soon as their roles are done. For instance, according to Holo, alchemist Dianna Rubens is really a huge bird in human form, but we never find out what her story is nor get to see the bird. If there's no narrative reason for such an oddity, why include it at all?
But those issues are fairly inconsequential. I would rather Spice and Wolf focus too much on the story of Lawrence and Holo than becoming diffuse among a gaggle of secondary characters. Besides, maybe they'll show up again in Season Three. This collection loses some of the steam the first season built, but it's never in danger of stopping. The storylines are still too compelling for that.
The 1.78:1 standard definition image retains the clarity and deep color palate of Season One, with good black levels and some really nice background detail. For those who prefer the English dub, the Dolby 5.1 audio is fairly strong, with moderate ambient noise from the surrounds and very little in the way of bass response. The original 2.0 stereo Japanese language track isn't quite as robust.
In terms of bous features, there's a touch more than Funimation usually provides, with clean open/close title sequences, and two featurettes featuring a Japanese-only-speaking Holo giving lessons. The first features some of the food and drinks found in the show, while the second is a series of stretching exercises. The latter lesson is useful, if you want to learn how to count to five in Japanese, since she does so repeatedly throughout.
It should also be noted that Spice and Wolf: Season Two is available as a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, but only the standard DVD's were available for review.
Spice and Wolf: Season Two is strangely compelling, despite (or perhaps because of) the lack of traditional anime conventions. It exhibits good storytelling, great character development (for one of its leads), and it doesn't lose the mystical chemistry between Holo and Lawrence even through Holo's absences. This a show that won't talk down to you and you'll be rewarded for your time.
Not as good as Season One, but still not guilty.
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