Review originally written in July 2012 for Ciao.
It's been a long time coming, but finally UK based anime fans can watch Spice and Wolf on their region two DVD players. Thanks to the folks at Manga UK the first season is now available to buy on a two disc set containing all thirteen episodes and not a lot else extras wise (aside from the obligatory text free versions of the opening/closing theme.) For those of you not aware, Spice and Wolf is based on a light novel series penned by Japanese author Isuna Hasekura. The cartoon aired on TV in Japan back in 2008 with the States getting an English language version towards the tail end of 2009. With calendars now showing 2012 otakus across the pond finally get the chance to enjoy the show. Better late than never I suppose. At least we get to watch it before the Mayan apocalypse strikes.
Spice and Wolf follows the exploits of a travelling peddler named Kraft Lawrence (hmmm I suddenly have the urge to consume some cheese slices.) Anyway, Lawrence visits towns across the land selling his wares with the hopes of someday amassing a fortune large enough to purchase his own store. Whilst conducting trade in the small town of Pasroe he discovers that a stowaway has snuck aboard his wagon. The uninvited guest in question is a young girl sporting what appears to be wolf ears and a bushy tail. Upon interrogating the lass, Lawrence learns that the human/animal hybrid before his eyes is none other than Holo the Wise Wolf.
For many generations Holo, a goddess of good harvests, has blessed the land providing the region with a bountiful yield of wheat every year. Holo is however disillusioned that the community no longer appreciates her efforts. With new farming techniques making it easy to grow crops, Holo's legacy has been reduced to that of a myth that most people no longer believe in (especially with the church clamping down on those worshipping Pagan gods.) Holo now wishes to return to her home in the northern lands and convinces Lawrence to accompany her. In exchange for providing transport along with paying for food and board she promises to use her talents to aid him in his business ventures. Sounds good even if bunny girls are cuter than wolf gals.
This thirteen episode season can be dissected into two story arcs with an unaired TV episode sandwiched between them. Things start off with Lawrence and Holo learning that the kingdom's monarchy is planning to devalue its own currency. The pair plan to use this knowledge to amass a stockpile of coins and trade them away before the price drops to make a profit. Unfortunately for them a rival group has similar aspirations and isn't best pleased about sharing their profits. Our heroes' lives are placed in jeopardy when the group kidnap Holo and threaten to hand her over to the custody of the church who would likely view her as a demon (unlike young boys they don't seem to like wolf girls.)
From there we move to the unaired TV episode which merely chronicles how Holo upgrades her wardrobe to something warmer as the couple venture forth to the chillier climes of the north. Thankfully for viewers the episode proves to be more entertaining than a shopping trip to BHS. After that we conclude with a tale that sees Lawrence go bankrupt after the arms he acquires from a crooked merchant become worthless due to a price crash on weapons. Out of coin, Lawrence is forced to resort to gold smuggling in order to pay off his debt. It's a risky move, which could potentially end his career and sever his ties with Holo forever.
Despite sporting what appears, at first glance, to be an attractive fox girl on the box art Spice and Wolf elevates itself from being one of those smutty anime shows. It resists many of the tropes associated with the genre and even avoids using the medieval setting to dabble in stories about knights, archers or wizards. The focus is definitely on Lawrence's business exploits with action kept to a bare minimum. Only on the briefest of occasions do we see conflicts resolved through violence when Holo is forced to don her full wolf form in no win situations. Fleeing from trouble or settling disputes through negotiation is the order of the day, which may not be to everyone's liking. This is a dialogue heavy show which relies on the charm of the cast to keep your attention.
The slow pacing will put off some viewers, but I myself was hooked learning more about the characters and the world they live in. Even though the story revolves around business dealings, which may sound a little dry, I can attest to the fact that you don't have to be an economics major to be entertained thanks to the likeable leads. Lawrence is savvy when it comes to bartering, but is perhaps too good-natured and naïve when it comes to women. Even though Holo helps Lawrence make a profit in some dealings (via her keen sense of hearing, feminine wiles and wisdom) you cannot help but wonder if she is taking more than she gives. As the series progresses she accrues quite a debt on clothes, alcohol and apples (despite being a meat eating animal she has a gluttonous love for fruit.)
Although the show is categorized as being a romance tale I wouldn't say it is laden with mushy stuff. Holo playfully flirts with Lawrence, but most of the time it's nothing more than a tease to get him flustered. No doubt their friendship will develop into something more in time, but at this stage I wouldn't say they are in love (although it is funny seeing her get jealous when Lawrence is forced to work with a female Shepherd of all people.) Despite her strong exterior she is terribly lonely after being abandoned by the people of Pasroe and therefore desires praise and companionship from Lawrence more than a full-blown relationship.
Spice and Wolf season one is currently available to buy and fans will be pleased to known that the second series is due out early in August 2012. The set costs around twenty pounds for thirteen episodes - you don't have to be a veteran merchant like Lawrence to realize that's a good deal.