Sunday, April 18, 2010

Anime review: Spice and Wolf (season one)

“No one knows when the people of this village began to say ‘the wolf is running’ to describe the ripe wheat swaying in the wind. Where e’re the wind lays flat the ears of wheat, they become trampled by the wolf. And should a poor harvest befall, the crops are eaten by the wolf. In the beginning, there was nothing - there was only warmth. And then, a promise was made. The cycle of encounters and farewells continued with favor, until one day humans came to achieve abundance on their own, and there was no need to be faithful to their promise anymore…”

Spice and Wolf takes place during the late middle ages, a time when feudal lords and regional governors control towns and the lands that surround them. The world is becoming more globalized and the nations of Europe have decided to focus more on building up their economies by trade routes than staking claim to resources through means of military prowess. Kraft Lawrence, a travelling merchant, is making a sale in one of his usual towns and visits his friend and fellow merchant Chloe while there. The town is in the midst of an age-old ceremony celebrating another bountiful wheat harvest for the year. The ceremony is based around the folklore of Holo the wolf god, who supposedly once made a deal with the townspeople to give them a plentiful harvest every few years in exchange for years of poor harvest that would follow, in so allowing the land to recover.

Following the ceremony, Lawrence is approached by the real Holo, who has taken on the form of a young woman, though she bears the ears, tail, and fangs of a wolf. Holo explains that the people of the town have become self-sufficient in their farming techniques and no longer require her helping hand. She asks if he would allow her to travel with him so that she might return to her homeland, far to the north. After some convincing that these events are actually occurring, Lawrence agrees to Holo’s wishes, though he makes it clear that his business with other merchants is still priority.

Holo and Lawrence play off each other as a curious dynamic. Holo claims to be very wise in the study of mankind’s nature, though it becomes obvious as the show progresses that she can still further her knowledge of humans. She promises to Lawrence that she will pay him back for any expenses along their journey, and though her words seem empty at first, she proves a useful partner in earning Lawrence large returns on his inventory. Her obsession over apples and occasional over-analyzing of people may be quirky, but Holo keeps her wits about her and is quick to react to when in a dangerous situation.

Lawrence, on the other hand, is an honest merchant who hopes to make a fair share of profits off his items, though he knows this will not be an easy task to accomplish. His years of experience put him a bit ahead of the competition but he is wary of shady traders. He constantly teases Holo, and although he finds her a bit eccentric and perhaps annoying at the start of their journey, he finds her to be an invaluable partner in trading his merchandise and getting out of trouble with thugs.

As for the other characters, the only two of real notable mention are Chloe and Nora, a shepherd who is employed by the church. Chloe’s involvement with Holo and Lawrence is key in getting the first major events of the story off the ground, as it is revealed that she is under the employment of Medio Trading Company, and wishes to turn Holo over to the church after discovering that Holo is a deity. Nora becomes a prominent character late in the first season, as Lawrence pays her to provide them safe passage to Rubenhaigen, where he wishes to sell suits of armor. Nora ultimately becomes involved in a plan to free Lawrence and Holo from a debt they become trapped in, and thus learns how to define herself instead of having others tell her what to do with her life. The rest of the characters in Spice and Wolf don’t play particularly large roles, usually appearing in two or three episodes at most and providing obstacles for Lawrence and Holo to overcome. This allows more development on the major characters, but it would have been nice to see a few more characters of relative importance.

The art style of Spice and Wolf is superb, with bright colors exemplifying the vast open country fields and darker shades setting an uneasy atmosphere for tunnels in the under-cities. Shadows dance off candlelight and the moon blankets the countryside in a cool blue glow. The animators obviously put a lot of time and effort into every scene, as no detail is left bland. The soundtrack is most fitting, with instruments largely comprised of woodwinds and classical strings. The opening vocal theme fits the fairly serious mood of the show much better than the peppy ending theme, the latter of which I found to be rather annoying. While the Japanese voice actors are well-suited to their respective characters, the English voice actors do an impressive job as well. The work done on the English release of Spice and Wolf really shows how much Kadokawa and Funimation have improved their standards in recent years.

There is no filler content in Spice and Wolf, and while it might take viewers a while to catch on to the major story arc, the end result is truly satisfying. It isn’t often that a series can feel action-packed without involving fight sequences or high-speed chases. But that’s exactly what Spice and Wolf does. The series maintains its tense air and espionage style by showing how Lawrence and Holo are able to outwit their foes. The inclusion of an economic learning experience as the series plays out forces viewers to do a little thinking as they watch. Some of the characters could have used a little bit more fleshing out and some episodes are more entertaining than others, but all in all this is an enjoyable series that fans of fantasy, drama, and action series alike can enjoy.

My rating: 8 (out of 10)

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