Friday, July 9, 2010

Anime review: Spice and Wolf (season two)

At the conclusion of the first season of Spice and Wolf, Lawrence and Holo managed to outwit the Remerio Company and left for other business ventures, but not before aiding Nora in finding her own courage to stand up for herself and break away from her job as a shepherd. With the overarching story of season one so nicely wrapped up, I was concerned that season two would be a completely unrelated journey that would struggle to get on its feet and carry a weaker narrative narrative than that of season one. Thankfully, I was only partially correct – the events of the second season are, for the most part, unrelated to those in season one, save for the obvious continuation of Lawrence and Holo’s story. There are some notable changes from the storytelling style of season one – some for better and others for worse – but ultimately season two comes out stronger than its predecessor.

The story is notably darker this time around and the story far more serious. Nothing is spared in regards to the show's humorous segments, however, as these are particularly clever in both content and their placement in the series' events. The mythological aspects of Spice and Wolf are explored in greater detail and Lawrence’s trades become increasingly greater gambles with the potential for even greater rewards (and not just those of monetary nature).

Whereas the first season put greater emphasis on Lawrence, season two is largely centered around Holo and her past. Her travels with Lawrence have made her far more comfortable around him and she acts more mature, putting behind herself some of the childish behavior seen in season one. In this regard, Holo herself is less humorous, but the dynamic between Lawrence and Holo is genuinely entertaining and will evoke plenty of laughs from viewers. If however, some viewers found Holo’s antics is season one to be annoying, they can rest assured that her personality has changed a bit – not so much that it becomes difficult to recognize her as the same character, but enough that it becomes obvious from a very early point in season two as to how much Holo has matured.

Season two's pacing is a bit faster than season one, picking up right where the story last left viewers. Lawrence, with little information to work with, begins asking around for information about the lands to the North, in hopes of locating Holo's homeland and keeping his promise to her. However, things become sidetracked when Lawrence makes a gamble with a rich young local named Amarty, and the two essentially compete for Holo's companionship. It is during all of this that Lawrence begins to deeply question his true feelings toward Holo. Due to the more specific focuses of the plot in season two, viewers can expect to see fewer locales and environments as the backdrop for Spice and Wolf.

The side characters in season one, though few and far between, were well-rounded and usually very engaging. The side characters in season two are still enjoyable, though their development leaves something to be desired in most cases. They are generally used to tie plot elements together, and while they aren’t stereotypical or bland, per se, they aren’t fully rounded or the most well-developed. In this regard, viewers should feel relieved that the two main characters remain the only main characters over the course of the second season.

The one major exception to this, however, is a merchant by the name of Abe, who offers a partnership deal to Lawrence in fur trading. Abe is shrouded in mystery during her first few appearances, but slowly exposes who she is and what her intentions are as each episode progresses. Abe's story as a large driving force behind the second half of season two causes the pacing to slow down considerably, but this seems quite fitting to the overall darker mood of season two, as well as the intricacies and complexity of the relationship Lawrence, Abe, and Holo forge.

The soundtrack is comprised of a number of new pieces following a similar formula to those in season one. Though the use of strings and woodwinds does sound superb, there are fewer distinctly seperate pieces used in season two, so viewers are certain to hear familiar sounds over the course of the story. The animation is a significant step up from that of season one, which was impressive in and of itself. The lighting effects and attention to detail really make season two shine through and set it at the caliber of a standalone full-length movie. Part of this is likely due to the fact that there are only twelve episodes in comparison to many series capping at twenty-five or fifty. Nonetheless, the animators should be commended on a job very well done.

The Japanese voice actors make a triumphant return and convey emotions even better than in season one. Newcomers to the cast seem to flow pretty smoothly with the overall portrayal of the characters and focus of the plot. The series is, however, about Holo and Lawrence in virtually every way possible and it's comforting to see how the voice actors for these respective characters seem to 'click' with one another even more so than in season one, making their interactions more convincing.

The finale throws a major plot twist that many viewers won't see coming. With a tense buildup and emotional performances from the cast members, the finale is executed masterfully. The finale is neither sunshine-and-rainbows happy nor so depressing that it would cause fans to cry out in an uproar. Instead, the conclusion is fitting in every way possible, offering a very satisfying conclusion to Holo and Lawrence's story.

Season two improves upon most of the flaws in season one, though there were few flaws to begin with. There is a small amount of experimentation with characters and plot in season two that will likely cause a bit of controversy among viewers, but for the most part this aids Spice and Wolf’s presentation. It was a very unique story idea in season one, with Holo and Lawrence relying on wit to outdo their foes and it’s comforting to see that things feel relatively fresh in season two. It may not be as original, but season two of Spice and Wolf is more focused and delivers a more serious story without sacrificing the light-hearted elements.

My rating: 8.75 (out of 10)

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